How lockdown is helping us embrace new ways of working

Experts suggest that even after the lockdown, social distancing measures will stay in place for many months to come. Gary Wilson of Akins asks: How can we prepare ourselves for that new normal as we strive to keep construction projects moving?

Coronavirus has presented challenges to everyone, everywhere and the construction sector is no exception. Many sites remain closed, so we are having to work differently. But could this forced change be a much-needed catalyst for our industry, that ultimately delivers benefits from having to embrace new technology and ways of working? I think so. 

There are benefits to working remotely now that will continue far longer than the lockdown. For many of us, using new tools and gaining new skills now could mean remote working off-site will become commonplace. There has been an industry challenge for a while to reduce the amount of time spent on site, building sites being one of the most dangerous places to be. The current situation could be the game-changing element that actually makes that happen. 

As a change consultant, I’m used to telling others about the benefits of embracing new ways of working. It’s my role to share our collective ideas about how we can harness data and technology, transform the construction sector, and improve productivity. One thing is certain, change is not just about technology. It’s also about changing our behaviour, as teams and as individuals. 

Some of us are doing better than others. Only a few days into the March 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, some 95% of Atkins staff had the tech we needed to keep working as usual. Despite the highly unusual situation facing us all, business as usual for many of us was starting to resume. Yes, we had the tech, but we also had the willingness to use it. That means today, from our kitchens and bedrooms, we’re still supporting clients and contractors to collaborate, to test asset designs, to view construction plans. To keep things moving. 

We’re fortunate to have a broad range of tech in our toolkits to help us. MS Teams, cloud-based filesharing, browser-based model viewers such as BIM360, Revizto, 3DRepo and Bluebeam.  Sure, there’s been the need for some handholding along the way, but if we’re not prepared to overcome the obstacles of a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, then we lose out on the many ways that technology can support us to do differently, and to do better. 

Essentially, the task is to take that leap, put digital first, get your platform sorted, and share it. Design transformation is about moving from drawings to data. If we design with data in the first place, using these tools that are now widely available to us, we’ll get a richer visualisation of the project from the very outset, and more granular interaction with the design. Early adopters in our industry understand this. For example, teams are already devising digital rehearsals, or trying things out first in the digital space first before introducing them into the physical space. They help everyone understand what’s happening at every step of the way in a project lifecycle, and it’s an approach that government bodies such as Highways England want to see more of. 

In Norway, Atkins teams are already bringing all parties involved in a project together right at the start to test and plan the proposed construction digitally first, reconvening at regular intervals. The result? Fewer surprises and costly mistakes, improved health and safety, and better collaboration through bringing minds together earlier on to problem-solve. When construction gets underway it’s leaner, cleaner, more predictable, and safer. Digital twins also have an important part to play as we move forward. These central repositories of digital information precisely mirror physical assets, and they’re already in use across trains to turbines. The Singapore government, for example, now constructs and validates in the digital world before committing to any physical build on site through its virtual design and construction methodology. 

In the UK closer collaboration and digital rehearsals are central to the Atkins and Balfour Beatty partnership in the Highways England Routes to Market programme; which has as its central purpose the drive to encourage better outcomes that are in the interests of designer, contractor and client, with a firm focus on getting things right first time. Digital rehearsals support this. All parties know what’s happening every step of the way because the digital plans can be shared in a way you can’t share sheets of paper. Added to which, the digital space allows you to add more rich and meaningful information to your 3D model, such as pricing, materials, suppliers and carbon footprint.  

Covid-19 represents a critical moment. But we can draw out some positives. As we’re forced to work remotely and use technologies for the first time, we’re realising the benefits they deliver. I think once more us of have savoured the change, we won't want to go back. 

Gary Wilson is a digital transformation change consultant for Atkins.