Construction came to a virtual standstill following the Government’s March directive. We spoke to some of those who managed to keep businesses and the supply chain operating.

Since the early stages of the pandemic, views have differed about the degree of shutdown of construction in the UK.
Many businesses were prompted to virtually close their operations, fearful of the consequences if they could not create safe working environments. Others who felt confident that they could continue to operate without putting staff and clients at risk, were also deterred from doing so owing to supply chain concerns and projects being stalled by clients.

However, many managed to keep their operations going, with a mix of remote working, skeleton staff on site and a host of protective measures put in place. All have faced challenges on a daily basis, with some diversifying their core service offering in order to keep their businesses afloat.

Keeping supply going
SIG Distribution (SIGD) closed many of its branches when the UK went into full-scale lockdown on 23 March, but kept open selected branches for essential supplies, and reopened remaining branches two weeks later with skeleton staff.

“The priority at this time for SIGD was to protect staff, customers and their supply chain and they immediately started to develop procedures that were practical, tailored for their business and met UK Government advice,” the company revealed in a statement to SpecFinish.

Following a robust audit, which continues to run, some SIGD branches have, over the past three months, undergone significant reorganisation to ensure employees are correctly distanced throughout all aspects of their daily activities. Trade counters carry the now familiar direction of traffic, social distancing markers and counter screens and each site has to achieve a minimum audit score to increase head count from the initial skeleton crew.

During lockdown, with many sales staff continuing to work remotely, SIGD offered training programmes to staff for upskilling, which it said had favourable uptakes, with 223 hours of training and 887 individuals attending sessions during April and May alone. SIGD is now fully open, with a phased opening of its trade counters getting back to full staff attendance.

“Unprecedented intrusion”
Acoustic ceilings manufacturer OWA UK has remained open for business throughout and offered increased flexibility to deliver to sites because many of its major customer outlets were closed.

Managing Director, Andrew Smith, said: “I remember the date that it really hit home, after I had packed my bags one Sunday evening for a four-day trip to the OWA conference at our head office in Amorbach, in early March, to then receive a call from our group MD, Maximillian von Funck, to say that we were not to fly but instead the conference would take place remotely via GoToMeeting. That was in the first week of March, before lockdown had properly started here. It was the start of a strange and worrying time.”

Describing the virus outbreak as “a hugely disruptive and unprecedented intrusion in to our lives”, Andrew questioned whether the industry had been negatively impacted by media scaremongering, and the full extent of closure had been absolutely necessary. “Few would disagree that operations and processes would need to be adapted but some manufacturers stayed open whilst others chose to almost entirely freeze. Some distributor groups closed for many weeks, except for skeleton crews being allowed to service ‘essential’ projects such as hospitals. Others stayed open to a much greater extent. Gypsum board production almost stopped from leading suppliers so interior fit-out activity was highly limited whilst ceiling systems were available as normal but site activity had mostly stopped abruptly,” he said.

“The government gave inconsistent advice too, sometimes using phrases that suggested sites should open, then at other times talking only of ‘essential’ sites. OWA UK management then learned that construction activity in some other western economies had largely remained at normal levels.

“Why would international distributors and manufacturers deem it safe to operate in Germany but not here?” He said architects seem to be as busy as ever, designing smart interior spaces, and OWA had continued to engage with them by video call.

“This way of communication will probably stay for good. The OWA team, like those of many other organisations, is now far more proficient at arranging and handling meetings by video, whether via Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting or Cisco Webex,” said Andrew.

“Working from home has also been a revelation as the entire OWA UK team vacated the UK head office in Egham in March. We now meet daily by video with our teams to share information and many have commented that we actually communicate better now than before when we were physically attending the office.

We are already concluding that we will not be returning to the office in the same way ever again, with much more home working of pretty much all job roles and probably with a much smaller office in the future or flexible meeting spaces in the future.”

He urged others in the industry to use this time to look at new innovations and marketing strategies.

“It’s been an interesting, challenging and uncertain time over the past few months and the end of the corona story is not yet here but there are many opportunities for those that remain awake, alive and adaptable,” he said.

London-based AbsorbaWall Ltd is one of those companies that has chosen to change its business focus in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The company is known for its acoustic expertise and products but it has taken on a new focus since the crisis, concentrating instead on providing protective screens to shield clients’ employees from the virus.

Managing Director Mark Cox said this had enabled his own business to keep operating, while helping client businesses also get back on track.

“In these unprecedented times our main core of business has almost been put on hold owing to the majority of sites and refurbishments being temporarily suspended,” he said. “Fortunately manufacturing capabilities have allowed us to provide our clients with a complete range of ‘SafeScreen’ protective screens that have, and are, assisting clients to get staff back to work safely.

“The pandemic has had a massive impact on many businesses, with the office interiors sector being almost put on hold owing to furlough of staff or remote working. Having said that, we are seeing a number of projects looking to re-start in the near future. Hopefully soon we can get back to some kind of normality.”

Positive responses
Business Operations Director of Tapper Interiors, Helen Tapper, who is also President of FIS, said the design of the company’s head office had made it easy to comply with social distancing, with glass partitions separating working spaces. Therefore by sanitising door handles and surfaces and restricting access to kitchens and toilets, business had been able to continue there.

“We also restrict access to the offices for deliveries and maintenance and no site operatives are permitted to enter. Tool box talks, which did take place in our training rooms here, are now conducted in the yard and in individual teams,” she said.

She said the updating of processes and operations had been time consuming and challenging, particularly on-site procedures, but operatives had been “incredibly receptive and helpful” and were genuinely pleased to be working. “They have also embraced the new cleanliness regimes as it gives them the security of keeping themselves and their work colleagues safe,” she said. “We have had to identify our ‘danger’ points, where operatives may, for very short periods, come within 2m of each other and try to minimise this. Where this is not possible, the correct PPE needs to be provided, as well as hygiene kits to sanitise, once the danger points have been completed.

“We also run a fleet of vans, so operatives have been placed in teams that travel and work together and never have contact with other teams. The vans also need to be kept scrupulously clean and well ventilated,”.

The company has seen a big surge indemand for glass partitions to provide screening for staff, and she believes this will help to improve the working environment permanently.

“The positives that we can all take away from this crisis is that the sector has been fast to respond, has been incredibly cooperative and collaborative and demand does not appear to have dropped as much as feared,” said Helen. “Many FIS members are reporting full order books and cash appears to be flowing fairly freely. This does not mean that some contractors are not indulging in unfair payment practices – we have certainly seen occurrences of this – but overall the financial situation is much better then we predicted at the start of the crisis.”