Coronavirus shows collaboration is key to creating a better world

NHS staff in Essex wearing face masks produced on 3D printers by WSP.

Coronavirus has changed the way the construction industry works together and that can only be a good thing, say WSP’s Neil Swallow and Mark Coates of Bentley Systems. 

The current lockdown has gone far beyond anything seen during wartime, in terms of the restrictions that it placed on people, which include banning all non-essential travel, gatherings of more than two people, and restricting people to an hour outside their home each day.

The impact on the construction industry has been severe. As Infrastructure Intelligence reported, March’s PMI construction market figures pointed to the fastest downturn in UK construction output for almost 11 years as emergency public health measures to halt the spread of coronavirus led to stoppages of work on site and a slump in new orders.

On 7 April, Mace reopened 20 of its 80 construction sites after implementing ways of working that will allow colleagues to safely deliver construction activities while maintaining social distancing and enhanced hygiene rules. Everyone in Britain, and almost everyone in the world, has had to adapt their lives accordingly.

From Arcadis to WSP, the infrastructure sector has come together like never before to help the NHS and wider care and community groups. It is an effort that has been replicated across the country and across industries, including businesses as varied as Brewdog and Burberry to BAM and Bentley Systems.

At WSP, our project controls manager, Tim Neobard, worked with the East Essex community workshop Hackspace, to manufacture 4,000 much-needed face masks for the NHS. Our BIM model manager, Peter Townsend, is using 3D printers to make more than 100 masks a week for staff.

Bentley Systems is supporting the British Military and the UK construction industry, which includes supplying software to the British Army’s 170 Infrastructure Support Engineer Group. In addition, Bentley is supporting organisations by waiving subscription fees for its ProjectWise® 365 cloud service until 30 September.

From manufacturing 4,000 face masks in a weekend to building a 4,000-bed Nightingale hospital in just nine days, our businesses have worked on behalf of and side-by-side with the NHS and army engineers to achieve things which people would have previously not thought possible.

As members of the innovation community i3P, it is great to see our parent body Innovate UK, working in partnership with the British Business Bank and HM Treasury to roll out  GBP 1.25bn for British businesses driving innovation and development. And, thanks to the power of digital applications and collaboration software, millions of us have turned our homes into virtual offices to keep the economic wheels of Britain spinning.

WSP's Peter Townsend with one of the face masks for the NHS.

At WSP, it is business as usual. We are currently designing and modelling new railway stations, including the new Brent Cross West Thameslink Station. While people frequently talk about collaboration, this virus has taught us how to collaborate and communicate more effectively. As a project team, we are having regular calls and meetings using Microsoft Teams, and there are now more communication platforms available to help projects progress during such challenging circumstances. 

Combining virtual meeting and document sharing software, the Beaulieu New Station project team ran an interdisciplinary check (IDC) to rival the traditional in-person meeting favoured by the industry. The IDC is an integral part of Network Rail’s design process, enabling the effective integration of different designs where they interface. 

Typically involving upwards of 20 individuals, it had previously been thought that these day-long meetings are only effective if done face-to-face, not just because of the complexity of discussions that they involve, but also because of the need for clearly presented diagrams and drawings. That was until we combined Microsoft Teams and Microsoft OneDrive software to host a remote IDC for around 40 people involved in the design of Beaulieu New Station, owing to the COVID-19 lockdown.

With businesses demonstrating that projects can still be progressed, could their actions provide a new way of working post-lockdown? While we may have experience working remotely, none of us had ever worked this way so intensively for such a sustained period of time. It is heart-warming to see colleagues on video conference calls, share our stories of how we’re coping during this time, offer tips on software packages to use and ways to help each other’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Even if the coronavirus has severely limited our geographical boundaries, it has opened up people’s minds to what is possible if we work together. Before this, no one would have believed you if you’d said that you could build a new 4,000-bed hospital in the centre of London in less than 10 days. Even if the Nightingale hospitals are not used as extensively as planned, nothing should detract from that achievement.

The coronavirus has not only changed where we work, it has changed the way we work and, most importantly, it has changed the way we work together. The virus has put a strain on us all, but it has also made us realise that we are all in this together.

Let’s not revert to the old ways of working and put walls up between ourselves after this has ended.

Neil Swallow is a BIM associate at WSP and Mark Coates is a digital transformation specialist at Bentley Systems. Both firms are members of i3P, the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership, which provides a mechanism for strategically directing innovation to address the major challenges facing the infrastructure industry. Find out more at