ESICA Contractors Meet the Challenges of a Changing Workplace
Tuesday, August 11, 2020
It’s a whole new world out there and ESICA contractors are showing amazing resilience and strength at every turn.
We recently spoke with four contractors who are eager to share their insights on the impact of the crisis on their business and the different ways they are coping. From embracing new technologies to working remotely … from strict cleaning protocols to enhanced protective equipment, these contractors continue to overcome difficult challenges and move forward.
Here are the experiences of Scott Grant, President of Insultech, John Lamberton, COO of Irex Contracting Group, Jerry McCaffrey, Treasurer and Partner at Thermal Solutions, and Ray Levesque, VP of Operations, B.C. Flynn Contracting.
ESICA: What are the challenges and opportunities you have faced during this crisis?
Scott: We were very fortunate – we never had to shut down operations. In the early months we altered our work crew schedules on larger jobs, splitting the crew to 10 men at a time on a 20 men crew. That went on for two weeks. Now we are almost busier than before the crisis. I think that owners were afraid of job shutdowns, so they pushed to get things done.
John: We have felt the impact of Covid-19 in just about every market. Some, like NY and the NE were hit especially hard. Revenues in those markets were down in excess of 50% but have since rebounded to near pre-Covid levels. Other areas that rely heavily on the petrochemical markets remain soft and are likely to stay soft for the foreseeable future. Covid has also forced us all to work remotely and to establish new procedures for when offices reopen. Fortunately, the Irex companies were already quite far along when it came to remote working and the use of the cloud.
Jerry: We have been very lucky We only lost 1 week in the beginning of the crisis. At the time, we were in the middle of many hospital projects that have continued on. Hospitals needed to get up and running, and we are essential to that. By the end of the first week I had five people come back … the third week another five with 10 people at various locations. Many entrances at the hospitals were shut down, with only one entrance open for patients. We were working in mechanical rooms, at a distance from those who were ill. While some of our workers were reluctant to come back, by the end of the third week everyone returned with the addition of 6 new hires.
Ray: We found it very difficult to get the protective equipment we needed or to restock when supplies ran out. We normally keep respirators as part of our PPE to send out to a jobsite. Hand sanitizers and wipes—the items project managers were requesting -- were getting more and more scarce. On the other hand, the empty public schools provided us with an opportunity for additional construction time – our teams could now start working in the schools in March, not July, so this helped get things moving. The federal stimulus package actually was an early hurdle as workers were making as much money remaining home as coming back to work. It became more and more difficult to get people to the jobsite, limiting available manpower during the first few months of the pandemic.
ESICA: With limited face-to-face contact, how are you communicating to associates & customers during this crisis?
Scott: Our communications have gone to the virtual world. In-person meetings are not like they were. Zoom, Go to Meeting, Suite – we are using them all. Even though I am old school and I like to see people face-to-face, these virtual communications tools work.
John: In such uncertain times communications is even more critical than it has ever been. Working from home can sound great but in practice it has its challenges. The biggest being communications and social isolation. Right from the onset we established a “new routine” of regularly scheduled conference calls and video conferencing. In the beginning these calls were daily. Just trying to figure out how to implement our disaster recovery and business continuity plans in the midst of a pandemic were things I hope not to ever have to do again. For a business that hadn’t developed such plans, this challenge must have been overwhelming. Today we have settled into the “new routine” and embraced the use of technology such as Skype, Teams and Zoom. We had been using these platforms for sometime but not to the level we do now. I am on some form of video conferencing at least once a day, every day.
Jerry: We communicate almost entirely via email, text, and phone calls. Before the crisis, I was in my customers’ offices twice a week, even if it was just to say hello. This all had to stop. I still went into my office with a mask after the first few weeks. Caution was the key word. Unknowns made people very nervous. I zoomed and did video conferencing with business associates, family, and friends.
Ray: As some people are more tech savvy than others, we sometimes ran into technical issues when communicating with associates and customers. Internally, we are doing far more phone conferences than ever before and we’ve done meetings on zoom.
We recently just had a zoom related meeting with ESICA. Naturally, the biggest drop off is face-to-face meeting and job walks. In the past, there would be four or five contractors on a job walk at the same time. Now it’s one company at a time.
ESICA: What are some of the practices you have put into play that might be adopted in the future?
Scott: Being insulators, we know all about respirators and the masks with two straps. Some of the more stringent requirements make it difficult for crews to work side by side and it’s not something we would want to continue after all this goes away Fit testing to ensure you are wearing masks correctly, without endangering yourself, is here to stay.
John: I think working remotely and to some degree video conferencing are here to stay. We developed a new cash flow modeling program, as a result of Covid, that we will continue to use as a permanent part of our business. We are likely to see more ways to use cloud services and other yet to-be invented ways to communicate. Where we end up a year from now will depend on the scientific community’s ability to develop treatments and a successful vaccine.
Jerry: Caution will be here for a very long while. But truthfully, I pride myself on friendship, familiarity, and face-to-face meetings. I hope it all goes back to the way it was!
Ray: Protection, caution, and social distancing will be around for a while.
Certainly for contractors in the Northeast, who were hit harder. Getting around – how we work, shop and dine – will all be impacted. I think the ways we are manning jobs for additional PTE, respirators, face shields – and tackling jobs to completion -- these considerations will remain.
ESICA: How you see this crisis changing our industry in the near and distant future?
Scott: Even when a cure is found, people will still be skeptical about getting out.
When this all began, with high unemployment, employers discovered they didn’t need as many people as they had in the office. From a commercial standpoint, this could all end up creating a lot of unused office space.
John: I really don’t know the answer to that. It seems that human beings have a short memory and that old habits die hard. That said there will be change. Again, the use of video conferencing rather than in person meetings. Less traveling just for the sake of seeing someone in person. We might see more modular construction, limiting the number of craft workers required to mobilize on a given site. Maybe even the use of robotics in some case replacing people in places we wouldn’t expect. I also worry about trade organizations. We’ll have to see how comfortable people will be coming back to large gatherings and whether or not networking with ones peers remains as important to future generations as it does to current and past generations.
Jerry: Lost time for daily testing and spacing of work areas has caused us to lower production by 15% so far. I think everybody will adjust productivity for the future. We are working on a casino and hotel in Philadelphia near the sports complex. We are seeing chips on hard hats at the site. If a worker is in close proximity to another, the chip beeps. If somebody comes back and tests positive, they can be identified and others around them notified. Employees have a good feeling about this type of alert system.
Ray: The cost of jobs are going to go up due to the need for extra protection. Based on conversations we’ve had, added personal protection equipment and social distancing are here to stay. Inevitably, it will drive up the cost of doing business.
All of us at ESICA extend a big THANK YOU to Scott, John, Jerry, and Ray for sharing your experiences. We wish you all good health and continued prosperity in these difficult times.
Featured in ESICA Review 2020, Volume 2.