Hybrid working is delaying projects, says infrastructure boss

Infrastructure projects are being delayed by up to a year as a result of hybrid working, according to the government’s chief advisor on major schemes.

Nick Smallwood, chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), told MPs that projects including HS2 are being slowed down as a result of designers working at home instead of in the office.

“I’ve seen a significant extension of design duration on projects as a result of hybrid working,” he told the Treasury Select Committee, which is carrying out an inquiry on infrastructure, on Tuesday (14 November).

“Where you had designers in one office all working collaboratively together, the durations were pretty normal. What we’ve seen post-pandemic is a nine-to-twelve-month extension of those durations.”

He gave hybrid working as one of the main reasons HS2 had started to “flash red” in the summer when it was declared unachievable by the IPA.

However, he said he believed it was causing delays in infrastructure projects across the board.

“They are all impacted in the design phase if those designers don’t work directly in the office,” he said.

Smallwood also said the Construction Playbook was helping to create alliances and integration partners to work together on infrastructure projects, rather than individual contractors working in isolation.

“We want the main tier one contractors to do far more to integrate across the whole of the supply chain rather than just subcontract,” he said.

Pockets of excellence in this area were now being seen, said Smallwood, with joint venture partners working on HS2 phase one delivering “outstanding results” using digitalisation.

“They’re starting to show what’s possible in this country – we’ve got to do more of it and consistently more on every major project,” he said.

Smallwood also said that post-pandemic the construction sector had been “pretty unproductive”, with very small margins and a lack of investment in technology and people.

However, he added a lot of good work had been done on the creation of the playbook, which aims to reset expectations and focus on better outcomes and more profitable work for contractors.

“We’re on a journey, we’re not there yet, but where the principles of the playbook have been applied, we’re seeing some really great results,” he said.

“We’re moving away from zero-value framework agreements where people don’t actually have committed work, to really focusing on teaming up and partnering with people to do an amount of work that gives them confidence and certainty over a period of time in which they can invest in people and technology.”

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