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Returning to Work



After months of managing an ever-changing landscape of operational mandates related to working or not working during the coronavirus pandemic, enabling office-based staff to work remotely and adopting technology that supports social distancing requirements, construction companies are looking carefully at how to return to work as restrictions ease.


Best-in-class companies are relying on data-driven plans to re-start their businesses and basing decisions on evidence-based analysis of changes in different sectors, realistic projections for cash flow and projects, and on workforce concerns and needs, says Shane Brown, CPA, CCIFP, lead partner of Plante Moran’s national construction practice, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “Companies may need to change their business to reflect changes in different sectors,” he says. “Find out what is happening in your key business units such as federal, healthcare, higher education, commercial real estate and industrial today and evaluate projections for the next 12 to 24 months.”

The next step is to develop an accurate cashflow forecast based on projects that will resume, continue or begin in the next one to two years, says Brown. “If a company is overweight in one sector that is projected to recover more slowly than others, company leaders may want to make changes in how they re-purpose some of their talent and type of projects pursued in specific business units,” he says.

“As plans are made to return to work, it is also important to include how you will communicate with employees,” says Brown. “Emails, newsletters and videos can be used to share information that explains specific plans to return to work, new guidelines for social distancing, and other new processes that are in place to protect people while re-opening the business.”

A message map that identifies key messages — return to work plans, safety, new operational strategies — that is developed with input from key company leaders and people responsible for communications will keep messages consistent and clear, says Anthony Huey, president of Reputation Management, a communications consultancy. Messages also need to be tailored to many different audiences that include employees, subcontractors, owners, suppliers, and partners such as architects and engineers.

“During the last recession, a number of projects that had been bid and then placed on hold resumed with no communications about the need to review pricing and timelines,” says Huey. “This created problems for contractors and owners who just assumed that everything would remain the same.” Although project slowdowns or stops are not likely to last as long as a result of COVID-19, it is important to evaluate the effects on the workforce, prices and ability to meet previous deadlines, he adds.

“As an industry, construction has a strong culture of safety and safety plans, which will help construction companies plan for a return to work,” says Matt Wheelis, LEED AP, Global Business Development, Buildings & Construction, Geosystems division of Hexagon. “Of course, this is a new type of safety issue that requires a different assessment of the environment than planning for typical safety concerns such as falls or electrical injuries.”

The first step is to think spatially because social distancing will probably be an ongoing strategy for some time, suggests Wheelis. “On the jobsite, use daily toolbox talks to discuss how the tasks can be performed while minimizing the number of people in an area,” he says. “This includes planning how construction elevators and lifts will be used to safety transport materials and people — which may mean limiting elevators to two or three people.”

Bringing people back to office settings may be best accomplished with a phased approach, suggests Pam Scott, executive coach and founder of MentorLoft. “Prioritize who needs to be in the office first based on critical roles such as receptionist, security and safety personnel, and human resources,” she says. Fewer people in the office also allows time to rearrange furniture and office spaces to create space that reassures people that the environment is safer, she adds. “Another option is to stagger work schedules, with different groups of employees working in the office on some days and at home on other days.”

It will also be important to address areas such as break rooms and areas in which equipment and vehicles may be shared by multiple people, says Scott. “More frequent cleanings of shared and public spaces will be necessary and protocols that limit the number of people in one vehicle will increase the sense of safety for employees,” she says. Providing supplies of hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and other cleaning supplies will also be critical, she adds.

A potential positive change from the effects of the pandemic may be a more efficient, productive approach to scheduling crews on a jobsite, says Wheelis. “Lean construction techniques focus on effective scheduling of different trades to prevent multiple crews working in one area,” he says. “Too many people in a small space is problematic so schedules that don’t result in different trades working in the same space at the same time will improve efficiency and productivity.”

As contractors return to work, there are a number of important lessons learned from COVID-19 that company leaders should be evaluating for their businesses, suggests Wheelis. “The companies that regularly document project progress digitally, had emergency communications plans in place, and rely on technology and cloud services to access and share information were able to transition to remote work more easily,” he points out. Companies that did not have these capabilities in place before COVID-19, should evaluate the addition of these capabilities for the future, he suggests. “We should not fail to learn from this experience,” says Brown. Construction is going to win no matter how the eventual economic recovery plays out, he points out. “This experience may change the way we live and work with building designs changing and some sectors adding space to accommodate social distancing, and contractors will be handling the extra work,” he says. “There will be a lot of opportunities for contractors willing to take a risk and consider new sectors or types of projects.”

As contractors and other partners within the construction industry return to offices and in-person meetings, there are a number of tactics that can be used to alleviate employee and partner concerns about safety and health, according to Ware Malcomb’s 2020 Return to Office research study.
Although strategies will differ for each company based on office space design and use, as well as number and type of employees and visitors, it is important to understand that transparency is essential to build trust. Common sense should prevail with decisions based on sound data and judgement
Tips for promoting a safe workplace and return to work include
1. Increase “during the day” housekeeping, maintaining a visible presence so employees see the efforts of the organization to keep them healthy and safe.
2. Implement a clean desk policy devoid of employee memorabilia to enable the night-time cleaning crew to thoroughly clean all desks.
3. In addition to the conventional hands-free faucets, and soap and paper towel dispensers, consider no touch options for doors, badge readers and garbage/recycling bins.
4. Allow employees to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as face masks and gloves when they return to the workplace.
5. If no formalized visitor protocols or badge requirements exist, consider controlling access to the office via signage for phone-in entry.
6. In the office area, evaluate installation of higher panels/shields between workstations or re-orienting workstations, so employees do not face one another.
7. In collaboration areas, remove extra conference room chairs and install signage indicating the maximum number of people allowed in each conference, meeting, huddle and focus room.
8. Make touchless hand sanitizers and disenfecting wipes available throughout the office.
9. Consider electro-static cleaning, nanoSeptic door handle and door push skins that self-clean, UV phone sanitizing stations, and Voice-Over-IP phones that are safer and cleaner.
10.          Encourage virtual meeting attendance and training, even while in the office, until the virus transmission has curbed.
Excerpted from A Common Sense Guide for Returning to the Workplace by Cynthia Milota, director, workplace strategy, Ware Malcomb