Overcoming the Impacts of COVID-19 on Construction Project Management
Managing construction projects during COVID is more difficult, but not impossible, with some creativity and adaptability
When the “Safer at Home” order was announced and many industries were forced to shut down due to COVID-19, construction in Nashville was deemed “essential.” That means we never slowed down on trying to move our projects forward. Even so, COVID affects us in some way every day. It’s always in the conversation right now, and it has been for a while.
As a construction project manager, I’ve had to continually add new COVID-related considerations to my jobsite checklist. Over time our team has learned how to successfully mitigate challenges in each of these areas:
When continuing to work through a pandemic, jobsite safety takes on a whole new meaning. The addition of new protection protocols beyond the usual hard hats and boots was a big change, but one we were happy to make. Now we also have temperature checks, washing stations, mandatory masks, ventilation systems and other precautions needed to keep our workforce safe.
We also make sure to respect and work around individuals’ needs as much as possible. For instance, if a worker doesn’t feel comfortable working in a group setting, we may assign them to work on a one-person job away from others.
Safety has even become political. There’s no dispute that safety goggles are necessary, but the necessity of masks has been accepted by some but not all. We understand they can be uncomfortable and hot, especially when workers are doing manual labor. However, we are strict with enforcing the CDC and Health Department guidelines. The more knowledge about the virus that we can share with our workforce, the more buy-in we can get from them. We emphasize the fact that the protocols are in place for their safety because, as their employer, we care deeply about their well-being. Safety is a team effort, so we make sure everyone is on board.
I believe that, after the pandemic, personal hygiene on-site will continue to be more top-of-mind for the workers. They’ll be inclined to wash their hands more and stay away from people who appear sick. Clients and workers will want to see bottles of hand sanitizers and hand-washing stations to feel comfortable on-site. There is a new, long-lasting desire to do what it takes to stay healthy.
COVID is a wild card because it adds unforeseen complications to the already challenging job of managing a workforce across multiple job sites. We’re deemed essential workers, so we’re still going, but it’s been a struggle at times to get enough manpower. This may be partly because Nashville’s construction market is really strong, which is a great problem to have.
Some people don’t feel comfortable being on a job site where they might be in relatively close contact with someone else, despite all the safety measures we have in place. Plus, if someone is exposed to the virus, we are extra cautious and make sure any others on the crew are quarantined for the appropriate amount of time. It can be hard to keep going when much of the crew can’t come to work.
The good news is, with the safety guidelines we have put in place – along with limiting close contact as much as possible – we’ve been able to avoid mass spreading. We’ve only had one or two cases at a time, and those people have fully recovered. Because we’ve kept the job sites safe, even if one crew needed to be in isolation, we could still have subcontractors come in and get work done.
However, unpredictable circumstances can take a toll on jobsite morale. Many of our workers have a family at home to think about, and everyone is scared about the virus. We’re glad our team has felt comfortable enough to come to us with questions about COVID and health safety. Everyone here at Dowdle Construction is staying up to date on CDC requirements and the status of the virus and vaccinations so we are able to best counsel and train our workers. We have found that the key is showing that we’re right there with them and that we’re working through each and every concern to make sure everyone stays safe and healthy. Compassion and understanding can go a long way to ease fears and build trust.
Construction timelines are affected by the pandemic too. Weather used to be the only uncontrolled factor – although it’s not new to have material delays and scheduling conflicts. However, it’s much harder right now to pinpoint exactly where the delays are coming from because one factory closure or one crew being in isolation, can cause a ripple effect.
For example: Mexico was hit hard with COVID, and a lot of our electrical equipment was coming from there. And there was a time when Canada’s borders were closed. Those things caused unforeseen delays, which can be devastating to a project schedule. Similarly, some materials are not as readily accessible now as they were pre-COVID.
The construction industry is left wondering, How do you maintain construction schedules in such an unpredictable situation? The answer, we’ve found, is to make a plan as best we can, and mitigate issues as they arise. We’ve had to be more flexible and adaptable, dealing with what we can control and working around what we can’t.
COVID-19 has changed how construction companies work with clients as well. For example, many of them have been hesitant about going to a job site. We take steps to make it as safe as possible when they visit. In addition to our standard procedures, we shut down the site beforehand, make sure they are the only ones there, open all windows and make sure the ventilators are on. This all helps to protect our clients from the virus.
Plus, many meetings that used to be on-site were switched to conference calls or Zoom meetings. This has changed up meeting rhythms a bit, but it has worked well and sometimes even made the process more efficient. To best accommodate this new way of working, we upgraded the technology in our conference room last year so video conferences could be more effective.
Because of the potential for unforeseen delays, we’ve found that it’s best to over-communicate with clients and be very transparent. We work to manage expectations from the outset, letting clients know that surprises may come down the road (even more during the pandemic than the average construction project). The best we can do is lock in subcontractors and order materials as early as possible to hopefully stay on schedule. We have to manage projects a lot tighter than before.
When you have supply and workforce issues that cause delays to a project, prices tend to creep up to cover those delays and extra costs. Manpower is expensive, and the prices for materials, such as steel, wood and electrical gear, have also skyrocketed amid pandemic-related production issues.
We’re doing our best to keep our fees the same by thinking of other ways to cut costs, such as using a different material that is less expensive but comparable in durability, or even one that is comparable in price but longer-lasting. Dowdle Construction is known for providing creative solutions that keep costs down and projects moving. That ability has helped us to stay busy and profitable during this unique period.
All that to say, we have to accept that there are things out of our control that may throw off schedules and cause challenges. That’s why we make sure we are communicating with workers and clients daily. When we work together as a team, projects still have the potential to go off without a major hitch.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the COVID era – for construction companies and anyone else – is that we don’t know what life will bring us. We have to enjoy and cherish what we have. I’m grateful to everyone here at Dowdle Construction for making the best of a difficult situation and continuing to create award-winning work.