Navigating the Jobsite During the COVID-19 Pandemic

“This might be the catalyst that leads to solutions for this problem that already existed before all of this."
Leading up to COVID

There is something counterintuitive about the concept of “working from home” when it comes to construction. It doesn’t make sense to spin a power drill in your living room and expect to drive a screw into wood across town. The reality is, though, that in the world of mega construction more work can be done from home than might seem plausible at first glance. A mega-project, such as a hospital, research facility, utility plant, or stadium, involves experts from dozens of disciplines, and planning that begins years before the first ounce of concrete or steel appears on a construction site.

The norm today is for those experts — designers, planners, finance specialists, architects, engineers, and many more — to set up portable offices on a construction site and manage the teams in the field from a near vantage. No one seriously second-guessed the practice, despite the fact that portable offices can cost millions to set up and maintain during the course of a project. The emergence of the internet and the tech boom ushered a dramatic rise in remote-work in many industries. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Everything Shut Down

“We were ordered to shut down everything that wasn’t directly COVID related,” says Ryan Byrd, an Inspector of Record for OSHPD (Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development) who has been working on projects at Stanford University for nearly a decade. “We couldn’t even continue the hospital project unless it was directly related to treating COVID — so places like the cardiology center had to be delayed.”

Like in most industries, these shutdowns mean less work, and less money through the door. In construction, however, the shutdowns also offered some reprieve from a more pervasive issue than temporary shutdowns – labor shortages. “We have a moment to take a breath,” Byrd says. “But the truth is that there aren’t enough inspectors to meet demand in the state.” This is true of inspectors, and most other roles in the construction industry from everyday workers to licensed specialists. There aren’t enough, and a high percentage of the construction labor force is nearing retirement.

“At our peak, we could be doing 150 inspections a day between nine people, and projects usually don’t have enough quality control people to check on inspections before we show up, which leads to a higher percentage of rework.” At least while things were slowed down because of COVID, the workload became manageable. 

The State of Remote Work in Construction

Currently, the regulations around how inspectors operate are often interpreted to mean that all inspections are to be done in person. Since the rest of the construction industry also sticks to the in person tradition, there is little incentive to consider whether or not value could be added through remote inspections. There are certainly plenty of instances where hands-on attention is necessary, but there are many other types of inspections where a remote, visual inspection would provide the same level of fidelity as an in person inspection.

“This might be the catalyst that leads to solutions for this problem that already existed before all of this. Maybe it isn’t necessary for people who aren’t swinging hammers to be on site every day of the week. We could probably get away with two or three jobsite visits a week,” which means an individual inspector could manage projects on more sites at the same time, or just spend less time traveling. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to drive two hours on a Saturday to look at something that takes twenty minutes,” but that is the state of the industry right now.

“I think, with Inertia, the right solutions are there to make it [working more remotely] happen,” Byrd says. “But the way people do work still needs to change.”

In essence, the construction culture needs to change for remote work to be fully accepted.

Due to COVID, the construction industry got a peek at how working from home more often could enable the workforce to spread their time over more projects. It doesn’t solve the long-term consequences of the labor shortage, but it offers some reprieve, and may also be the transition that the industry needs to be more attractive to younger generations. Construction is a physical process. There will always be aspects of building that require bodies on site, but as more and more of the construction process becomes automated, and the human component shifts to planning and managing, it makes sense for the culture and practices to shift as well. 

Lessons Learned for a Better Future

The tools needed for this are emerging today. Software, like Inertia, is delivering the solutions necessary to handle most management tasks from off-site. Perfect adoption of these tools would result in an explosion of productivity from specialists who can now divide their time between more projects, focussing specifically on where they’re needed most to empower the teams in the field.

The biggest challenge of remote work in construction is making up for that physical component that is lost when someone isn’t on site. There is some truth behind the stock photos of men and women in orange vests standing around a tablet and pointing up at the rafters. When problems occur, the common practice is to meet in person, on site, and discuss solutions. It makes sense that someone tasked with solving a problem would prefer to gather as much first hand evidence as possible. 

Can software fill the void? Inertia’s approach is to connect information in the platform to a visual project map. If there is an issue in a particular room, all documentation, photos, videos, and comments are linked to a visual representation of the place where the issue occurred on site. Experts like Byrd feel that such an approach can make up for much of the information that is lost when work is done off-site. In person work won’t be eliminated overnight, but transitioning to a more remote workflow could improve efficiency in the construction industry. Whatever the solutions may be, COVID has made it clear that the construction industry has the power to adapt, invest in technology, and improve efficiency to build a better future.

About Inertia

Inertia is a trusted location-driven construction management platform. Providing solutions for contractors, owners, design teams, and jurisdictions — so you can keep your projects moving. Due to Inertia’s deep automation and workflows we help teams stay productive and on schedule.

Inertia provides a refocused view of each project site, connecting all project information to exactly where it happens in the field and automatically embedding information into project maps.   Our location-driven solutions allow you to manage your project, quality, performance and compliance together, automatically connecting information between teams and phases to optimize outcomes.

That means project stakeholders have complete visibility and up-to-date understanding of progress on the construction site.

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