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Mike Smith is Managing Director (Direct), Virgin Media Business, in this latest feature he writes about how a better future can be built by the construction industry by investing in digital.

“The property industry is generally slower to take up technology and a bit more reserved in taking risks”. But as Mark Nallen, Director of Technology and Innovation at Canary Wharf Group, told us, “the pandemic allowed us as a company to embrace changes”.

These changes have been far-reaching and have come as a response to social distancing and health and safety precautions. Construction leaders have invested in digital technology to keep teams on site and homeworkers collaborating, moving projects forward.

Our research with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), which unearthed a £232bn opportunity for the UK economy, shows us that progress has been made in the construction sector. If this continues and accelerates, the industry could see a £3bn boost over the next twenty years.

But our study also highlighted a paradox. The industry’s freedom to continue with projects during the second and third national lockdowns may have actually limited its ability to digitally transform in comparison with sectors like retail and professional services. And this could mean that it lags behind other private industries hit hard by lockdowns and forced to pivot towards a digital-first operating model.

So, what does the road ahead look like for the construction sector? How can the industry make up lost ground when it comes to digital transformation? And with vaccines bringing light at the end of the tunnel, how can construction leaders switch their thinking from survival mode towards the rebound?

A glimpse of future working

Construction hasn’t been as badly affected by the lockdown as travel, retail and hospitality, but leaders have still faced challenges.

These have included supply chain delays, the temporary suspension of on-site work when the first lockdown hit, and the need to set up employees for working from home in just a matter of days when the crisis hit.

Leaders responded by investing in the cloud to enhance efficiencies and support remote online working for employees. This enabled on-site project managers and colleagues who would usually be based in the office to collaborate in real-time.

And this mass homeworking revolution has been largely successful. 46% of British businesses have seen a boost to productivity due to remote and flexible working during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020, according to Capgemini. Within these organisations, employee productivity grew by 10% on average.

And 66% of construction firms want to retain remote working options beyond the end of the pandemic, while a further 63% intend to keep flexible working, according to Sir Robert McAlpine.

Flexible working is here to stay and will be a key transformational trend over the coming decades, positively influencing 46% of all jobs by 2040 according to our research with Cebr. But this is going to take a different form from the universal homeworking many of us have grown used to over the last year.

Mass immunisation will mean that many workers, from engineers and architects to project management staff, will be able to return to the workplace, while other employees continue on site.

Employees will need to be able to collaborate seamlessly and securely across multiple locations be that at home, on the go, in the office or from new site offices as they are established. And this will elevate the importance of digital investment – especially advanced connectivity solutions designed to securely handle traffic from many different places.

SD-WAN is one such technology that can provide organisations with greater flexibility, agility and resilience. This will provide network managers with more visibility and control over bandwidth, with the ability to flex up and down according to business needs as workers move from construction sites to corporate offices to their desks at home.

Unlocking new opportunities

Widespread cloud adoption and recognition of technology’s importance in driving the Covid response has fuelled growing interest in emerging technologies.

This is promising because our study with the Cebr found that the digital delivery of services, and data and analytics are two key trends that will unlock the £232bn opportunity for the UK economy. What will this look like in the construction sector?

Building Information Management (BIM) technology can drive design and scheduling efficiencies, keep site managers updated on project progress, cost overruns, and track energy usages and wider facilities management issues before problems arise. Similarly, digital supply chain monitoring can use machine learning to help identify and prevent shortages in materials. This is likely to become more widely used in the years ahead.

The use of these technologies and advanced analytics could lead to improvements in project margins of 3-5%, according to McKinsey.

And the use of robotics will become more common across the industry. Already, an increasing number of companies are developing intelligent, multi-purpose, and autonomous robots for use in construction sites, according to Deloitte.

These robots can take on a variety of roles, from units that tackle wall rendering, to drones that can collect high-resolution data to improve land surveying services. But across applications, they speed up planning and project management, and free up human beings from monotonous, repetitive tasks to focus on tasks that really add value.

All these innovations will be underpinned by ultrafast connectivity, heightening its importance over the coming decades. Ultimately, if construction leaders chose to invest in next-generation digital infrastructure and tools to use this, they will be able to unlock limitless possibilities.

Building future prosperity

Construction leaders have a once-in-a-generation moment to take bold digital investment decisions, driving more modern ways of working that will boost efficiency and productivity, and embracing innovation.

There are short and long-term implications to making digital investment a priority. In the coming months, construction businesses which invest will make the transition to hybrid working more smoothly. Over the next two decades, organisations taking bold decisions will be the ones benefitting from emerging technologies, making up lost ground and even overtaking other industries.

The construction sector is vital to our economic success, employing nearly 10% of the workforce and contributing 7% of UK GDP. So, we will all see benefits from leaders making bold digital investment decisions and grasping this exciting opportunity to define a new everyday for their employees and customers.

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