Four construction industry leaders recently participated in the first of a series of webinars entitled: “Procore Customer Roundtable: We’re in This Together.” The presenters weighed in on COVID-19, how they’re dealing with its impact, and the opportunities and challenges the future might bring.
Moderator, Jim Sinai, SVP of marketing at Procore, surveyed the online audience to find out how the virus is affecting operations. The poll results showed that three in four surveyed firms had office employees working remotely and field workers out on active projects. Another 12% said their projects were proceeding as usual, and about 13% said they had projects halted.
Two participants discussed the status of their projects. Brett Diamond, Chief Innovation Officer at DeAngelis Diamond, said projects in the assisted living and hospitality sectors that are not yet underway have been paused. He noted they will be impacted by both COVID-19 and resulting economic factors.
Meanwhile, Lohn Zylicz, Vice President at Harvey Builders, didn’t note any paused or cancelled projects. He said one area of concern for his company was the oil and gas sector due to delayed retainage payments. He also said his company was sending out delay notices and added that clients have been understanding about that so far.
Bob Gardner, CEO of Gardner Builders, said he had heard about investment getting paused as people wait out the crisis. Jim Boots, SVP at Justus Construction agreed, adding that he believes people are adopting ”patiently cautious” attitudes. He noted that the longer the crisis continues, the more likely projects will get stretched out, affecting carrying costs.
All participants stressed the need for constant communication with employees and partners. Strategies they’ve adopted include:
- All-hands meetings using online and cloud tools.
- Daily communications between leaders and all teams.
- Setting up policies on remote work and alternatives to in-person meetings.
- Creating policies to help workers who feel uncomfortable or at risk on jobsites.
- Following health organization recommendations and training staff on them.
- Helping partners, suppliers and subcontractors establish and maintain acceptable separation and being sensitive to their concerns.
- Setting up procedures and adopting technology so team leaders have the information they need to set expectations and reassure people on their job security and work concerns.
- Adopting or increasing the use of technology to smooth interactions between office and field.
- Increasing remote viewing of projects so managers who can’t travel to the sites can keep track of quality and progress.
- Educating people on the dangers not just to themselves, but also danger they can pose to others.
“The biggest issue, I think, we’ve seen is educating people. That it is a serious issue, and they can (be exposed) outside of work and then bring it [the virus] to work,” said Harvey Builders’ Zylicz. At first, the company had a problem with people still going into work and wanting to hold meetings, he said.
“They still wanted to have face-to-face meetings,” Zylicz said. “We finally had to go downstairs and eventually start pulling chairs out of the break room and locking conference rooms so everybody would quit meeting.”
He added that it’s also taken some extra effort to educate field workers and trade partners alike on aspects like whether construction is an essential business.
Technology has helped companies cope with upheavals in normal operating procedures. Diamond said his company had already built out a fully cloud-based system, which allowed employees to quickly make the transition to working from home.
“(That) Procore created a platform for us to run projects from the cloud, has gotten us to a point where business continuity is almost not even a question,” said Gardner.
“If we still had to send people into a job trailer and have ten people in a job trailer sorting through documents, and marking, and tabbing, and processing submittals manually, it would be a nonstarter.”
Cleanliness is Top Priority
Everybody on the panel shared ways they have intensified job cleanliness. Procore’s Sinai shared an audience comment about propping doors open to reduce touch points. Justus Construction’s Boots further expanded on that idea.
“We (are) encouraging everybody, not only our people but everybody, to wear gloves and then sanitize those gloves with sterile sprays several times a day,” he said. “We’re sparing nothing when it comes to trying to clean up projects and trailers and equipment.”
“We’ve switched some of our guys in the field over to almost being full-time jobsite sanitizers,” said Zylicz. “They have either wipes, wiping down equipment daily, or in some places (are) spraying all hard surfaces continuously through the day.”
Diamond reinforced the importance of jobsite cleanliness and highlighted flexibility with trade partners. He explained that some people might not feel comfortable working around others. His company takes those feelings seriously and offers alternatives where people can occupy spaces alone.
“You should be flexible where you can and just have empathy for people and understand everyone’s in a different situation than yourself,” Diamond said.
The Future of Labor Availability
Procore’s Sinai asked participants for their perspectives on how layoffs might affect labor availability in the future. Gardner said he hasn’t seen immediate effects on labor availability in his market area. Zylicz said his company is “moving people around” and continuing to pay them. According to Boots, the health crisis might result in new recruits for construction.
“My son and a lot of his friends are in the hospitality, restaurant, bar businesses,” Boots said. “And I was talking to them the other night and many of them said, kind of regretfully, (that if they) had it to do over again right out of school, or high school even, (they would have) learned a trade and worked in the trades instead of the back-breaking, long hours, low-pay situations they’re in now. So, I’m very hopeful we will see a bit of a turnaround in this because I can’t see the (other) industries going back to their employment counts by any means. So, yeah, I hope that construction can absorb a lot of them.”
The Economy: Big Changes Ahead
All panelists said they expected some big changes in the economy and in how they do business after the crisis subsides.
“I think one of the biggest things we’re (going to) take out of this is not just the temporary changes, it’s implementing these changes for the longevity,” said Diamond. “This whole incident causes us to think super, super, lean, and very fast, and tech-heavy.
“We have an in-house data analyst doing cost analysis initiatives across the board in different departments and seeing where we can be lean and think like a startup. We’re all big companies, but how you continue to grow is (to) think like a startup. They’re very smart in how they spend money and how they do things. So I think that’s going to be a big, big play in how we push forward at the middle of this year.”
“We started the company in the bottom of a recession, (so we behaved) as if every day is an important day to go out and find new opportunities and challenges,” said Gardner. “I love optimism. One of my superpowers is positivity, and to rally a team towards finding new opportunities within, and seeing the potential on the backside of this for us to continue to grow and to continue to do great things. I agree with Brett (Diamond): Where you make sure that you’re tightening up, that you’re not spending money that’s frivolous, and you’re (watching) the returns. So, we are working and having deep conversations about that at Gardner Builders.”
Boots said his company is focusing on speed to market as a builder/operator procurement is top of mind. He said he expected the supply chain and input prices to be erratic for at least three to six months. Zylicz agreed, admitting his company had already experienced materials delivery delays. He added that the design teams and owners had been understanding and allowed alternate materials to keep projects moving. Boots added that supply chain diversification, which had begun under government embargoes, would likely continue as people search for alternate supply sources.
Keeping Workers Safe
Gardner talked about recognizing the people on the front lines, the ones that put the work in place and the importance of stressing their safety.
“We are hyper-focused on safety and the safety of the trade workers on site,” he said. “So the craft doesn’t get done if it’s not done safely. We’ve got a new environment, and COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between field workers, color, gender, any of that. It doesn’t discriminate. So we all have to be vigilant about it, and we all have to make sure we’re taking care of each other. We’re all in this together, and it’s important for us to all recognize that.”
Diamond suggested there could be multiple ways for construction companies to help communities, from building temporary field hospitals to working with local healthcare and government officials in fulfilling their needs. He and his staff are reviewing options. His company’s Team Impact focuses specifically at helping the community in areas that often have nothing to do with construction.
Be sure to register for the upcoming “The CARES Act and COVID-19: What Construction Needs to Know” free webinar on Thursday, April 28 at 11AM PT. Where you will learn more about:
- What the AGC wants you to know about the CARES Act
- An overview of the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
- How commercial bankers view loans and grants