COVID19 is fundamentally changing the way construction teams communicate, interact, and work. Although some states and provinces have suspended non-essential construction projects, many are still in full swing. Owners, project managers, and superintendents are doing everything they can to adhere to ever-changing government requirements and to keep their teams safe.
Many have looked to FieldChat, a messaging app purpose-built for construction teams, as a way to keep direct lines of communication on a job site open in a world where face-to-face interaction is limited. While this post is not about FieldChat, we want to let you know that we're giving FieldChat away for free to construction teams in the United States and Canada until June 1, 2020. Please reach out if you have any questions.
The FieldChat Team
“When you say grab a shovel and dig,” grumbles an anonymous worker at a large construction company on the employer review website Glassdoor, “don't be surprised if we don't dig where you want, as deep and long as you want, and [we] are full of questions and confusion.”
Such complaints are commonplace on job sites. When questions and confusion abound, the leading culprit is usually poor communication. Poor communication makes projects unprofitable - it often results in re-work, delays, and creates unhappy relationships and possible disputes with owners, subcontractors, and team members. A 2018 study by FMI estimates that poor communication represents a potential cost to the U.S. construction industry of $17 billion a year.
Project leaders can address this by working hard to create an intentional culture of communication on every project. When communication practices are established at the very beginning and reinforced through example and repetition, it can deeply influence how well teams communicate and execute. And that’s good for the bottom line.
Here are seven communications best practices drawn from high-performing construction teams:
1) Establish and publish key points of contact for every team
Publish a contact list for every person in a supervisory, leadership, architectural, consulting or engineering role who is directly involved in the project. Who is the point of contact responsible for the work being executed on the job site? Who is the point of contact responsible for a bid? Who is the executive sponsor? Who are the owner representatives? Who are the key vendor contacts? Publish email and mobile phone numbers for each of these contacts, and make sure everyone has easy access to this information.
2) Define chains for both formal and informal communication
Formal communication requirements are typically spelled out in contract documents, and are executed through structured documentation like submittals, requests for information, change orders, etc., usually with specific turnaround times for response. However, it’s the informal communication chains where much of the actual job site execution happens. How will contractors share and communicate information about manpower, task execution, inspections & permits, site instructions & deliveries, or issues with quality and safety? How well teams work together can be profoundly influenced by how effectively this type of information is shared.
3) Get everyone bought in
Often people come into a new project with a strong point of view around how a project should be run and how teams should communicate. Fresh ideas and points of view are good, but ultimately, project leadership needs to ensure that everyone is communicating using the chains you've defined. Lead by example. For instance, if someone leaves you a voicemail with an important update that should have been shared as an instant message, push the communication back into the correct channel. If patterns are established early in the project and continually reinforced, people will eventually jump on board.
4) Design your communications to strike the perfect balance between too much and too little information
Project managers and superintendents should not be a bottleneck to the flow of important information. On the other hand, over-sharing information can overload team members, resulting in messages that get ignored. The trick is to find the right balance and to choose the right tools so that the right people are included in every conversation, without being too overwhelming. Many teams have seen success with daily huddle meetings – typically a five to 15 minute meeting with key people, responsible for executing the plan for the day, as another vehicle for sharing timely information.
5) Set the expectation that important information should be communicated quickly and accurately
Information that is delivered late or is inaccurate will lead to re-work and waste. Hold teams accountable to communicate relevant, important information the moment it happens. This ensures that everyone who needs to know or is impacted by the information can make necessary adjustments to keep the project running smoothly.
6) Foster honest, respectful, and positive communications
Leaders recognize that most people have pride in their work and want to behave in a professional manner. They don't attack someone if there is a problem - rather they ask a lot of questions and offer support. They never blame or shame, and stay relentlessly positive.
7) Choose the right platform
Daily huddles are great for discussing the plan of the day and for sharing timely information. On the other hand, phone calls or in-person conversations are appropriate for relationship building, apologies, confidential matters, or complicated discussions. But telephone tag is inevitable and wastes time - and everyone hates voicemail. Email is appropriate when a formal documentation trail is required, but many people already receive upwards of hundreds of emails a day, so it is not a great medium for short questions or updates. Text messaging works fine for 1-1 communications, but there is no central history. Group texts are hard to manage and don’t work well across different companies. Instant messaging software (such as FieldChat or WhatsApp) can be a better alternative for real-time communication.
In summary, great project communication won’t happen by itself. Indeed, some of your best performers may not have particularly great communication skills, and will need help and encouragement to improve their methods. You can influence behavior only through hard work and deliberate intent. It’s in your hands to lead the charge by exemplifying the right way of communicating. Good luck!