Guest Post by Anthony Hansen, Director of Marketing, Installation Specialists, Inc. (ISI)

The commercial interiors industry runs deep and wide. From architectural and interior design to facility construction and delivery, there are countless hands and minds that create space and give it meaning. And while most major players were deemed as essential businesses throughout the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not (and is not) business as usual.

This new reality also applies to installation teams across the country whose critical skillset is required prior to client occupancy. As their project partners’ challenges gain momentum and magnitude, installers are navigating this new reality with notable calm, great agility, and—quite frankly— an increased cost of doing business.

Manufacturing Shutdowns

Commercial furniture and architectural wall system production encountered a series of setbacks over the last few months. As countries battled COVID-19, raw materials were affected, and the supply chain was hindered. Obtaining product from overseas or parts to manufacture domestically was sporadic at best. This led to extreme lead times and delayed orders early in the pandemic. Installers had less product arriving at their warehouses, which meant less product to install on site. In instances where large floorplates were being populated, strategic planning with the furniture dealer and client was necessary to accommodate short shipments.

This of course caused (and continues to cause) a ripple effect: new plans and installation drawings are needed, additional handling and trip charges are incurred, and short-term furniture rental options are investigated to ensure that clients can move in on-time. Issues with product availability continues to wreak havoc on schedules and logistics.

Warehouses Beyond Capacity

A perfect storm has manifested in warehouses across the country. As manufacturer assembly lines restart, products are shipped to installer docks with little regard to installation date. And there it sits. Much product is unable to be installed due to city or building-specific shutdowns, or it is held in limbo as dealer partners work with clients to revise floorplans per everchanging recommendations. Meanwhile warehouses fill with new inventory.

Concurrently, extraordinary amounts of existing product are returning to installation warehouses as clients S-P-R-E-A-D OUT to make way for socially spaced floorplans. Some of that product is noted for disposal but the majority is earmarked for long-term storage. Warehouses and the staff to manage them come with very real costs to installation companies.

Staffing for the Unknown

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for installation teams is that there is zero planning power in a pandemic. How does a company ensure adequate manpower at a time that projects are cancelled indefinitely or rescheduled daily? At locations with multiple trades working, it takes just one person to exhibit symptoms and the entire site is shut down. This affects critical timelines and effectively removes multiple installers from scheduling for days as they are tested (and cleared) for COVID-19. Crew headcounts must also be reduced to ensure social distancing.

End dates for schedules rarely change. Any hiccup with staffing due to the pandemic during construction can force installation companies to enlist second and third shifts. This of course comes with additional overhead and labor costs which are rarely accepted with open arms by the client. 

Installers are literally the backbone of commercial interiors. Ensuring a healthy workforce that can withstand the peaks and valleys in scheduling during the pandemic is paramount. This leads nicely to the next challenge…

Flattening the Curve

Installation companies must do their part to help flatten the curve around the country. Unlike furniture dealers and manufacturing partners, installers are in the field and their risk of exposure to sickness is amplified. Great steps must be adopted and practiced without exception to safeguard employee health and livelihoods and overall company reputation. Considerations and implementation of the following may vary based on geography.

  • Mandatory PPE: Face masks should be worn consistently and constantly in the field as well as warehouse/corporate office. Masks must cover both mouth and nose.
  • Daily Temperature Checks: Each team member should complete a daily health survey and have his/her temperature taken. If symptoms are present, self-isolation is required until testing and clearing of COVID-19 is completed.
  • Contact Tracing: Thorough documentation of workers and site visits should be maintained so a contact tree and communication can be created quickly if an employee tests positive.
  • Minimized Interaction: Drivers at an installation company are critical links between office/warehouse and field teams. To reduce risk of contamination between the groups, drivers perform should perform contactless delivery services. They should refrain from entering client buildings or company warehouses. Paperwork should be digital in nature.
  • Disinfection and Sanitation: Product leaving a client site should be disinfected by the client before loading. Upon product arrival at warehouse for disposal or storage, additional disinfection should occur. Team members that handle product should do so wearing gloves in addition to face masks.

Cost of Doing Business

All partners in the built environment are feeling the pressure to perform and are absorbing additional costs to remain operational amid the pandemic. The challenges outlined in this article have real financial implications on an installation team and can include the following depending on company size and location:

  • Printing costs for revised installation drawings
  • Additional wages to provide COVID training, conduct additional safety meetings and perform daily health screenings
  • Increased PPE line items to include thermometers, face masks/shields, and gloves
  • Sanitation costs for product leaving sites and/or being disposed
  • Warehouse overflow rental costs
  • Second and third shift installer wage premiums
  • Carrying costs for delayed/unpaid invoices as clients conserve cash

Where Do We Go from Here?

Installation teams everywhere are leaning on each other to share best practices and navigate the choppy waters as a united team. In addition, dealers and manufacturers are adapting and evolving to improve the furniture specification and fabrication chains. Without an end to the new protocols implemented due to COVID-19, installation companies must focus on accuracy and efficiency to weather the storm. The industry will change. But against all odds it will emerge, as it always does, stronger.

Anthony Hansen is Director of Marketing at Installation Specialists, Inc. (ISI), Chicago’s largest commercial interiors installation company.