The Impact of COVID-19 on Project Managers in the Construction Industry
- By Mr Moses Nyathi, Dr Simon Taylor and Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches
The global COVID-19 pandemic has presented project managers with “unknown unknowns” which will inevitably change the dynamics of risk management. Project managers in the construction industry are usually responsible for more than one project at a time. Construction project managers in South Africa and abroad will have to revisit and update the project risk management plan of each project in their portfolio. These updates or changes will be dependent on the specific project stage but will have to be made in line with COVID-19 disaster management regulations. Construction project managers will therefore have to be particularly cognisant of the updates pertaining to the COVID-19 disaster management regulations.
South Africa currently has five levels of lockdown and each has a different set of regulations. Regulations are updated at the change of each lockdown level. Selected construction project managers in civil engineering were able to operate during level four of lockdown, which ended on 31 May 2020, while others in the building spectrum are permitted to operate in the remaining three levels.
In general, a project life cycle consists of four major stages: project initiation, planning, execution and closure (Frimpong & Oluwoye, 2018). In brief, project initiation entails the approval of the construction project charter, which marks the existence of the project, and typically details high-level project requirements such as the budget, scope, schedule, success criteria and key risks. This is followed by project planning which comprises a comprehensive refined project budget, schedule, risks, scope and any other important project feature requirements. Subsequently, the project goes to tender and project execution, which entails the implementation of the project plan. The last stage of the project life cycle is project closure, when construction has been completed. Updating the project risk management plan will translate to re-examining the overall effects of COVID-19 regulations on all the project stages.
Based on the aforementioned project life cycle stages, there is a high risk of employees contracting COVID-19 in all construction projects which are currently in the project initiation, planning or execution stages. However, completed projects at the closure stage carry minimum risk. For construction projects which were either at project initiation or planning stage at the beginning of lockdown in South Africa, revised plans which now incorporate current COVID-19 regulations as well as future regulation implications have to be taken into account. For projects which were already at the execution stage, the project plan may have to be updated, taking into account the required person-hours, budget and social distancing regulations. It can be assumed that the majority of construction projects which had reached the execution stage when the lockdown commenced are currently behind schedule. Under normal circumstances, project crashing and fast-tracking techniques can be used to compress project schedule activities in order to meet the overall project timeframe.
Project crashing refers to an allocation of extra resources such as personnel and machinery to shorten the project schedule (Feylizadeh, Mahmoudi, Bagherpour and Li, 2018; Ballesteros-Perez, Elamrousy and González-Cruz, 2019). In the construction industry, it is usually achieved through an expansion of the workforce. On the other hand, project fast-tracking translates to parallel or simultaneous execution of project activities, which would previously have been executed sequentially to compress the project schedule, and applies to activities that can be overlapped (Feylizadeh et al., 2018; Ballesteros-Perez et al., 2019). Similar to project crashing, project fast-tracking will require more people to be on site to execute different project activities. In the current situation, both project crashing and fast-tracking techniques contravene COVID-19 disaster management regulations’ subsections associated with occupational health and safety, such as social distancing and curfew requirements. Therefore, construction project managers have very limited options, if any, or more likely no options, at their disposal to rectify lockdown repercussions associated with project schedule overruns.
There is a positive relationship between project schedule overruns and project costs overruns (Larsen, Shen, Lindhard and Brunoe, 2016; Plummer-Braeckman, Disselhoff and Kirchherr, 2019). The more the project is delayed, the more money will be spent on it (Larsen et al., 2016; Plummer-Braeckman et al., 2019). Some construction entities have been remunerating full-time or short-term contract employees during the lockdown, while the project that they were involved in remained static. When employees resume work, they will not complete the project on time, thereby implying that they will be contracted to the project for an additional period of time at an additional cost. In general, the majority of construction projects have been severely impacted by the global pandemic, and the reality is that there will be project schedule overruns as well as budget overruns. Inevitably, some construction projects will have to be terminated due to lack of funding because some project sponsors’ sources of finance were negatively affected by COVID-19. Therefore, construction project managers, project sponsors and consultants will have to re-plan, re-think, re-learn, adjust and adapt to the volatile diverse factors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic in order to achieve project objectives.
Ballesteros-Perez, P., Elamrousy, K. M., & González-Cruz, M. C. (2019). Non-linear time-cost trade-off models of activity crashing: Application to construction scheduling and project compression with fast-tracking. Automation in Construction, 97, 229-240.
Feylizadeh, M. R., Mahmoudi, A., Bagherpour, M., & Li, D. F. (2018). Project crashing using a fuzzy multi-objective model considering time, cost, quality and risk under fast tracking technique: A case study. Journal of Intelligent & Fuzzy Systems, 35(3), 3615-3631.
Frimpong, Y., & Oluwoye, J. (2018). Project management practice in groundwater construction project in Ghana. American Journal of Management Science and Engineering, 3(5), 60-68.
Larsen, J. K., Shen, G. Q., Lindhard, S. M., & Brunoe, T. D. (2016). Factors affecting schedule delay, cost overrun, and quality level in public construction projects. Journal of Management in Engineering, 32(1), 1-29.
Plummer-Braeckman, J., Disselhoff, T., & Kirchherr, J. (2019). Cost and schedule overruns in large hydropower dams: an assessment of projects completed since 2000. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 1-16.
Mr Moses Nyathi is currently enrolled for a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) at the Graduate School of Business and Leadership, UKZN. His doctoral research study focuses on “Managing stakeholder complexities: A model to curb project costs overruns in the construction industry in South Africa”. He holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration, Bachelor’s Degree in Project Management and a Short Course in Construction Management. He is also registered with Project Management South Africa (PMSA).
Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches, is an associate professor at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership and lectures at postgraduate and masters level in Leadership Studies.
Dr Simon Taylor is Project Manager at UKZN’s Regional and Local Economic Development Initiative, which is affiliated to the Graduate School of Business and Leadership.