Traditionally, it has been a challenge to manage office and field communications. Now the problem is greater than ever. There is a tendency for the office to only call the field when they want something or there is a problem. And vice versa, the field also tends to only want to talk to the office when there is a question or issue.
Naturally, this creates an environment of hostility, not cooperation. Throw in the fact that the fastest growing segment of the field workforce is Latino — and most supervisors are not bilingual — and you have even more of a communication challenge.
Communication problems are inevitable as neither side tends to understand or appreciate the challenges of each other’s job. Running informative foremen and lead-person meetings can help. Such meetings run once a quarter or twice a year can really help everyone know each other and avoid problems.
Show them the paperwork trail and why it is important. Paperwork is an ongoing source of office and field frustration. Many field workers did not like school and paperwork feels like a form of punishment or busy work. Don’t lecture field employees but rather bring them into the office in small groups and show them the paper trail and why it is so important. Try to make paperwork more user-friendly with checklists and less handwriting required. Construction workers are prideful and do not want to show spelling and grammar mistakes. Keep things as simple as possible. Go digital. Believe it or not, using electronic pads and less paper can actually improve paper flow and field cooperation. There are about 2.5 billion smartphones in the world and most of your workers have one.
Set common production goals. Establish milestones and monitor them. Nothing can bring people together more than a common goal. Sports teams are a great example of this. Sports team members come from diverse backgrounds but pull together with the common goal of winning. This same common goal of winning can translate to a more productive workforce. Gone are the days where employees respond well to, “Because I told you to do it.” Get everyone on the same page. And set realistic goals. Crews know when you are lying to them and setting inflated goals. Most people want to do well and reach the targeted goal.
Today’s new construction fast track and construction manager approach has made things even harder. The vast majority of CM’s have no labor. Employee construction management graduates may be good at emails and prints but rarely understand trade sequencing and the time a task requires. Through texts and emails, you can communicate instantly but it takes about the same amount of time to hang a door as it did 30 years ago. Poor jobsite coordination makes communication more important than ever.
Break daily goals into unit tasks and measure how long it takes to complete each one. For example, if it takes 30 minutes to paint a window or flash a chimney and you did four yesterday, where did the rest of the time go? Remember, productivity is more about material handling and planning than the actual speed of the craft. Work with the crews and communicate achievable production goals.
Do a better job of handing off the estimate. There is a natural tendency for estimators to go on to the next estimate or salespeople move to the next presentation. Having an informative pre-job meeting is a great way to improve internal communication skills because it is not critical in nature. Such meetings emphasize what needs to be done not what was done wrong. Pre-job meetings are much more helpful than post-job meetings. Those meetings tend to come off as criticism. No one likes to hear what he or she did wrong. A study years ago found that for every $1 spent in a pre-job meeting, there was a $4 to $5 return on investment.
Make sure sales and estimating personnel visit and intermesh with the crews. Having a superintendent or construction manager be the only management point of interaction with the field can contribute to the communication gap.
Adopting more of a bilingualism approach to management makes sense. Yes, you can mutter through. Yes, you can say they should learn English. Yes, you can use Google to translate but is it realistic, long term, to have a workforce you struggle to communicate with? Possibly, you should make bilingual part of your management recruiting priority. Spanish is one of the dominant languages in this country and finding a bilingual manager might not be as hard as you think. Think 10 years down the road, not tomorrow. Long term, building an organization that can better communicate with your field force just makes sense.
Communication is and always will be a challenge in construction. Frankly, it is something you must always work out. It will never go away but remember, profits are made in the field, not in the office.