Communication is key to drive innovationInnovation is a critical driver for productivity in the built environment sector. And as the industry is reacting to the major global crisis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, it's needed now more than ever.
The construction industry must adapt to survive and technology will be a driving force for those changes. Orpen Design has deep built environment sector experience. So we wanted to find out what the industry is doing to speed up innovation in these challenging times. This is the first in a series of interviews with senior figures in the industry, sharing their views.
Noel Elliott is a director of Elliott Group: a family run building and civil engineering firm. The Group operates across the UK and Ireland and employs around 100 staff.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit the Group, as it has everyone. The Group has experienced a slowdown. It has had to change how it works, particularly with social distancing on its UK sites demanding big modifications. Nonetheless Noel Elliott remains optimistic about how it will all play out.
Elliott is philosophical about the impact that COVID will have long term on the industry. He likens it to health and safety regulations in the 1990s. New rules drove behaviour change around wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) on site:
“…we struggled at the start to get used to it [social distancing]. But it reminds me of back in the 90s, where you were struggling to get guys to wear hard hats. Now that [not wearing PPE] would be ridiculous… So the industry will struggle for a while, but it will regulate itself.”
As it weathers the lockdown, Elliott Group has increasingly turned to collaborative tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and SharePoint to ensure that all staff are clear on their roles and responsibilities.
“We're a family business and we're quite hands on in terms of our approach. We'd be talking to all of our senior management on a daily basis, which is great. We like it that way because we can create an environment of inclusiveness and innovation in terms of what we do.”
Elliott Group, in common with most of us, has been getting to grips with using technology for communication and collaboration in this new virtual world. But also sees this time as an opportunity for the industry to think about how it works. We asked Noel Elliott where is the innovation now in construction, and what could the future be?
“To answer that you have to break down construction into perhaps three segments. During the pre construction estimating… there's an argument to say it's even better [done remotely] because you can share drawings with each other on a screen, you can look at details, take more time to review documents and so on. In fact we're finding that a lot of meetings… actually don't need to take place at all. Probably 50% of meetings can be done this way. And that saves on time, cost and environmental footprint.”
The pre-construction planning, costing and designing phase and the post-construction phase lend themselves to virtual working. But, for Elliott it’s just not possible for site work.
And this reveals dividing lines in the industry when it comes to tech-driven innovation. Management and office workers have been more technology savvy in comparison to on-site workers.
“There’s a huge collaboration exercise to be done. The people who are very conversant in [technology] need to respect the fact that they're one cog in the wheel. They have to be able to show the people on site why this technology helps them.”
We asked Elliott, if he could make one change to the industry that would deliver the biggest impact what would it be?
“It's all down to communication. So if I was to wish for any change, it would be more human contact... by phone [or video calls like Zoom]. When you can see people, you can communicate. That’s what I'd like to see change most, not just in construction, but in every industry.”
Communication and collaboration then are skills that the construction industry – like all of us – is re-evaluating and re-learning.
In the past the tech-proficient office workers and the more traditional site workers had not taken the time to understand each others’ perspectives and contributions. Even though they share the same end goals of delivering great work to clients, on time, on budget, safely and to a high standard. That is now starting to change:
“This crisis has brought kind of a unity. The guys on site now realise that the people in the office, their technology role is vital. And without them, they can't do the job on site, and vice versa.”
And for Noel Elliott this is a good thing. Communication has the power to break down the walls between the different disciplines in the built environment. And that collaboration is a critical driver for future innovation.