Remote Working and Collaboration


BIM Consultant and Director at ArcDox Ralph Montague describes to the “digital transformation” we are witnessing – the rise of remote working and collaboration in the “age of pandemics”.

For the past 10 years we’ve been talking about the financial crisis of 2008, and I suspect, for the next ten years, we’ll be talking about the pandemic crisis of 2020. No one could have foreseen what would take place this year, and this will continue to happen in the immediate future. And, unfortunately, as in any crisis, many will be seriously impacted. But it is imperative for every business, and every individual, to evaluate and position themselves in this new reality.

Winston Churchill is credited with first saying in the 1940s, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, and this was used by Andrew Wolstenholme, as the title of his 2009 ‘Constructing Excellence’ report, in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. Since Michael Latham, in 1994, and John Egan, in 1998, there have been a string of reports on the state of the UK construction industry, declaring the systemic problems of a highly fragmented construction sector, and calling for better collaboration, more integration between the construction supply chain, and better use of resources and technology, including the 2009 Wolstenholme report mentioned, and the more recent 2016 Mark Farmer report ‘Modernize or Die’. These sentiments have been reiterated in the global context, by the 2016 World Economic Forum report ‘Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology’. In 2017, global consultants McKinsey and Co. in their report ‘Reinventing Construction: A Route To Higher Productivity’, declared construction to be the second-last digitised sector, with little or no measured productivity improvement over the past 40 years, and suggested “digitalisation” was part of the solution. The European Commission have also pushed this drive to “digital transformation” in their ‘Digital Deal’ – a mission to empower and strengthen the market, and help meet global challenges.

Notwithstanding that all these problems have been identified and have been thoroughly discussed for over two decades now, the adoption of digital practices and technologies, within the construction sector still remained relatively low. Until we entered this pandemic crisis of 2020. Suddenly, in the face of “lock-downs” and “social distancing”, the big question every person, and every business, involved in construction is asking (or should be asking), is “How do we continue to be productive, and collaborate with others, without requiring physical interaction, or co-location?”.

Construction, by its nature, is highly dependent on the collaborative efforts of many people, disciplines and suppliers of products and services. Of course, it is hard to imagine a physical construction project ever coming together, without people coming together, to contribute their efforts to make it happen. But this is the big challenge we are now faced with, in this “age of pandemics”. And this is also the big opportunity, that this crisis has presented, for the construction sector to embrace digital technology to become more productive. And, in the words of Winston Churchill, we should “never let a good crisis go to waste”.

If we divide construction into three parts, namely design, procurement and physical construction, it is clear that almost 100% of the design and procurement could take place without people having to physically get together. Cloud-based remote working, and remote meeting, technologies have been in place for many years, and people have suddenly had an awakening to their potential, benefits, and maybe some shortfalls.

Using technology like BIM (Building Information Modelling), we can fully design, coordinate, test and analyse, and resolve any potential issues, within a virtual digital model of the construction project, before any physical work has to be carried out. We can plan the logistics and sequence of work, in these digital models, to see how the physical assembly can be best executed, in a safe manner (a process called 4D BIM). We can work out the quantities and costs, and even the procurement schedules, in these digital models, before any physical work has to take place (a process called 5D BIM). We can test and analyse the performance of future building environments, taking into account occupancy, movement of people, air handling systems etc, in these digital models (a process called 6D BIM), and we can plan the future operations and maintenance of these future building environments, in these digital models (a process called 7D BIM). And best of all, we can do almost all of this work, without having to physically be co-located together, all focused around the digital model. Clearly, the combination of cloud-based remote working, and remote meeting, facilities, combined with BIM, provides the ideal environment to move forward, and remain highly productive, in this new “age of pandemics” in which we find ourselves.

What about the “physical construction” part? How much of that can be done “remotely”? Of course, advocates of offsite construction, modular construction, and modern methods of construction have been talking for years about the benefits of working in controlled factory environments, versus working out on dangerous sites. While eventually this work has to come together on sites, a large proportion of the work can be done offsite, and the amount of time people have to spend on sites can be more controlled, and greatly reduced. Pre-planning, and pre-coordinating the work in digital models using BIM, helps ensure that work can and will come together correctly on sites. Carrying out work offsite, also means that trades are less dependent on each other, and work can be carried out concurrently (instead of sequentially), potentially saving a lot of time on the site. Carrying out work in controlled factory environments, also means a higher level of quality control, and less dependency on weather conditions.

Of course, all of the above is possible, and the technology already exists. The big challenge is the procurement methodology that is put in place by those who are managing the projects. If you don’t engage the right parties, at the right time, to input the right information into these digital models, and resolve all the issues, before trying to execute the construction, and if you try to procure a project without a clear preference for more offsite and pre-manufactured elements, then it won’t work. So we go back to what Michael Latham said in 1994, and John Egan said in 1998, and Mark Farmer said in 2016 – we need more “integrated” approaches, based on technology, but supported by collaborative forms of procurement. The message isn’t new. BIM plus IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) plus Lean (a manufacturing approach to construction). Now, more than ever, this must be heard.

As in any crisis, unfortunately, there will be winners and losers. Those who are able to adapt to the new ways of working, and those who fail to adapt. As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.” We are already seeing that those who had adapted to digital processes, and embraced cloud-based collaborative working and meeting, have continued to be productive in these difficult times, and unfortunately, we are also seeing some begin to fall. “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.

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