Closing the door on a chaotic year

“Without falling into cliché mode, reflecting on 2020 and predicting what’s to come in 2021 can be difficult as no one knows what the future has in hold” is the message from RVA’s very own Richard Vann.

If you’ve not had chance to read the recent edition of Demolition and Recycling International, you can catch up here…

It’s always hard to write a reflection on the year without tripping into cliché territory. The same can be said when it comes to predicting what the next 12 months might hold in store, because nobody can ever say with true certainty what lies ahead.

All of this is undoubtedly compounded further still, when you consider what 2020 has thrown up. Most of us are tired of reading about ‘unprecedented times’ and, in truth, for many people – on both a personal and professional level – any words will simply feel trite. But it has been a year of great distress and reflect we must – it’s an important exercise at the best of times, not least now.

In the early parts of 2020, many projects slowed or were suspended entirely – at least temporarily while consultants, contractors and clients alike, paused to take stock. For most, some agile schedule adjustments and roll outs of new site protocols, meant ‘normality’ could resume fairly quickly. For others, especially those working in international waters, the ongoing travel restrictions have presented the need to reconsider entirely how assignments can be tackled.

However, as with the majority of unexpected events, the initial periods are the most challenging. So of course, the ongoing uncertainty posed by Covid-19 isn’t pleasant, and anxieties remain high for a number of colleagues, which requires considerate support from business leaders. But I’ve seen many industry professionals – particularly company owners – move on from that initial period of chaos and now default to problem solving mode.

Because yes, Covid-19 has been a massive – and tragic – event. But the only way we can deal with it – certainly at management level – is to treat it as another set of circumstances to navigate as best we can, just as we would any other business challenge.

We may well pass through the bulk of 2021 before we see any glimmers of life reverting to ‘normal’. But demolition projects will continue, and in truth, more work may arise if economic conditions accelerate asset rationalisation exercises.

So, what will we make of next year?

Organisations are now relying on technology more than ever before, accelerated of course by the need to work from home when isolating. The firms who digitally transformed their businesses some time ago – and migrated from paper-based systems to cloud communications – adapted to lockdown relatively effortlessly. Others have found it tough – as much for cultural reasons as opposed to anything tech related.

But some employers have been almost forced to trust that their teams can be productive when they are away from the traditional working environment. And a good thing to come from the pandemic, is that this is now widely regarded as the norm.

It’s difficult not to lose a sense of camaraderie when working disparately, so managers have had to don their ‘employee engagement officer’ hats to keep colleagues psychologically connected, not just practically in touch with each other. This represents a step into the unknown for many business leaders, but I don’t think this is a bad thing. ‘The way things have always been done’ is perhaps no longer acceptable.

I think a number of us in the demolition industry have consequently re-assessed our working practices. Of course, there are instances where physical boots on the ground are needed. But a 500-mile round-trip to meet a client for two hours, perhaps isn’t one. When the cost of time, travel and accommodation has been calculated – as well as the carbon impact of otherwise avoidable journeys – the rationale for some site visits no longer stacks up. The same can be said for internal meetings with colleagues located throughout the country – in short, Covid-19 doesn’t have to jeopardise communication.

Away from Covid-19, and I’ve seen some great examples of teamwork, collaboration and innovation throughout 2020. At a conference in Europe at the turn of the year, for instance, I heard how one demolition firm encapsulated an entire cooling tower with a moveable sheeted framework to minimise dust. It will have probably cost millions, but protecting the environment – and the company’s reputation – was the priority. This meant that the use of explosives was not chosen for this particular structure, as would perhaps have ordinarily been expected.

That’s not to say the explosives industry is becoming staid. Many of us will have recently read an article which explored the use of military-grade “kick and cut” charges, to bring down structures at a quarry. By removing the need for pre-weakening techniques, this approach presented a number of potential safety advantages for site personnel, although it will – as with all other specialist approaches – have limitations. This technique arguably may not be suitable on a site located in the heart of a community, for example. However, it is important to recognise the innovation, and – where the structure, application and surroundings permit – it is a great example of developing a solution to fit a specific set of circumstances.

Staying with explosives engineering, the ever-depleting level of talent within this niche discipline causes me mounting worry – to the extent where I wonder if we’ve gone past the point of no return. I’m not suggesting we won’t see explosives being used on sites over the next three to five years – of course we will, and there are some world-renowned specialists based right here in the UK who will play a part in such projects. It’s also not to say that there aren’t any examples of formal learning and development programmes in progress, worldwide – there are, certainly at company level. But I fear the number of people entering the profession, simply isn’t sufficient to keep a critical mass and avoid this demolition technique largely disappearing in the medium-term future.

Therefore 2021 will be a crucial year for lots of reasons, but while Covid-19 poses the severity of risk that it currently does, the health and safety of us all must remain the priority. For demolition firms, this mindset goes without saying anyway. I therefore look forward to seeing how the industry’s professionals collaborate, share knowledge, progress and develop, together, as the months unfold.