Global views: construction skills and COVID-19

As countries around the world continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, RICS professionals reflect on how construction has coped so far and what the future of the industry looks like


  • Ann Bentley
  • Lindsey Brake
  • Fong Chung Lee
  • Andrew Stead
  • Deepak Suvarna

06 November 2020

“The UK construction industry has remembered that it is capable of phenomenal collaboration and speedy action”

Throughout the pandemic, the greatest strengths the UK construction industry has shown are its flexibility and ability to keep going. Companies large and small have adapted to new ways of working on site, working from home, using digital technologies and off-site manufacturing, and improving communication, to ensure that the industry has kept on building. The value of specific construction sector skills – project planning and execution – was demonstrated to the highest possible level by the way that the Nightingale hospitals, temporary hospitals set up by NHS England, were completed.

Nightingale Hospital North West for coronavirus patients at Manchester Central convention centre

The construction industry has remembered that it is capable of phenomenal collaboration and speedy action. The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has acted as a convening body and focus for the widest possible range of industry interests, and collectively this group has provided site operating procedures, guidance on contracts, a methodology for assessing productivity, and national access to materials and PPE that have enabled the industry to continue to function effectively and safely during lockdown.

The CLC’s Roadmap to Recovery is clear – to emerge from this crisis stronger, the industry must focus on professionalism and invest in training, collaborative business models and fairer contracts and payment. This will require a change in behaviour for many in construction, with the development of much better soft skills such as empathy, communication, coaching, feedback, and constructive – rather than destructive – challenge. At the same time, there will be a need for different technical skills – new forms of contract, a greater understanding of off-site manufacturing, a new approach to value-based decision-making and, of course, continually enhanced digital skills.

We have already seen evidence of the pandemic accelerating changes in the industry. At site level, social distancing has forced contractors to look at the way projects are planned and their logistics, placing a greater emphasis on off-site manufacture. At client level, we are seeing an increased demand for value from their investment, and this has sped up the development of the Construction Innovation Hub’s Value Toolkit.

Any crisis exacerbates both strengths and weaknesses. Well-run, forward-looking businesses will thrive in the changed environment in which we find ourselves, but marginal businesses that want the world to return to the old normal will struggle.

“Many people in the construction industry in North America have been anticipating a recession to follow the intense period of growth we’ve experienced over the past couple of years. No one expected it to happen quite this way”

In order to cope with the impact of the pandemic, the construction industry in North America contributed to a large number of activities. In New York city, for example, there was considerable demand for medical care, and buildings were converted into hospitals to ensure this could be met. The industry really stepped up to the plate when it was needed.

There is some focus now on what we need to do to make places safe and useable, so we’re thinking about the workspaces of the future. What environmental factors need to be considered? What do entrance lobbies need to look like if we want to check temperatures and limit contact or touch? How do you manage the volume of staff in an office, or a certain room? Construction industry professionals play an important role in advising what’s possible, not only in terms of physical constraints but also financial ones.

The use of technology has both accelerated during the pandemic and helped us get through it. Not long before, in 2018, the Department of Buildings in New York city had gone electronic, allowing digital submission of drawings. I would be curious to know how it would have coped throughout the pandemic had it not made that change.

Newly opened drive through COVID-19 mobile testing center organized by Northwell hospital at Glen Island Park, New York

As many of us have been working from home, we’ve had to upskill ourselves to use certain platforms for communication and collaboration. This has been as much of a behavioural adjustment as a technological change: there’s a whole new etiquette to online communication, which requires various soft skills. It’s a learning curve for everyone, particularly those leading teams or projects.

I think the way we’ve used technology during the pandemic may mean there will be less resistance to it in the future. As an example, if you were running late on a project in times gone by then you’d potentially increase the number of staff on site. That isn’t always an option any more due to social distancing requirements. So how else can we approach it? What technology can be used to prefabricate building elements and require 2 workers rather than 10?

Lots of products used in US construction are shipped from abroad. I expect in future there will be an increased desire to use more locally sourced products and materials.

On some level, everyone in the construction industry in North America has been anticipating a recession to follow the intense period of growth we’ve experienced over the past couple of years. Of course, no one expected it to happen quite this way.

But the pandemic has also given us an opportunity to step back. The pace of the industry can be so fast, and the need to move from project to project at a million miles an hour doesn’t lend itself to reflection and progression. Now is the time, then, to think more fully about what the future of our industry looks like. What we do has stood the test of time; the world will always need buildings, whether new or refurbished. How we do what we do, though, is open to change.

“We must always be prepared for future uncertainties, and to do so the Hong Kong construction industry should always be prepared to think in new ways”

As a whole, construction in Hong Kong has responded quickly to address the impacts of the pandemic, with the government supporting the industry in a number of ways. It issued guidance notes for construction practitioners about, for example, the handling of project delays due to the pandemic; special treatment for extensions of time or cost claims; and site safety. It also launched policies such as releasing advance interim payments to consultants and contractors.

From an employment perspective, the Hong Kong government’s Development Bureau (DEVB) and other departments in the DEVB’s purview have created more than 6,500 short-term jobs across a variety of trades, skill sets and academic requirements, including government positions and those created through procurement of services from consultants or contractors under existing or new contractual arrangements. The government has also launched anti-pandemic funds, disbursing subsidies to construction workers and companies. In collaboration with the Secretary for Food and Health, the DEVB constructed 2 temporary quarantine camps with more than 2,000 units in 2 months, using modular integrated construction to save time on site.

Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village is turned into quarantine camp

Hong Kong contractors had to make use of more innovative construction technologies, including off-site prefabrication and BIM to reduce the reliance on imported workers and materials. Project managers were also heavily reliant on technology to minimise social contact, such as video conferencing, online site inspection, on-site temperature scanning, electronic records – on-site attendance, work progress and materials delivery among other things – digital submission and assessment of tenders, and video recording of the site by drones and mobile apps.

The pandemic has pushed the construction industry into accelerating the changes it needs. We must always be prepared for future uncertainties, and to do so we should always be prepared to think in new ways. As our digital transformation moves faster, the government should speed up the digitisation of its services, especially the electronic approval of building plans, construction programmes and other statutory submissions. Companies should continue to upgrade their facilities and tools.

Due to the ageing workforce in Hong Kong, the industry should cooperate more closely with other parties such as the government, universities and professional institutions to develop new initiatives for enhancing its effectiveness and efficiency. More investment in research and development is also required.

"Together we fight the virus" is the government's motto during the pandemic. It is the same, I trust, for the construction industry.

“As we look to recover from the dual impact of the pandemic and fluctuating oil prices in the Middle East, it is clear that new skills and practices are here to stay”

As in other parts of the world, the construction industry in the Middle East has designed and constructed temporary facilities to increase the capacity of health services during the pandemic. Planning for critical projects was revised rapidly to continue operations with specialist measures, demonstrating how agile the industry is despite its rigid processes and contractual arrangements.

The pandemic has also served to highlight some deficiencies in the industry. While it was not entirely unpredictable, we were not prepared for gaps in risk management practices and transparency in supply chains. Closed contractual relationships where risk is pushed further down the supply chain hamper decision-making processes and understanding of an organisation’s commercial position. This in turn leads to payment delays and claims during a time when organisations need the supply chain to be resilient.

Across the Middle East, risk management and financial performance were some of the greatest challenges for organisations prior to the pandemic, with 57% struggling to manage delayed payments. The contractual relationships and claims culture of the industry result in many protracted and expensive arbitrations in the region. Alternative dispute resolution practices such as adjudication could instead be used, to reach an interim decision at least. The pandemic has encouraged more collaboration in the supply chain, which shows there is a need to update the procurement and contractual relationships as they are based on dated contract principles. The supply chain relationship needs to evolve to account for emerging technology, data and transparency, and increase collaboration at all stages of the project life cycle.

Oil pipes in Bahrain, Middle East

The pandemic has also increased the pressure on organisations to upgrade their technology. Initially, this was done to maintain productivity and reduce safety risk, as well as ensure better visibility of the financial metrics underpinning projects and organisations. However, using virtual meetings and video conferencing has meant that the industry could bring international expertise into local meetings at short notice to help with resolving issues and scenario planning. Organisations must consider innovative ways to accelerate their digital strategy in response to the current economic environment, which is putting heavy financial pressure on the industry.

The immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the shock of fluctuating oil prices across the region, is forcing project owners to review capital portfolios and reprioritise their spending. This will increase the need for alternative forms of financing, with more than half of organisations expecting infrastructure projects to be funded by a mix of private and government sources, as highlighted in PwC’s recent Middle East Capital Projects and Infrastructure Survey. As we look to recover from the dual impact of the pandemic and fluctuating oil prices in the Middle East, it is clear that new skills and practices are here to stay.

The role of the quantity surveyor has been evolving for a long time; however, I would expect advances in technology to move the profession away from its traditional role into data-driven commercial management. This should mean quantity surveyors can provide more proactive support to the industry earlier on in project development to realise increased value from the budgets. With this will come a change in requirements for university courses, training and recruitment of a broader set of skills.

The G20’s Global Infrastructure Outlook from 2018 already estimated a $15tr investment shortfall worldwide, and that excluded urgent requirements for social infrastructure in response to megatrends. The industry has been struggling with an efficiency challenge for decades; now is the time to address these issues and reduce the funding gap significantly.

“The pandemic has shown the unity of the construction workforce in India: the sheer grit to stay together under the most trying circumstances”

The construction industry in India employs more than 51m people – almost 12% of the working population. The pandemic has shown the unity of this workforce: the sheer grit to stay together under the most trying circumstances, and the willingness to support each other and collaborate towards economic growth.

There have, however, been challenges. During lockdown, lots of workers went back to their home towns on foot as transport facilities were shut down. While this was a unique situation about which employers could do little, companies should pay renewed attention to the way they take care of the well-being of their labour force.

Aerial shot of the skeleton of an under construction school multi story building in developing countryside, India

The construction industry in the subcontinent as a whole needs to get leaner and become less labour-dependent. The availability of cheap labour has stunted the industry’s progression, while the use of technology has been restricted to the big companies in the metropolises.

The pandemic has pushed the industry to think in new ways. Digitisation of marketing and sales has, as an example, been one positive surprise, allowing better connection with end users by giving them the experience of finished building products through augmented or virtual reality. The growth of modular construction is another step forward. In future, construction companies should invest their efforts in more plug-and-play products, such as prefabricated ducts and utilities, to improve the quality and speed of project execution.

For the Indian government, this is an opportune time to refocus, and concentrate on reskilling in anticipation of many structural changes to the economy. There is, and always will be, a demand for the construction industry due to the indispensable nature of our product. We must focus on initiatives that help drive the industry forward at a much faster pace, and contribute to the creation of a resilient business model.


Although the industry faces some particular regional challenges, as our correspondents have shared, construction businesses and professionals across the globe are experiencing many similar obstacles throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They have had to act quickly to construct and adapt buildings to enable access to healthcare for thousands. Such action requires an agility of both thought and execution, and has demonstrated the true value of our industry.

In many ways, the pandemic has accelerated the changes we have needed to make for a long time. Soft skills, including collaboration and communication, have come to the fore; technology has been used to its full potential; and we’ve begun to reassess and challenge some of our processes, such as those used for sourcing materials.

As various countries grapple with the second wave of the pandemic, the construction industry must take forward what it learned from the first and continue to build at a time when it is needed most.

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