Project managers have always taken critical roles on construction projects. Over my career, I’ve worked as a project engineer, BIM coordinator, and MEP manager. The project managers I worked alongside were essential for setting the bar on their projects, and there was no way I could have done any of my jobs in the field without them.
Yet, undoubtedly the role of construction project managers is evolving. Driven by new business models, emerging technology, and shifts in the workforce, it’s vital for today’s project managers to prepare for change and embrace the future.
The Current Role of Project Managers in Construction
At the job’s core, a project manager is responsible for managing changes on a project level. Change orders are the most time consuming and tangible factors that can affect a job and the whole outcome of a project. When change orders happen, they can affect the relationship with the client and could have a considerable impact on the schedule of the overall job.
But it’s not just change orders. When we polled our construction community, we found that managing client relationships was the biggest issue that keeps project managers up at night. Managing a client relationship can influence current and future work and is key to a project manager’s operating model.
What separates a good from a great project manager is not always so easy to verbalize. During my time in the industry, I was fortunate enough to learn from the best. I worked with some of the best project managers and superintendents out there. I was heavily focused on MEPs in the field, and the great project managers I worked with were always there to back me up when I needed a contractor to deliver results.
Most importantly, those project managers were my allies, and they were the ones that had control of their projects. These were the leaders I learned the most from. Project managers are in charge of some of the most impactful decisions made on a project, including process, team structure, financials, technology used, and methodologies implemented.
When I worked for a small contractor outside of Boston, I worked with an electrical subcontractor who would never show up to my meetings, ran behind on the coordination schedule, and, ultimately, held up other trades because we had no idea where his conduit panels or fixtures were. The project manager I was working with had a lot more power than I did, as she was the gatekeeper of all of the financials. Eventually, we got that sub to do what he was supposed to do. Still, without that project manager’s support and leadership, that sub could have set the job back with added coordination time, potential field rework, and, sooner or later, added cost to the owner.
Conversely, I have worked with project managers who have struggled with leadership. As a result, I have had to deal with a tarnished reputation, additional unforeseen added time to the schedule, and that all happens with a cost. The teams that project managers build are supporting the many moving parts of the day-to-day, the things that keep the project on schedule.
The Evolution of Construction Project Management
While it’s essential to understand the current role of today’s project manager, it is also imperative to acknowledge how that role is changing. One project manager we surveyed perhaps put it best, saying, “The reality of what we do is rooted in external forces, our teams, and how we prepare for the future.”
This future will continue to create new and exciting opportunities. But this doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen without the people behind the build and a strong foundation to build from.
As a result, project managers take on more personal and professional risk than most professionals. They also have a very important and difficult job of being the voice of a project, including for their company, to their client, and to their integrated team.
There are also a lot of external factors that are changing the landscape around construction project managers, including:
The New Normal
This includes the impact of COVID-19, our fragile supply chain, and the current labor situation. There was no way we could have prepared the world for the pandemic, and the skilled labor shortage has been ongoing for years now. However, with anything, it does cause us to explore alternative ways of doing things because there is no other option.
Right now, the industry is dealing with significant challenges in institutional knowledge transfer—folks are retiring, and not enough people are coming into the business fast enough. Millennials and Gen Z grew up with a lot of technology, and the Baby Boomers who are working and retiring communicate in a very different way. That knowledge transfer doesn’t come easy. From communication to the amount of time it takes to teach those who are new to the business, there are plenty of challenges here.
Owner expectations are increasing, and this creates relationships that can be difficult to control. With some clients, the ability to meet expectations is more demanding than others. Some owners require customized documentation that can be challenging to focus and deliver on while trying to have a successful build, manage a schedule and team, and keep the project on budget.
Embracing the New Era of Construction Project Management
With exciting industry transformations ahead, we know that the project manager’s role is going to continue to rise in importance. Today is an exciting time to be a PM, but it can also be overwhelming. So what can you learn from, pivot into, and take into account for a better future? Here are a few key strategies and tools available to help project managers navigate the future:
There’s a lot of construction technology out there today. With such a saturated construction tech market, you need to use solutions that make your job easier, not harder. It would help if you had fewer apps and more capabilities baked into one solution. Your day-to-day tasks need to work together to form the coherent story of your project’s life. All of your work and your team’s work need to connect, from preconstruction to project administration and field execution to building operations.
Enhanced Project Tracking
Project managers make impactful decisions many times a day. You need technology that allows you to plan and monitor projects progress better from the get-go. It’s also no mystery that prefabrication is becoming more prevalent in the construction space. Imagine if you had pre-approved submittals and building units inspected before arriving on site? This would enable you to invest more time into the preconstruction phase for enhanced project planning.
Data is central to your operating model. Analytics will also play an increasingly important role in preconstruction. When artificial intelligence capabilities are applied to project data, it produces predictive analytics (like performance, potential risk, and comparative insights). Access to this insight allows you to manage data and build a better jobsite based on the factors that occur on the front end of the job—not just looking back at lessons learned.
Transparency and accountability are vital components of building a team, and a project manager has an obligation to facilitate that. This requires tools that provide them with the right insights and data to monitor quality, safety, and cost on their projects. Connected solutions like Autodesk Construction Cloud reveal not only the current status of your projects but it also tracks insights across many projects from sector to location.
Better Team Support
We all know that if one person falls short, the team falls short. As a unit, the project team is wholly responsible for the output and supporting each other. This requires leaders to build a culture of trust. Your team shouldn’t wonder, “Is my job safe? Am I able to learn from mistakes safely? Can I ask questions? Is there a sense of psychological safety?” Project managers can use technology as a tool to build this environment for their teams. For instance, with Autodesk Construction Cloud, you can access the historical information associated with all parts of your project, including sheets, issues, photos you’ve taken, and any tags, even within RFIs you generate. This allows many eyes to monitor the progress of the job, making it easier to support internally and externally.
Transforming with the Industry
The construction industry has made massive transformations in the last decade, which has changed the role of the project manager. The only certain thing is change itself, from external factors like rising costs and the labor crisis to internal factors like cultural shifts and increasing project demands. When all is said and done, and you lock up your trailer at the end of the day, how will you choose to arm yourself for the future?
Want to advance your career and skillset in project management? Construction project managers are encouraged to check out the Project and Cost Management Master Class, where you’ll learn ways to overcome the hidden issues that impact your bottom line.