The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many changes in the way contractors do business. They have reevaluated and introduced new safety protocols, reorganized work schedules to accommodate social distancing and sent many administrative employees home to do their jobs.
“Strangely enough, in construction, we never really thought much of remote working because the field really couldn't do it, but COVID made the business case,” said Eric Stenman, president of Balfour Beatty’s U.S. Buildings division. “So we took advantage of the remote working opportunities provided by the pandemic.”
But as vaccinations are being rolled out to most Americans and many offices have been equipped with personal protective equipment and layouts reimagined to promote safety for employees, construction companies are deciding how and when they will reintroduce their staffs to a normal work schedule. Or at least as normal as possible.
Clayco, a design and construction firm headquartered in Chicago, has notified all salaried employees that they will be required to report to the office on May 10 and must be vaccinated, according to Bob Clark, company founder and executive chairman. About 50% of Clayco’s office employees never left the office environment during the pandemic, he said, with 25% rotating in and out and the remaining 25% choosing to work remotely.
Out of its approximately 1,400 salaried employees, Clark said, very few have yet to ask for an exemption from the vaccination requirement. Clayco will grant exemptions for medical reasons or based on religious beliefs. The company has 400 salaried employees in the Chicago office, 600 in St. Louis and the rest at projects around the country.
There are several reasons Clayco decided to take the position it has. The company was able to complete all its work during the pandemic, Clark said, but Clayco’s leadership felt that the company was not operating as efficiently as it could with so many working remotely.
In addition, Clayco has hired 140 people since January, and it will be harder for them to assimilate working from home, he said.
“It's just very difficult to train people and to get them to understand the culture of the business when half the people may be working remotely,” Clark said.
Clayco is also considering the businesses that surround their offices. In addition to its Chicago headquarters, the company has two offices in the St. Louis area and one in Greenville, South Carolina. Clark said there are local businesses, like restaurants, that are suffering because there have been fewer office workers to support them.
Getting vaccinated and resuming full office operations also sends a message to clients that they too can work safely in their offices again, he said. Clark also anticipates that some customers will require anyone working on their premises to be vaccinated.
The mandatory vaccine policy does not apply to hourly workers or field personnel, but Clark is launching a 46-city tour of Clayco projects to encourage everyone else to get vaccinated as well.
Clark said employees at the headquarters in Chicago need a badge to enter the building and will not be allowed in unless they are vaccinated. The company will consider anyone refusing a vaccine without a legitimate exemption to have resigned.
At Clayco, Clark said the company is carefully following EEOC rules to help guide its return-to-work policies. The EEOC has set forth Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as solutions for a wide range of COVID-19-related employer issues like what to do if an employee is suspected of having the illness, ways to reduce the spread and recommended testing for antibodies.
It is the general consensus that employers can require their workers to be vaccinated as long as they don’t violate federal laws. These include the Americans with Disabilities Act; the Rehabilitation Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Employers must also comply with any relevant state and local regulations.
Back to the office?
Other contractors are taking a different approach. Turner Construction, for example, has focused on providing employees with information about the available vaccines but is leaving the decision to get one up to each employee.
“What we’re looking to do is educate people so they can make a personal choice,” said Tom Reilly, executive vice president at Turner.
There is no back-to-work mandate across Turner because, he said, the company must decide what is appropriate for each of its 40-plus offices around the U.S.
“We’re encouraging everybody to come back to the workplace, and there may be some flexibility [about] how many days,” Reilly said.
“We're being guided by actively caring for our employees, ensuring we're meeting the commitments of our clients, understanding the needs of our employees and balancing that with equity across the company so that we find the right balance,” he said.
More than two-thirds (68%) of U.S. workers would prefer a hybrid workplace model after the pandemic ends, according to Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker survey, conducted by Morning Consult in March. Of those surveyed who have been working remotely, 87% want to continue to work remotely at least one day per week post-pandemic.
Employees indicated a flexible work situation is becoming a must-have, HR Dive reported. Close to half of remote employees (42%) said they would seek a different job if their employer refuses to offer remote work options long term. Among the benefits of working remotely, employees listed saving money, cutting out their commutes, spending more time with their families, getting more sleep, improving their health and reducing their overall stress.
The desire for a hybrid workspace does not mean employees want to work remotely all the time, however. Forty-one percent of respondents said they would not want to work for a company that is entirely remote. Workers listed “feeling disconnected” and pressure to constantly remain online as challenges of the remote work model. More than half (54%) reported taking less time off and 35% said they were working more hours.
Return to normalcy
Balfour Beatty is also leaving whether or not to get vaccinated up to each employee, but, according to Stenman, company executives are leading by example.
“I’ve been fully vaccinated,” he said.
Looking ahead, Stenman said, Balfour Beatty is fine tuning what will be future flexible work guidelines with the goal of having administrative staff in the office about 60% of the time. The issue, he said, has also come up in the hiring process, with new recruits interested in being able to have remote working as an option.
Black & Veatch is trialing wearables as a means for reducing the amount of people who need to go physically to a location.
"One person can go out to the site, look at something through a wearable and others working remotely can see those same, in-real-time activities happening," said Irvin Bishop Jr., Black & Veatch CIO told CIO Dive. "People with different expertise on the team can suggest, you know what should be done and not have to physically be there all the time."
With sensor and IoT devices placed throughout the facilities, the company is hoping to reduce the need for physical presence on site and help the site directly provide information that can guide decisions.
Nevertheless, field work, by its nature, does not allow for the same flexibility as office work, Stenman said.
“These are the realities of our industry,” he said. “We understand that if you’re a junior project engineer and you’re really hoping to become a project executive someday, you’re not going to learn that at home. “
This does not mean that there will be no opportunities for a flexible schedule for those workers, however.
“We're still studying rotations for superintendents,” Stenman said. “We're including that in our flexible plan. But the criteria and I think the discussion is different in the field than it is in the office.”