Features - Business

Looking Towards 2021 for UK Construction

Chris Jones, Industrial Consultant for Odgers Interim, discusses what 2021 will look like for the UK construction industry and key areas of focus going into the new year

2020 has been a seismic year, weighed down by the periods of uncertainty and disruption caused by the global pandemic. However, we can reflect back on the past 12 months and see how of the challenges presented, many have been overcome, and the result has been transformative for the construction industry. Despite deep troughs there have also been great peaks this year. This year of change and disruption can be considered a ‘reset’ period. The industry has been able to reflect on its modus operandi, has prioritised areas of improvement and undergone transformation.

Looking back over the last 30 years, the UK has largely transitioned from a traditional heavy and high-volume consumer industry to a more specialist, high tech, high value offering – and this looks set to continue. The Covid-19 pandemic has escalated the changes in consumers’ needs and expectations and even the simplest everyday tasks have digitised and been conducted from the comfort of our homes or via contactless systems. This universal move towards technology has been reflected in industry trends.

A core concern of the construction industry this year was the disruption to supply chain and operations. The global pandemic ruptured very delicate and overly complex distribution and transport networks. In response to the initial difficulties faced when the pandemic hit, businesses are now seeking to improve supply chain resilience and adaptability through technological innovation.

Going into next year, businesses will need to become more collaborative, integrated and ever more automated. They will need to become more reactive to meet the increased demands for personalisation as the consumer base shows signs of becoming more fickle and cost conscious. The use of AI technology, virtual reality, increased automation, robotics and 3D printing will be key for companies to respond to demand, as will a more integrated approach through collaboration and the sharing of technologies.

Central to this will be the role of government and other sources of financing. We have already seen through the various ‘catapult’ initiatives how businesses, government and academia can be brought together to share resources for the betterment of UK Plc. This is set to continue into next year, and beyond, as outlined in the recently published National Infrastructure Strategy, promising over £600bn across the UK over the next five years.

Funding will be even more critical post-Covid if the UK is to rebuild the economy and rebuild better – i.e., by the creation of and investment in green technologies which not only improve the economic outlook but also help sustain the environment.

Whilst the pandemic has pushed environmental issues off the front pages, they have not gone away. How to implement and improve upon sustainable practices will form a large part of how industrial businesses consider their operational future. This is not only beneficial to the environment but also proves environmental commitment to discerning customer bases.

Looking ahead to 2021, a further increase is envisaged  in demand for digital transformation professionals as the industry embraces new technologies. Furthermore, as sustainable developments will require greater collaboration going forward, we will see the need for more project and programme management skills to ensure costs and timescales are kept in check and waste minimised. These skills are already in short supply and may need to be catered for in more innovate ways by shorter term appointments or the sharing of resource across various stakeholders.

Whilst this year has not panned out the way we expected, it has been invaluable to the future of the construction industry. The global pandemic has helped organisations pivot rapidly their business model, manufacturing processes and supply chains to cope with the disruption, building new skills and strengthening resilience along the way which will stand then in good stead when it comes to adaptability and flexibility. Furthermore, by being ethical and sustainable, companies will become more attractive places to work and their products more desirable to a new generation of consumers as there are economic benefits to being green too.

2020 has brought transformation forward in the industry, accelerating the pace of change to levels never seen before. This pace cannot be lost, however, and the industry must look to maintain the momentum and continue to drive operations, processes, and people in the future.

The Industry must aim to realign the industrial strategy to meet the challenges of new technologies (and not shy away from it), and invest in green, sustainable technologies as part of a coordinated effort by government and industry. This ‘reset’ period should be used as an opportunity to create a sector for the future; one in which there are the necessary skills and talent to deliver a more streamlined, efficient and sustainable industry to drive economic prosperity.

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