As construction contends with COVID-19, the forced shift to cloud technology offers a silver lining
Technology has become pervasive on construction sites, but with the pandemic forcing non-essential staff off-site it's more important than ever
While there are new hand sanitizer stations on-site, disposable gloves at-the-ready and a new policy ensuring no two trades are sharing the same space, it’s not far from business as usual at Azimuth Builders Ltd.’s three job sites in the Calgary area.
The pace of work has slowed a bit, the company’s president Gary Bizek acknowledged, but the added COVID-19 precautions haven’t stalled progress.
“The trades have had lots of areas to work always, we’ve just now broken apart the tasks,” he said. “So, if one trade’s needing to be in the office, the other trade won’t have access until the following day, or they will be working in another part of the building. Or, if they need to communicate, it’s all through their phones.”
About three years ago, the general contractor, which typically takes on mid-size commercial and industrial projects, took a “gamble” when it signed up with construction management software firm Procore Technologies Inc. Bizek said he wasn’t overly familiar with the platform when he gave the go-ahead, but that the shot in the dark has paid off handsomely since.
With coronavirus severely limiting the number of workers allowed on job sites, cloud-based solutions are more important than ever.
“It’s eliminated the need for all sub-trades to go to a common area to review drawings, Bizek said. “We still have always had a manual set of drawings on the job site, but it’s never been used. Everybody has access to the entire project on their phone.”
A significant portion of construction will always need to be done on-site, but even before the current crisis, cloud-based software has given project stakeholders the ability to stay up to date without ever stepping into the dirt. Now that thousands of sites across Canada are limiting access to essential staff only, projects already operating in the cloud have been able to maintain a sense of normalcy.
“It’s allowed them to stay connected in situations where their clients, their architects and others may be hundreds if not thousands of miles away,” Jas Saraw, vice-president, Canada for Procore, said. “They can communicate all of that information in real-time, whether it’s drawings, updates and revisions, photographs and so on.”
Saraw said that like Azimuth, many of the tech firm’s clients have been able to stay productive throughout the crisis.
“Definitely, it’s a strange time, but if you’re on a construction project, it’s very essential,” Saraw added. “There’s so much that’s reliant on us continuing to build in the face of uncertainty… and any tool that allows folks to anchor their business, to share information quickly and accurately… is really critical.”
Along with other steps to keep customers dialled in, early in the crisis, Procore accelerated an ongoing project to integrate the popular video conferencing tool from Zoom Video Communications into its platform. In addition to basic conferencing, teams are able to record meetings and store them within the Procore platform to ensure they are able to maintain a thorough project log.
The sudden jolt coronavirus has given the industry is encouraging companies already in the cloud to lean on remote solutions more than ever. It’s also sent businesses working off legacy software an abrupt wake-up call.
Brad Barth, chief product officer at InEight Inc., said the company has seen considerable uptick on both aspects of its business. For existing customers, cloud usage has jumped by 10 to 15 per cent, he said. Interest from prospective customers — such as owners, contractors, architects and engineers — has shot up by nearly 40 per cent.
“The cloud is obviously perfect to enable all those folks to work better together without having to worry about IT access and firewalls and all that kind of stuff,” Barth said, adding that newly-available solutions such as InEight’s project management software have put companies in a good position to deal with the quarantine.
“Even five years ago, it would have been vastly different,” he added.
During the crisis, Barth said, customers have been turning to the company’s document management and document control module that lets staff collaborate from anywhere. It’s also seeing considerable action in areas such as change orders and workflow management.
“Our change management module really comes in handy in this kind of situation. No matter where you are, you can get visibility to what’s going on on the project and then raise issues into the system that then others have visibility to in real-time,” he said.
More specialized software providers have also seen a jump in usage.
Adrian Bartha, CEO of eCompliance, said the company has seen around a 30 per cent increase in activity on its environmental health and safety app.
“I think it’s forced a level of consistency in the digitization of a lot of functions of the construction industry,” he said. “When normally there was a way of doing it ‘in the office,’ or the old way, now that old way is just not physically possible. So, it’s forced the organizations to go in the way that they’ve already been going but it just helped some organizations speed it up.”
With worker health top-of-mind, eCompliance has built on its traditional offering — digital safety forms, procedures and training, to name a few — and is adapting its app to make sure frontline staff are aware of the latest COVID-19 developments and strategies for staying safe. The company has also released a free product pack for essential services that includes e-learning courses for managers and staff.
Similarly, Saskatoon-based SafetyTek has rolled out a free cloud-based health analysis tool to help managers monitor employee health and availability during the crisis — a key part of keeping critical projects moving forward. The software lets staff self-report any possible symptoms or COVID-19 exposure using their phones. SafetyTek has seen considerable uptake as well, with more than 150 companies signing up to use the new tool.
Though the COVID-19 crisis is sure to wallop the economy in the short term — construction included — it may offer a silver lining for the industry. By pushing companies to adopt more sophisticated software more quickly, it may prove a long-term win.
Like InEight, eCompliance and SafetyTek, Procore has seen a surge in potential new customers as the crisis has unfolded over the past six weeks.
“A lot of the reason is they’ve found that they’ve been hamstrung by their current tools and COVID has essentially highlighted some of those gaps in their current business plans,” Saraw said.
At the beginning of the year, companies in the cloud were seen as being ahead of the curve. A few months later, not being there has become a serious liability.
The forced shift to these sort of solutions may even help construction close its productivity gap, Barth said, pointing to the industry’s long-standing shortfall compared to other sectors of the economy.
“What we’re dealing with during the quarantine and the pandemic is going to blow over and things will turn back to some semblance of normal,” Barth said. “But I think a lasting benefit of this time period is we will see folks that have taken the opportunity to upgrade their technology and move to the cloud and that’s going to have benefits that go well beyond however long this quarantine period lasts.”