As coronavirus lockdowns and clears office workers from the streets, most construction crews are still on the job with McKissack managers monitoring their safety procedures. Working from home, McKissack's designers and managers haven't missed a step keeping projects on track. What they're learning from the COVID-19 crisis will shape the future of work in design and construction management for years to come. In fact, the experience has shown us five immediate and significant changes that will rule the future of our workplace.
Planners by profession, McKissack's design, construction and program management teams were ahead of the curve in envisioning a more resilient workplace. An initiative three years ago brought technology infrastructure changes that were especially prescient. "We wanted to follow industry trends of flexible work environments, flex time, collaboration spaces where you aren't tethered to your desk," said Andrew Corn, McKissack's director of information technology. By the end of 2018, Corn had replaced most desktop computers with more powerful laptops that would run bandwidth-hungry 3D modeling programs. Workers could undock the laptops from their desks for secure meetings in conference rooms and coffee shops.
As social distancing orders took hold, co-workers, clients and contractors took advantage of rock-solid remote connections to get things done. "When we purchased our equipment, we made sure to oversize it, looking into our crystal ball and anticipating any future needs, even doubling and tripling capacity for the number of users connecting in remotely," Corn said. Teams now have the flexibility of plugging into McKissack's virtual private network (VPN), a Citrix virtual desktop or an Autodesk design cloud workflow. In recent weeks, as collaboration systems were put to an unexpected test, McKissack systems performed reliably.
"Andrew is getting pats on the back like you wouldn't believe," said Ron Kessler, McKissack’s national practice leader and design director. Of course, the back slaps are virtual--Kessler and his cohorts are sheltering in place, and the experience has them rethinking clients' workspace needs and preparing for when social distancing will be a memory.
"This is going to impact large-scale projects—meaning things like stadiums and airports—and then it could go down to small details like faucets and elevator buttons," Kessler said. He sees quick adoption of voice controls in high-touch environments. "If I went back to my office right now, I'd have something between my thumb and that button before I push it."
Open space plans had begun to fade before the COVID-19 pandemic, in favor of small, collaborative niches. Now Kessler predicts office suites will grow more ample, and costly. "It comes down to the number of square feet per person," he said. "The low end of efficiency is about 120 to 140 square feet per person. Now I'm going to be obligated to keep people further apart, therefore give them more space. Now that number could go up to 200 square feet per person.”
"Does that mean I can afford to have fewer people in the office? Does that mean I have to have people working from home? Maybe this whole exercise we're going through right now is going to help us solve those problems and develop new ways of working in the future."
Design and construction management will need to accommodate a new pace of work as well. Lockdowns in Italy, Spain and China have revealed weak links in the global supply chain, said Jennifer Griffith, McKissack’s director of interiors. The experience is likely to spur interest in locally sourced materials and furnishings.
"We already have clients really worried about the permit process," Griffith said. "Instead of permitting a whole building or doing it by floors, we're thinking about how we make sure things don't stop." Ultimately, Griffith said, better processes will emerge to get things done.
Sustainability will take on added weight as costs and delays rise. "We need to design in a more intelligent way," Griffith said. "A lot of our clients are going to come to us looking for advice about the smart way to build certain things. Instead of relocating, maybe they are renovating. Instead of selling real estate maybe we're repurposing. We have to advise them well and think with them. The architect and the designer are there to provide different solutions, and I see this as an opportunity."
Project managers are trained to deal with the fallout from slow permit reviews or utility disruptions. Using advanced technology, they share documents and schedules in the cloud to keep work on track. "We don't have eyes on the project, so we guide the superintendents and project managers in a virtual walkthrough when performing a schedule update," said Ricardo Nolasco, McKissack’s scheduling director. Depending on the project's complexity, video check-ins soon could be incorporated into planning and scheduling.
Open-air jobsites don’t pose the same virus-incubating threat as stores, factories and offices. Construction has been largely exempt from state and local shutdown orders. But the N95 masks that are a top need in medical centers are also required in construction that generates silica dust or stirs up molds or asbestos.
"One of the subcontractors on one of the jobs I'm monitoring told the general contractor they had about a week's supply left for their team, and when they run out they may have to stop working until they get some more," said Eric Coates, McKissack's national health safety manager. "That could affect some jobs in the short term. It's hard to see more than a few days in the future the way things are going right now."
Still, the potential that workers may contract COVID-19–and put entire crews under quarantine–has health and safety managers like Coates requiring more widespread use of better gloves, safety glasses and other personal protective equipment, and enforcing safety and sanitation protocols. "This is becoming our new normal," Coates said. "Hand-washing stations really should be in place anyway but they're not always there. They're now going to be standard. To be perfectly honest, construction workers aren't the cleanest people. Like anything else, the biggest struggle is changing habits."
A bigger challenge will be changing side-by-side work practices. Just as tools now generate less dust, Coates expects new tool designs to do more work with fewer bodies in place and less exposure risk. "You may not have so many people working at one time," Coates adds. "That may make for a longer workday or multiple shifts."
To head off delays, schedulers are locking in their best subcontractors. "Who are our good guys?" Nolasco asked. "You know your costs are going to go up, so you're reducing resources that aren't performing and really concentrating on those who can do the work. Working with skilled crews who excel will help us make future projects lean and efficient,” Nolasco said.
Meanwhile, contractors must stay under pressure to keep workers healthy. "From their standpoint, everybody out there is replaceable," Coates says. “The attitude is, if we lose 20 people, we can always go out and find 20 more people." Yet skilled construction workers are in short supply. Everyone is not replaceable. They want to believe they can replace people and keep the staff levels where they need to be, but I'm working on 21 construction projects. And every single one of them is short on people."
What does this all mean for the future of design and construction management?
Through the crisis, the design and construction management professionals at McKissack have realized how deep our concerns are. They go far beyond how a building gets completed. The health and safety of the people involved, and the people who will move in, is what’s at stake. The built world likely will emerge from the disruptions of COVID-19 a more efficient place, but hopefully a more thoughtful one too. "This is a time where we're becoming more humane, I believe," Griffith said. "We're raising this awareness about taking care of others, that everything we do may affect others."