In recent weeks, construction professionals around the world find themselves having to navigate a new type of jobsite. The sound of heavy machinery has been replaced with a distracting stream of laughs, cries, and even barks from new “coworkers,” and WFH outfits (house slippers, anyone?) have temporarily replaced tried and trusted PPE. Whether your new workspace is a dedicated home office or the corner of a couch, we are united in trying to overcome the challenges of working from home– together.
Adjusting to a remote work lifestyle is understandably new territory for the vast majority of construction employees. However, the teams and companies that adapt and thrive in this new home-based environment will be more prepared to manage projects today, as well as readying their workforce for the future.
Recently, we (via Zoom, of course) interviewed professionals at top construction companies to learn how they are equipping themselves and their teams for remote work success. We saw tiny office spaces, kitchen counters, whiteboards, and a ton of really cute dogs. But most importantly, we heard from incredible innovators who gave us hope that as an industry, we can overcome these new challenges and come out stronger.
Read, watch, and listen to what we learned:
People, not machinery or technology, are at the heart of the construction industry. A steady stream of communication and collaboration is essential for building projects both large and small. Without the opportunity of face-to-face conversations, how and what you communicate becomes even more important . Knowing this, Spencer Mullaney, Senior Project Engineer at Shimmick Construction, helped roll out a messaging platform, Slack, and video conference technology WebEx to his entire project team – all in about a week.
Spencer shared, “We want to make sure that we all stay connected and we're having, to the extent that it’s possible, the same conversation that we would have had with the same level of detail and the same level of visual support, specifically to review documents and plans that we otherwise would be able to do together in the office.”
In recent weeks, those working in healthcare, grocery stores, janitorial services, and kitchens, are rightfully being recognized for their heroic contributions. For many construction companies, IT professionals have also acted as unsung heroes working tirelessly behind the scenes to get employees working efficiently – and securely – from the safety of their homes.
“For those individuals that aren't used to it [remote work], our local IT department has been absolutely great preparing them,” commented Kelsey Stein, National Preconstruction Technology Manager, Skanska. “They've been setting them up with VPNs, Webex, ENS support, and then also providing additional cords, laptops, and even spare monitors that they can take home for their at-home offices.”
“I have to take my hat off to our IT section. They did a phenomenal job getting the entire design crew working from home,” noted Priscilla Benavides, Technical Support Engineer, New Mexico Department of Transportation on how the organization's IT department has risen to the challenge.
Mental support is just as important as technical particularly as remote workforces can struggle with feelings of disconnection and isolation. Don’t underestimate face-to-face communication, even if it’s just a Zoom call or Skype. These technologies are more powerful than you think:
“87% of remote workers feel more connected through the use of video conferencing,” says Webex.
Whether you are a manager or an individual contributor, showing empathy and support can make a significant impact on morale. “Don't forget the people who aren't used to working remotely, or perhaps their jobs within your organization are not as conducive to remote work,” said Jen Jewett, Business Analyst/Innovations Manager, Montana Department of Transportation (MDT). “Reach out to them, send them a quick link or email, and just ask them if they have any questions or need any help.”
Spencer adds, “We just really have encouraged our workforce to stay in touch. It seems that at least initially, people are a little hesitant often to pick up the phones for something that they view as a very small thing. They feel like it's intrusive, or they're a nuisance, so we've really encouraged people to continue those lines of communication.”
Rick Wood, Field Superintendent at J&J Acoustics, noted that this support also needs to extend beyond just office workers. “We've made it a point to call almost every one of our field guys to keep them engaged.” He added, “J&J has been great as far as supporting both of those in the office and the field.”
When you are working across distances, time zones, and offices, remote teams cannot rely on slow, unconnected communication, and documentation systems. Workers need to have the same information at the same time, no matter where they are. Therefore, everyone should be able to access the latest documents, plans, and data – and that’s where cloud technology comes into play.
For Nick Kurth, Manager, Virtual Construction at PCL Construction, cloud collaboration tools have already been helping connect his teams spread across North America. “We have all of our cloud services set up so that sharing information and project documentation is already in the pipe,” he said.
“Working from home has more or less just changed the chair we sit in, rather than the workflows that we operate in.”
Trussway Manufacturing is another example of one company that has already been managing a decent-sized remote workforce for some time. According to Steve Oliver, Truss design trainer, “Fifty out of 75 people on our US team now work remote, and we have an additional 25 people in Vietnam.” Previously, the company was relying on Adobe PDF files to coordinate changes with their remote team, but it was slow, and changes were often lost–a huge risk and waste of time for a remote workforce.
As a result, the company uses a cloud collaboration tool to communicate and record changes. “It’s a big deal just to put notes on a set of plans, push a button, and someone can read it immediately, whether they are in Hawaii or Vietnam,” says Oliver. “It has been a critical communication tool for our remote workforce.”
Priscilla has been utilizing cloud collaboration in the past few weeks to conduct plan reviews. “I've really enjoyed doing plan reviews through BIM 360, being able to share the screen, doing the web-based review that everybody has in front of them, and is looking at the same thing during the plan reviews.”
In recent weeks, some projects have been placed on hold due to social distancing, and for construction professionals, this means that current workloads could be slower than normal. Full workloads or not, an at-home environment can lend itself conducive to online learning opportunities and professional growth and development.
For instance, Jen has dedicated dedicating more time to learn new skills and explore technology related to her job. “I'm thinking about some of the career goals that I have, including learning about different products. I'm looking at different webinars that have come across my email. I'm rounding out my skills professionally, and just getting more knowledge.”
Managers and company leaders can also lead by example here, empowering and encouraging employees to participate in training and learning sessions remotely. For instance, J&J Acoustics is helping set up safety and technology training for its field staff, according to Rick.
Take advantage of learning and development opportunities here: Top Resources for Autodesk Construction Cloud and the Future of the Industry
In any work environment, regular breaks are essential to mental health and productivity. In a remote environment, it can be easy to get sucked into working for many hours without leaving the comfort of your couch or makeshift office.
“In an office, you tend to move and walk around a lot. You're talking to different people. You stop to chit chat for five minutes in the kitchen,” Spencer said. “I try to make a point to get outside and move for 10-15 minutes every couple of hours.”
In addition to regular breaks, setting aside time to take care of yourself and participate in a routine can help establish a healthy remote working environment. Rick added, “In the morning, I do yoga. Then I work for a few hours and touch base with everyone.”
Most importantly, managers and leaders can contribute to best practices when they lead by example. According to Nick, PCL executives have done an excellent job demonstrating leadership during the crisis. In addition to making decisions with employees' well-being in mind, managers regularly check in with staff and encourage them to take breaks.
As many construction professionals find themselves working from their homes for the first time ever, getting in the mental zone to execute among a sea of distractions is challenging. Therefore, setting up your at-home environment for success was another strategy we heard over and over again. “The best tip I have for staying productive at home is to find a dedicated work space,” stressed Kelsey. “For me I need a dedicated workspace where I sit down and do my work, and then I can get up and go to the other spaces where I eat, sleep, or relax.”
“I created a workstation in my home and that helps me stay pretty productive,” Rick also noted.
Beyond a designated workspace, Jen also equips her space with the right tools to stay productive, like her trusty whiteboard for staying on schedule and mind mapping ideas:
Remember, we are all doing our best to navigate new work environments and routines. While meeting project goals are important, an adjustment period is normal. Expecting everyone to work at optimal productivity levels while balancing home and family priorities is unreasonable. Beyond that, many employees are new to remote technology. It’s why patience is a critical value to demonstrate and encourage.
Patience can also communicate another important attribute in construction: trust. People in the construction industry are incredibly intelligent and hardworking. If you give them a tool, they will figure it out – whether that’s tomorrow or two weeks from now.
“We’re definitely trying to take this as a learning experience and let people figure out so many new tools and everything,” said Spencer.
“I have actually been pleasantly surprised with how much everybody has come around in a week. Necessity breeds innovation.”
A remote workforce in construction will only become more normal over time. Whether you are an individual contributor, manager, company leader, focus on the changes you can make today–both big and small–that help you overcome adversity and embrace a new work environment.