Optimists often say that every cloud has a silver lining. Despite the fact that Covid-19’s effects are still being felt throughout the world more than two years later, a new industry analysis suggests that, tragedy aside, the epidemic has left the UK construction industry with some beneficial side effects. Buildingspecifier.com Editor Joe Bradbury investigates:

Are you a glass-half-empty person, or a glass-half-full? In other words, can you draw any positives from tragedy that might make undergoing the suffering less meaningless? What have we learned about ourselves and one another throughout the coronavirus crisis that might help us forge a path into a brave new world, post-COVID?

A rare disaster in the form of a pandemic temporarily brought the world to its knees. Countries have spent the last couple of years scrabbling to fight an invisible enemy, as the world went in lockdown. The subsequent collapse in activity that has resulted from this is unlike anything experienced in living memory; the word ‘unprecedented’ is bandied about in daily parlance.

Every cloud…

Despite the fact that Covid-19’s effects are still being felt more than two years later, the UK construction industry may have actually benefited from the epidemic, according to a new analysis from the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB).

The report, titled “Learning from the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen the construction industry,” examines how changes made during the pandemic in the sector have helped resolve long-standing problems, such as cooperation and communication between contractors and clients, flexible work schedules, payment procedures, and employee wellbeing.

It uses the construction of Nightingale hospitals as an illustration of how more effective teamwork, communication, and flexible working on a scale not generally associated with the construction business, led to projects being finished in just nine days. Lessons learned from such projects, according to the CIOB, must continue to develop the construction sector for everyone involved—not just the people who work in it.

Daisie Rees-Evans, Policy and public affairs officer at CIOB, said “Covid-19 had a monumental impact on people’s lives and livelihoods with businesses needing to adapt how they operate to keep their workers safe while staying financially afloat. Since the outbreak of the virus in the UK, we have seen a shift in business practices with construction seeing large improvements in supply-chain collaboration, access to hygiene facilities and provision for worker wellbeing.

“Our report reflects on the progress that’s already been made and what further opportunities can be harnessed to deliver change that positively impacts construction businesses, workers and the communities they build for. With the UK Government committing to procuring for social value, the publication of our report is timely in its approach to seek true cultural change.”

Being paid on time

In a recent CIOB survey of 1,400 construction SMEs, more than half reported that since the pandemic struck, payment times, hygiene facilities, and mental health support had improved. Temporary measures that had been put in place to keep the industry operating safely during lockdown have since become routine, according to these respondents.

Overall, 52% of survey participants reported seeing a reduction in the amount of time it takes for clients to pay them since the outbreak, with more than half reporting that they now receive payments in 40 days or fewer. In 2017, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) conducted a poll that revealed less than one-third of construction SMEs received payment from clients or large contractors within 30 days, and nearly one-quarter had to wait more than four months.

Although this is a step in the right direction, the CIOB research shows that the majority of SMEs still prioritise reducing payment terms to under 30 days, supporting CIOB’s recommendation in the report for the Government to review its Prompt Payment Code. The code was updated in the middle of the pandemic in 2021 to guarantee that individuals who signed up compensated small businesses within 30 days, but signing up is still optional, and as of January this year, there were only 3,500 signatories.

Paul Singh, Commercial director at project and programme management consultancy, EEDN, commented: “The pandemic has definitely increased collaboration and empathy within the industry from clients to consultants and contractors, opening up dialogue and reducing the adversarial approach.

“Construction has really taken note of the need to prioritise mental health and wellbeing. Projects are now defined with a new, hybrid way of working in mind and spaces have wellbeing built right into them.

“We have also seen greater proactivity when it comes to invoicing and payments, with invoices often being settled before the payment period is up. There is undoubtedly still a lot of work to be done but the signs are certainly encouraging.”

In summary

What we have just been through as a nation is unprecedented. Brexit and the election, once permanently on everybody’s lips were replaced with a chronic sense of fear and uncertainty. We still don’t fully know how this will affect construction over the coming years and decades, but we do know that the impact will be felt. In order to build ourselves back up, we will need to put our differences aside and work collectively as an industry.

Putting builders at the heart of apprenticeship development and training will unlock additional high-quality opportunities for young people and help Britain get back on its feet. We need an army of builders to help deliver the new homes that this country desperately needs. They will also upgrade our existing homes to make them more energy efficient and fit for purpose in the years ahead.

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