From the Frontlines: Lessons learned during the pandemic

David T. Lee, P.E., Vice President, Virginia Asphalt Association

Anybody Home?
Entering a typical asphalt company’s main office, one commonly finds a modern, relatively conventional place of business. Once a bustling place of significant activity, these facilities are now nearly silent throughout the almost empty halls. Today, only a handful of staff members typically occupy these relatively large buildings designed for far more, causing us to ask ourselves, “Is this the new normal?” Fortunately for the construction industry, work has continued through the pandemic and, while certainly not without some COVID-19 related challenges, for the most part, work has progressed with limited direct impact.

Teleworking Works
Most will have to admit that much of the construction industry considered teleworking, a term relegated to other sectors. This work arrangement was seldom applied to this industry. From the beginning of the pandemic, the asphalt industry quickly learned that, to successfully function through these trying times, the ability to embrace this “new” working arrangement was critical. While an adjustment period was necessary for everyone to figure out how to best implement these changes, once in place, not only did the industry find that work continued, but in some cases, efficiency actually improved. Clearly, managers could trust their employees to accomplish their work without hovering over their shoulders. Jerry Short, President of W-L Construction and Paving, stated it well when he said, “One thing we have learned from the pandemic is a lot of the administrative office staff are getting work accomplished more efficiently because they don’t have the sideline interruptions typically found in an office atmosphere.”

Before e-ticketing.
After e-ticketing.

Lines of Communication Change
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an inevitable surge in digital technologies due to the social distancing norms and nationwide lockdowns. In the not so distant past, each one of us may have been off to another meeting in Richmond, our staff asking, “What time will you be back?” and you responding with something along the lines of “early evening at best.” Openly complaining about traveling 6 to 7 hours round trip for what would likely only be a one to two-hour meeting, we often thought, “There must be a better way!” Well, some might say this pandemic has helped businesses find that “better way.” Instead of traveling those long hours to and from meeting sites, employees now walk to a computer and join a GoToMeeting or sign in to Zoom. Even conferences and training sessions are attended in a virtual environment.

While most will agree that these meeting formats are far from perfect and cannot completely replace face-to-face meetings in the future, without question, they have increased productivity. Doing business differently and using these formats will undoubtedly be a part of the “new norm.”

Furthermore, rather than walking down the hall or driving out to a project, communication becomes more reliant on phone calls, texting, and emailing. While these methods can be impersonal and seemingly cold at times, the expanded use of these communication methods has not only allowed businesses to continue to operate but has helped find ways to improve.

E-technology, clearly not a new topic for this industry, continues to grow exponentially during this pandemic. Fortunately, this is an area where the industry had already begun to move the needle in the right direction. The term e-ticketing joined the transportation nomenclature several years ago. It is slowly growing in usage and acceptance. The pandemic helped to push the accelerator on the development and implementation of this technology. Ed Dalrymple, President of Chemung Contracting, put it best when he said, “The full implementation of e-ticketing is critical to the continued efficiency improvements necessary for the success of our industry, and we have come a long way in the last few years. However, much work is yet to be done.” The practice of emailing scanned images may fill the gap for the moment. However, true e-ticketing formats, such as provided by EarthWave Technologies, HaulHub, Iron Sheepdog, and Oman, are taking advantage of the modern digital technology available at today’s asphalt plants. These systems, with full-scale integration, not only provide for proper social distancing during this crisis, but equally important is providing a means to reduce worksite hazards. David Shiells, District Materials Engineer with VDOT’s Northern Virginia District, added, “E-ticketing is a great benefit for both VDOT and industry. It allows us to put more focus on inspecting important items while also enhancing safety in these challenging times.”

Aside from the strides being made in direct e-construction related activities, the more indirect areas, such as accounting and administration, have continued to grow. The pandemic has motivated some businesses to accelerate the implementation of digital strategies. Many consumers and employees are concerned about potential exposure to COVID-19 when using contact-based payment methods. It is evident that even after the pandemic has passed, most of these electronic formats will remain as a business norm.

Some Things Remain the Same
While much has changed significantly during these challenging times, some things have remained largely the same with only minor adjustments. One example is the asphalt laboratories found throughout the industry. These workspaces are not such that they can be readily moved or altered. You cannot operate an asphalt lab virtually. However, rules still changed. For example, most labs only allowed one or two technicians (depending on lab size) in the lab at a time.

Fortunately, in many instances, only one or two technicians work in these spaces at any given moment. So, while the clean space/sanitization and social distancing steps for these spaces are implemented, other changes are limited.

Clyde Landreth, Regional Laboratory Manager for VDOT’s Salem District, put it this way, “Fortunately for us, our operation is one that is typically such that only one person needs to be in a given room at a time. It takes more coordination, but otherwise the impact has been minimal.”

Conclusion: Barriers Can Lead to Innovation
Humans are creatures of habit. As such, people tend to default to what is familiar unless something comes along to jolt them out of it. This pandemic is undoubtedly one of those “jolts.” While it can be said that removing barriers can open possibilities, this pandemic has shown that sometimes barriers can also lead to innovation and open doors that otherwise may have remained closed for many years.