Construction and COVID-19: Adaptation, Action, Aftermath

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused global disruption to companies and livelihoods, creating upheaval for businesses and employees.

Adaption strategies, lessons learned and what carries forward

By Mark Robins

The Mural Board enabled remote collaboration during COVID providing an endless canvas for ideating with others. (Photo courtesy of LEO A DALY)

It spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. While the COVID-19 crisis turned the working world upside-down, employers demonstrated remarkable resilience. As businesses re-enter the market and vaccinations increase, we look at how construction companies adapted, what they learned, and what policies and procedures they’ll take with them into the future.

Pandemic Adaption

How did companies adapt to the unprecedented changes that COVID-19 brought? Grand Rapids, Mich.-based a.j. Veneklasen Inc. adapted rapidly to the changing guidelines and policies set forth by the state of Michigan and the federal government. Its president, Chris Veneklasen, says, “Our executive team met daily and many times hourly to assess risks and keep an open communication with our entire AJV team, clients and trade partners. This communication allowed us to also confirm our team members were following proper protocols and performing their jobs in a safe manner.”

Lauren Nowicki, chief communications officer at Dacon, Natick, Mass., says her company has always tried to maintain close contact and a familial working relationship with its employees. “Our immediate concern was keeping employees working while client funding and construction froze. Communications were centralized using online platforms like Zoom, as well as through our CEO keeping employees informed with open and transparent email updates.”

Art Hance, president of Hance Construction Inc., Washington, N.J., believes his company adapted to COVID-19 very well. “Part of that was due to me serving as president of Metal Building Contractors and Erectors Association (MBCEA), which required me to attend the CECO [Building Systems] sales meeting in St. Martin. Down there in late February, the news cycle was much different than what I was hearing in the states, and upon returning I was struck by how little of what I heard in St. Martin was in our news feed. Upon returning I initiated emergency measures to prepare our staff, owners and projects for the possibility of a pandemic.”

Since Cincinnati-based Messer Construction Co. is an employee-owned and process-driven company, according to its chief operations officer, Mark Luegering, his company’s, “Foundation of disciplined decision-making and shared accountability for success comes up big in times like this. Our project management teams and craft force did a tremendous job adapting throughout the pandemic. They were on-site every day, showing leadership through communication and a commitment to safety protocols.”

The Wild enabled remote collaboration during COVID with a virtual dojo, which replicates a design studio in VR. Within that, you can step into the 3-D model to discuss the design and do markup. (Photo courtesy of LEO A DALY)

Like many companies, the COVID-19 pandemic caught St. Louis-based Western Specialty Contractors off guard. It was off to a record start in the first quarter of 2020, but then it saw sales begin to slow in April. “Fortunately, we had spent the last several years implementing best practices and standard operating procedures across all our 30 branches nationwide,” says chief human resources officer Bradley Johnson. “Pair that with forward-thinking cost control measures and IT solutions to aide with communication efforts, Western was able to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic without a major disruption to the business.”

For some, little-to-no COVID adaption was necessary. “To be perfectly honest, I made no changes to my business, other than having to deal with building departments being shut down,” says Randy L. Sawn, Assoc. AIA, principal, R. L. Sawn Design Studio, Riverside, Calif. “I actually had a record year during the time of this so-called COVID epidemic.” According to a recent survey completed by Metal Construction News, of 137 respondents, 56 or 40.88% said that the pandemic will have no long-lasting influence on the market.

(Photo courtesy of a.j. Veneklasen Inc.)

Lessons Learned

A common lesson learned from COVID-19 is how to best implement and use remote communication. “Our best lesson though COVID was to communicate quickly, honestly and often,” Veneklasen says. “Many members of our team expressed appreciation for our ramped-up communication efforts. Moving forward, video communication is by far our most notable efficiency improvement. While we strongly value face-to-face engagement with our team members and our clients, the rapid adoption and acceptance of video communication has made quick, informal meetings much easier to schedule and execute.”

Dacon has a close-knit team atmosphere; its decentralization of office life highlights team interactions that benefit from increases in communication. “Overall, COVID made us better people,” Nowicki says. “Our business today is profiting from the communication skills and comraderies gained in the last year. We learned the importance of open communication and consistent flow. Dacon implemented twice-weekly management meetings, regularly scheduled departmental and corporate town hall meetings. These meetings have greatly improved employee communications and moral.”

Hance says, “Probably the biggest single effect of COVID was our crash course in leveraging remote technology. Our staff’s ability to conduct business remotely is dramatically improved from 14 months ago.”

(Photo courtesy of Western Specialty Contractors)

Johnson admits that although no one at Western Specialty Contractors was sure how things would play-out during this period of uncertainty, “We were confident in our abilities to manage those things within our control. Under the direction of CEO Ben Bishop Jr., Western’s strategy from the onset was to focus on the things we can control. We placed an emphasis on the safety and well-being of our employees, quality of work, control of overhead spend, customer satisfaction, productivity gains, employee development and Western culture. This strategy continues as we begin to return to a new normal.”

Aftermath and the New Normal

Remote work and video communication are the most prevalent changes enacted within a.j. Veneklasen’s organization. “They clearly go together which has proven to have great benefits,” Veneklasen says. “Video has also proven to be a great asset for our field communications since it saves time traveling to a single location and allow us to dive deeper into topics through screen sharing beyond just a bulleted PowerPoint. Through the use of Microsoft Teams, we were also able to quickly organize a face-to-face conversation or group chat that would have normally taken hours or days to coordinate.”

Is Veneklasen going to keep allowing employees to work from home? Our culture is everything to us and face-to-face interaction and relationships are extremely important to our brand,” Veneklasen says. “Like most everyone, we were forced to very quickly learn how to work remotely which challenged our cultural ideals. Ultimately, we are happy to be back in our office environment, but we did see the benefits to remote work. It provides opportunities for increased work efficiency, the ability to work around scheduling conflicts, and further work-life balance. With these and other benefits in mind, we have woven remote work options into the fabric of our company, which is yielding good results for our team.”

At Hance Construction, the biggest change is the use of remote work place integration. “This has profound implications for our business model,” Hance says. “We are hiring people with some having the expectation of working remotely for a portion or all of their duties. This has exponentially increased the geographic area our recruiting team can access for qualified candidates. It also removes geographic boundaries of our service area.”

Being a family-owned company for more than 100 years, Western Specialty Contractors has always placed a tremendous amount of focus on our employees. “This past year re-emphasized the commitment to our employees,” Johnson says.

“During this time, we re-focused our efforts on employee development, succession planning and continued to invest in our intern and new graduate training programs. We knew this pandemic would end and wanted to ensure our employees were prepared for what was to come. In doing this, we’ve seen record retention rates and have positioned both our employees and the company for much success in 2021 and beyond.”