The UK construction industry has produced many world class projects over the last 12 months. For instance, the new V&A museum on the Dundee waterfront is formed of stunning reconstituted stone panels, mimicking the Scottish cliffs.
Meanwhile, the RIBA Stirling Prize has just been awarded to the Goldsmith Street council houses in Norwich, for setting a new standard of sustainability in mass housing.
Undeniably, construction remains at the heart of life in the UK. But construction firms around the country are facing challenges, particularly when it comes to productivity – which has barely improved in the last twenty years.
Technology adoption in construction is growing, and there’s an enormous appetite to improve how the sector works. So, one year on we’ve surveyed construction professionals again, to explore how productivity challenges are changing – and whether technology is starting to address construction businesses’ performance problems.
The Importance of People
At its simplest level, the performance of every construction business comes down to its people – but workforce shortages have been impacting the sector for some time. UK firms struggle to recruit for one in three roles, giving construction the most acute talent shortage of any industry.
Notably, this is impacting performance on the ground. Construction professionals most commonly point to a lack of skills (40%) and talent shortages (39%) as the main barriers to productivity in the business, mirroring their views in 2018.
With talent in short supply, it’s even more important for UK construction firms to get the most out of every worker, but motivating employees appears to be difficult. Poor engagement even leads to absenteeism, which one in ten firms describe as an “ongoing management headache.”
Information sharing and communicating with the team on-site were key challenges for firms 12 months ago, and professionals report ongoing challenges today.
Over a quarter say that lacking the information they need on-site is the single biggest factor impacting their productivity (28%) – and delays caused by inefficient processes are a problem for over half of businesses (55%).
Critically, poor information sharing can lead to mistakes and costly rework. Half of firms report that fixing mistakes is a major source of unnecessary time (50%), and it’s estimated to cost the UK industry £21bn a year.
Communication issues can also cause challenges in working with other UK construction firms. Coordination and scheduling errors are a barrier to productivity at one in four firms (24%).
Without a reliable single source of truth, it’s common for tension to arise between businesses – and impact performance. The majority of firms agree that a lack of trust between contractors and subcontractors often impacts performance on jobs (60%).
Last year, mistakes and misinformation were linked to the continuing use of paper to share key data on-site. However, there seems to have been little progress on going paperless.
A fifth of UK construction firms say that their projects are entirely paper-based (19%), which is consistent with the figure of 22% in 2018.
At the other end of the spectrum, only a small proportion of businesses use paperless technology for three quarters or more of their projects (13%).
Where digital tools are used, they often aren’t integrated into the rest of the business and cause their own process problems. A quarter of professionals say that transferring data between IT systems is one of the biggest time wasters in the business (23%) – and only 7% use a single system to manage the whole construction process.
Furthermore, there are signs that many firms don’t see technology as a strategic focus. A quarter of businesses admit to having a complete absence of technology strategy (26%). Meanwhile, only 50% of professionals say that improving digital skills will be a focus for the business over the next three years.
How UK Construction Firms Can Lay the Digital Groundwork
The right technology can bring significant productivity gains to construction businesses. On-site tools can make it easier to share timely information with the team on-site, reducing mistakes and delays.
This can also streamline collaboration, providing a single source of truth for firms to work from and simplifying communications with everyone from the architect to client at handover.
And critically, on-site technology can help to alleviate the daily frustrations that many employees face, boosting engagement and helping to maximise talent at a time when it is scarce.
Technology will offer incredible opportunities for firms in the future and underpin even more impressive and complex projects in the UK.
But to get there, construction businesses will need to overcome the productivity challenges that have remained consistent over the last 12 months. By laying the digital groundwork, firms can be ready for a bright future.