Can We Change the World from Our Homes?

In May, Forbes magazine reported on a new study that showed working from home has increased productivity 46%. Telephone calls are up 230%. Customer relationship management activity is up 176%, email is up 57% and chat is up 9%.

New remote working policies may have broader effects on the construction industry

By Paul Deffenbaugh

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It’s too bad we can’t construct buildings from home. With those kinds of productivity increases, the construction industry would be building twice as fast with half the people. (That’s maybe a slight exaggeration.)

The reality is that productivity increases through new work-from-home plans may not affect contractors very much. The office staff could, of course, work from home, but the real productivity gains in construction will come on the job site.

(Side note: It has been well reported that the construction industry has lagged other industries in increases in productivity. A 2017 report from McKinsey Global Institute found that construction sector labor-productivity growth averaged 1% a year over the past two decades, compared with 2.8% for the total world economy and 3.6% for manufacturing … If construction productivity were to catch up with the total economy, the industry’s value added could rise by $1.6 trillion a year.)

The architecture and engineering sides of the AEC industry are likely more able to take advantage of the increases of productivity by sending staff to work at home. But there’s a larger point here that will affect the construction industry.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, it has become apparent that the need for workers to be in offices is not nearly as essential as had been generally assumed. The country has conducted a little unplanned test, and we learned that significant portions of our workforce not only could work from home, but would improve productivity by working at home.

The question is how large is that portion? 30%? 50%? 75%?

If you play out this scenario, we begin to see a crumbling in some of the fundamental decisions we make as a society. For example, if a large portion of the workforce can now work at home, why do we need all that office space? And if we don’t need the office space, why do we need so much infrastructure to support commuters? And if we can work at home, why do we need to live where we live? Instead of living in Chicagoland, why can’t I live in Leadville, Colo.? Or Duluth, Minn.? Or Scotland? Or Costa Rica?

I have written on these pages before about the monumental upheaval society has been facing since the growth of computers and the internet. The change is on a level with the introduction of the Guttenberg Bible, which made education available to the masses and was fundamental in the forming of the middle class and undermining traditional power structures.

Layer on top of that already changing environment a global pandemic that has forced us to consider in completely new ways how we conduct our lives, and we begin to see and question our very basic understandings.

We are in for some major, earthshaking change, and it will be confusing and discombobulating. And it will take a long time—maybe a century—to shake out what the new world will be like. But one of the immediate aftermaths of the pandemic can be seen right now. Retail and office construction are going to decline while warehouse construction will increase.

That’s the tip of the spear, and it points to a fundamental need for our businesses. Predicting the future is even more difficult than it has ever been, and our businesses and industries need to be flexible and fluid to survive.