Contracts are signed, tradies are ready to start, the building site is now open, and there are deadlines to meet. Then a once in a century event happens – the COVID-19 pandemic.
What happens now? Does the site close down? How long will government restrictions last? How will staff be looked after? What about penalty clauses in the contract if deadlines are missed? These and a dozen other questions go through the collective heads of many executive committee members at construction companies.
For food and beverage construction specialist, Total Construction, it was a matter of building on health and safety procedures it already had in place before COVID-19 struck and restrictions were enforced. The company’s CEO, Jeff Jones, said they were being proactive from the get-go.
“We adopted temperature testing before it was put out there by the government,” said Jones. “We were testing every single person who came onsite. We asked people to sign declarations about whether they had travelled overseas. We did all the virtualisation of the office space – less people on site where possible. We had project managers dialling in – all that sort of stuff.”
Throughout the first couple of weeks, the company did have a couple of scares, resulting in a site being shut down, and a hygienic clean of the whole area. However, there have been no reported cases on any of Total Construction’s worksites.
Procedures in place included the company’s Code Red process, which was part of its administration online tool. It lets Total Construction know it has a notification of an incident onsite and controls who communicates to the client and contractors. Because if it is not controlled properly, issues will arise, according to Jones.
“We decided early on there would be one source of information and that would be me for the vast majority of it,” he said. “There are updates for the staff throughout the process about an infected site or possible infected cases. They come to me and I was responsible for communicating to clients and subcontractors.”
One of the key ingredients to making sure operations ran smoothly was how staff reacted to the changes. Without their cooperation and buying into the new “normal”, it would have been harder to implement the new processes, said Jones.
“Our workers were amazing,” said Jones. “Two things – their willingness to adopt change was better than I thought it would be and we asked them to do a few more things outside the norm, such as asking them to take reduced pay or extra leave. I suppose this is where your work culture really sings true. The loyalty we have received from staff has been great.”
Jones said it wasn’t until the crisis came about that he saw the Total Construction workforce take initiative in its true sense, whether it was dislocated from a workplace, or dealing with a client’s needs remotely. As for the business itself, there was the expected downturn in terms of projects going ahead. Total Construction had almost 40 projects ready to go to tender at the beginning of the year, but when COVID came around, only eight actually came through. The good news is that another 10 have re-commenced the tender process since the beginning of June. However, some of the issues were not so much if the client was ready to green light the project, but whether supplies – especially those sourced from overseas – were available.
“We did have some early concerns about some supply items. We were caught short sometimes due to deliveries not arriving,” said Jones. “We were lucky. We didn’t suffer too much delay from that. We did see a little drop in productivity due to the social distancing. In its early stages, certain trades were finding it hard to get people to turn up to site if there was a concern about health. But by making our sites as healthy as we possibly could, we saw a swing around the other way, where we had contractors wanting to turn up to our site because they knew we protected their workforce better than some other contractors. It became an opportunity to have more resources on site.”
Then there was the issue of reassuring clients there were not going to be cost blowouts.
“We had some conservative clients that weren’t sure if the pandemic was going to increase the construction costs because the project got delayed ” said Jones. “Now, there is certainty and it doesn’t seem to have as much time impact as we first thought it might with supply items or productivity. I think a lot more is known now compared to two months ago and projects are starting up again.”
With the food and beverage industry, some builds have gotten underway while others have had to be put on hold, but not for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic itself, but peripheral issues, too.
“It’s been a mixed bag with food and bev builds,” said Rob Blythman, general manager for the company’s Engineering Construction Group. “When they are crucial projects, and when they are vital to their operation, time wise and production wise, they have all gone ahead. Whereas there have been others that have stalled because even though they’re sort of necessary works, they can wait. Some are sitting back and waiting for things to change in the general environment, particularly with regard to government stimulus and things of that nature before they push the go button.
“There was a food and bev project in Queensland we were set to start on in mid-March, but they had to shut it down before we began. This was because their particular product was deemed essential, and they didn’t want any potential risks to their production. Across our clients, there are some projects that have been delayed where they are not a priority and they can afford to push it back,” said Jones. “There are others that can’t afford it and we’ve had to start it straight away and there are a few in the middle that can’t risk disruption due to construction.”
Having food and beverage and aged care expertise it certainly meant that Total Construction was more cognisant to dealing with health issues across the whole spectrum because it was already working in high-risk live environments. It meant that its safety committee didn’t differentiate between an industrial sector project environment to any other project. Safety is safety, said Jones.
Jones finishes by stating that he believes that COVID-19 might even tweak the way some companies now do business.
“It might even change the long-term employment relationship,” he said. “This is because we’ve talked in the past about people used to work in one job for their whole life and how there is loyalty both ways. Over the last two decades this has deteriorated. As a result of the pandemic it has emphasised the value of loyalty going both ways as businesses work together with their staff to firstly survive and then thrive.”