Like many other industries, the construction and engineering sector has been hit by coronavirus restrictions aimed at safeguarding public health. However, while many sectors curated the option for their staff to work from home when the government closed all but essential businesses, only part of the construction and engineering sector was able to work remotely.
With increasing options to return to work, there are suggestions that the work-from-home revolution is here to stay. However, when looking at the current performance of the engineering industry, it is clear that this suggestion should be avoided. With the end of the pandemic in sight, we make the case as to why we must return to the workplace for the sake of the future of engineering and construction.
Who can work from home?
For engineers, there are limited options for remote working. Civil and mechanical engineers rely on a front-facing approach, meaning that their position is predominantly on-site. However, with an increasing reliance on digitisation and technology in construction and design processes, some work can be completed remotely. Calculations and other technical documents may be completed at home.
In fact, a poll of 700 engineers demonstrated that working from home was viable for many. 67 per cent of respondents agreed that they were able to perform most aspects of their role remotely.
However, it may be suggested that the sector was ill-prepared for such a shift during the pandemic. One employee experience index which investigated workers in construction and civil engineering found that only 52 per cent of workers had some experience of working from home. Of these people, 91 per cent admitted that this would be for a day or less per week. An overwhelming majority of work is completed on-site.
The damage of the sector
The Office for National Statistics measured a significant drop in output for the construction and manufacturing sectors. Between February and April, output in the construction sector fell by 44.4 per cent. Meanwhile, manufacturing fell by 29.7 per cent.
While these sectors have somewhat recovered since then, the latest October figures still show a reduced output when compared to February. Construction and manufacturing remain 6.7 per cent and 6.4 per cent below their normal output respectively.
Despite construction and manufacturing avoiding further restrictions during the second and third national lockdown in England, it is clear that normal service has not resumed entirely. Demand for services has understandably impacted this. For example, the ONS measures that ‘repair and maintenance of aircraft and spacecraft’ has shrunk a further 36.3 per cent since February. The need to bolster the effectiveness of the sectors should be a priority, with the effect of remote working becoming the next focus of industry leaders.
Making space for the return to work
There is a consensus among industry leaders that, while remote working has offered a viable alternative for engineers and construction workers, the sector should prioritise returning workers to offices and on-site locations.
The ONS recorded that only 5.5 per cent of construction businesses would like a permanent increase in home working capabilities. 83.5 per cent do not want further remote working capabilities.
Returning to the workplace has key advantages over remote working. Though remote working may provide the convenience of commuting and comfort for some engineers, it goes against the collaborative and pragmatic culture of engineering and on-site work. For engineers, the input of departments on construction sites and the support of colleagues can help produce more viable work. Safer and better quality work can be created as a consequence of returning to the workplace.
Of course, during the pandemic, social distancing regulations must be adhered to. The need for office space within on-site locations can be easily addressed, with portable offices already being the industrial norm. Further container hire can create additional space, encourage more workers to return to the workplace, and allow for social distancing to be respected.
All sectors have been affected by the pandemic. However, the need for the construction and engineering sector is vital for the good of the national economy. Construction output contributes seven per cent to GDP, meaning that the sector must continue to perform at its best to prevent any further economic crisis. Returning to the workplace is a vital part of this recovery process and accommodating workers with safe workspaces which can be achieved with pragmatic and sensible options.