Gary Payne explains how US construction executives will need to adapt to meet the pandemic’s challenges

Like many industries, the coronavirus pandemic has caused what can only be described as transformational change in US construction. Construction activity has continued for most existing projects but as we move into the next phase of the pandemic, it’s expected that many of the current operational and workforce changes will remain in place for the foreseeable future, especially worker safety. A number of new factors are also coming into play that will be a critical focus for leaders as the industry emerges into the new world.

Without a vaccine, all construction firms will need to implement new site measures to ensure worker health and safety. For this same reason, the likelihood of increased labor union activity in the industry is high and both factors will almost certainly lengthen project schedules and impact profitability in the short and medium-term. These challenges will need to be balanced with the redesign of supply chains, nearshoring and onshoring certain operations traditionally outsourced to China, which – pre-virus – provided an estimated 30% of all building materials in the US. At the same time, construction leaders will need to manage an increased focus on offsite construction processes that enable modular designs and the use of sustainability as a competitive advantage – two trends that emerged before the pandemic and will continue during and after it.

Safety has always been a priority in construction however, Covid-19-driven changes are adding complexities. Social distancing measures, staggered shifts, allowing only one trade on site at a time, employee temperature checks, a ban on carpooling, and mask and glove requirements at all times will take a consistent leadership focus to ensure these new safety standards are kept in place and adhered to. The ability to jump into the detail of operations and then back out to more strategic focuses will be a hugely beneficial skill in managing ongoing workforce changes.

Due to these safety measures, project timelines will only be lengthened, adding significant project cost with the potential to eat heavily into profitability. Many ‘fast-track’ strategies will no longer be viable and schedules will need to be completely overhauled. It will require executives to develop more partnership-like relationships with project sponsors and suppliers rather than the traditional client/vendor relationships, which have been ingrained into the culture of the industry for years. This requires a complete shift in leadership style; executives who are collaborative, approach relationships with a sense of ‘we’re in it together’ and are unafraid of going against the grain will have an advantage over their competitors.

Union involvement in the construction industry has significantly declined over the past 50 plus years. However, unions have yielded significant influence over members during the pandemic. What’s more, pandemic-led stimulus plans in the US have made it more economically viable for construction workers to remain home and earn unemployment benefits rather than return to their normal wages. The disincentive to work has been capitalized on by unions and their presence in the industry is growing. This is a novel situation for many executives, and they will need to gain more experience in managing unions as a result. What’s more, they’ll need the emotional intelligence, an exceptional ability to communicate and genuine authenticity to engage and motivate workforces who have serious anxieties around health and safety and can therefore be influenced by union agendas.

Widespread disruption to supply chains is another critical leadership challenge. Many suppliers up and down the construction industry supply chain are having serious difficulties remaining viable when they are unable to source or supply business critical components or materials. Strategic partnerships, buying stakes in critical suppliers who are financially struggling, offering payment in advance and sharing risk assessments, are becoming increasingly common as a result. Likewise, it will soon be a standard for general contractors to require five or more backup suppliers to qualify for a project. This will require genuinely collaborative leaders; those who can think laterally about relationships and are agile in their approach to supply chain management – especially when the future is looking like a mix of onshore, nearshore and offshore solutions.

Two ongoing trends construction executives will also have to grapple with are off-site modularization and sustainability. The former will become a standard and executives will have to develop stronger more integrated processes so that all suppliers are working with the same systems and tracking workflows that are being done in remote environments. The latter is an issue that was just recently beginning to take a foothold in the construction industry as executives realized the benefits of sustainability programs to the bottom line. However, most of the companies that have the resources to implement sustainability programs have been large, multi-national organizations; but to remain competitive, these programs will also become a necessity for small and medium sized businesses. Typically, these companies used price or sales relationships as differentiators. In the future, the quality of one’s sustainability credentials will serve as a make or break difference in landing contracts.

In our recent Leadership Confidence Index (conducted before the pandemic), only 15% of senior executives had confidence in their own leadership team’s ability to navigate through disruptive times. The construction industry will need an intense focus on leadership development efforts to meet the requirements executive teams will face in the near and long-term future. Industry executives have addressed multiple challenges over the years: labor shortages; constraints on materials and consistent force majeure incidents. However, they have never needed to make so many dramatic, long-term changes in such a short space of time. To succeed, the industry needs agile leadership thinking to manage successive waves of change, intense utilization of emotional intelligence skills that engage workforces and help bring often contentious supplier relationships into more of a true partnership, and an innovative approach to supply chain resilience. The way forward is uncertain. What is clear however, is that it will take a flexible new dynamic in leadership for companies to effectively position themselves for the immediate future and beyond.

Gary Payne is a Partner at Odgers Berndtson US. For more than 50 years, Odgers Berndtson has delivered executive search, leadership assessment, and development strategies to the world's biggest and best organizations. Odgers Berndtson's 250+ partners cover more than 50 sectors and operate out of 59 offices in 29 countries. The US wing of the firm launched in 2011 and is one of the fastest growing search firms in the Americas.

Should engineers consider human induced vibration asks Amy Hodgetts

Vibrations caused by human footfall on structures and buildings is referred to as human induced vibration. Although this might sound dangerous and cause us to think of terrifying swaying bridges and unstable skyscrapers, the impact is actually minimal, causing discomfort in those passing through. Granted, it’s not as dramatic as a collapsing building, however any engineer will want to ensure their structures are a pleasure to use — we discuss why human induced vibration must be considered within the design process.

Vibrations: resonance vs impulse
There are two main effects that human-induced vibrations has: resonant, and impulse or transient response.

In layman terms, resonance occurs when Object A vibrates at the same natural frequency as Object B. Object B resonates with this and begins to vibrate too. Think singing to break a wine glass! Although the person singing isn’t touching the glass, the vibrations of their voice are resonating with the glass’s natural frequency, causing this vibration to get stronger and stronger and eventually, break the glass. In the case of a structure, resonance occurs when the pedestrian’s feet land in time with the vibration.

That being said, impulse or transient vibration responses can be a problem on structures where its natural frequencies are too high for resonance to occur, such as where the structure is light or stiff. Here the discomfort is caused by the initial “bounce” of the structure caused by the footstep and is a concern on light or stiff structures.bridge

Of course, that’s why engineers must design to reduce the vibration effects caused by either impulse or resonance.

The potential effects human induced vibration can have
Human induced vibration effects include:

  • Interfering with sensitive equipment. Depending on the building’s purpose, what it houses can be affected by the vibrations of people using the building. Universities and laboratories, for example, may have sensitive equipment whose accuracy and performance could be damaged by vibrations. Even in ordinary offices the footfall vibration can wobble computer screens, upsetting the workers.
  • Swaying bridges. One of the most famous examples of human-induced resonance impacting a structure occurred with the Millennium Bridge. As people walked across the bridge, the footsteps caused the bridge to sway, and everybody had to walk in time with the sway because it was difficult not to. Thankfully, this feedback can only occur with horizontal vibrations so building floors are safe from it, but footbridges need careful checking to prevent it.
  • Human discomfort. According to research, vibrations in buildings and structures can cause depression and even motion sickness in inhabitants. Tall buildings sway in the wind and footsteps can be felt, even subconsciously by the occupants. It has been argued that modern efficient designs featuring thinner floor slabs and wider spacing in column design mean that these new builds are not as effective at dampening vibrations as older buildings are.
  • Jeopardising structural integrity. The build-up of constant vibrations on a structure can, eventually, lead to structural integrity being compromised. A worse-case scenario would be the complete collapse of the structure and is the reason some bridges insist that marching troops break step before crossing. Crowds jumping in time to music or in response to a goal in a stadium are also dynamic loads that might damage an under-designed structure.


Tips on how to avoid it
As touched upon above, modern designs that favour thinner slabs and wider column spacing are particularly susceptible to all forms of vibration, human-induced or otherwise, but short spans can also suffer due to their low mass. Using sophisticated structural design software is an effective method for engineers to test for and mitigate footfall and other vibrations at the design stage.

Amy Hodgetts is a content writer on behalf of Oasys, a leading commercial developer of engineering software. A content writer and web content optimiser, Ms AmyHodgetts is a graduate from the University of Glasgow, with an undergraduate MA (Hons) in English Language.

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