Collaboration – whether it happens in-person or in a digital space – is crucial in construction. While the contributions of individual team members matter, projects are only successful when team members and stakeholders can come together to solve problems and coordinate work.
A heightened and immediate pressure has emerged for construction teams to collaborate remotely and virtually. But considering that some contractors are new to the concept of virtual collaboration, how should they set their teams up for success?
Recently, we asked those who are developing technology tools for the industry to share their top strategies for successful virtual collaboration. Below we’re sharing their insights as well as the leading industry resources to help teams to collaborate virtually today.
Communication is the cornerstone of all collaboration. Stephen Smith, Co-founder and Head of Product at FieldChat, a messaging app purpose-built for construction teams, noted, “It [all] boils down to communication. As construction companies are trying to reduce non-essential in-person meetings, tools that can facilitate all aspects of communication are needed more than ever.”
For many construction companies, virtual communication comes in many forms, with needs varying between teams and individual contributors. “Whether it is collaboration technology or video conferencing, teams need more options to connect,” added Stephen.
To help firms bridge communication gaps in the current environment, FieldChat is offering construction professionals in US and Canada free access to its platform through June 1, 2020. Geoffrey Gualano, Head of Marketing, explained, “Whole communication patterns are changing. We want to do everything we can to be helpful for construction teams in this time of need. Right now, it’s not our concern if they keep using our product after June or not. We just want to help them weather this storm by enabling them to connect today.”
If you have ever tried to collaborate on a static document such as an email attachment, you understand the perils and frustrations of working from outdated and duplicate versions. “Having a single source of truth is more important than ever in today's world,” said Angel Say, CEO and Co-founder of InsiteVR, a company that provides virtual reality tools for the construction industry.
When it comes to virtual collaboration in construction, teams benefit when they work from the same source of data and information. To highlight an example, Angel cited the importance of working from a single source of truth for BIM data: “Construction teams should aim to dramatically reduce ambiguity in which model is the ‘right one.’” Using tools like collaborative VR technology can greatly enhance the trust in project-wide models and ensure decisions can be made swiftly and with confidence.
Rafael Lucero, Senior Consultant - AEC, Professional Services at Esri, reinforced the importance of centralizing project data and information.
“It is important that all project participants have access to a single source of truth for construction data, and that site data is accurate and up-to-date.”
Beyond making data reliable, a single source of truth also allows construction teams to deploy advanced technology that further enhances virtual collaboration. As an example, Rafael noted, “tools that allow project participants to collaborate in a 3D environment with geospatial context and using a variety of different data formats will enable more efficient and effective coordination meetings.”
Angel also added, “With a solid BIM execution plan and single source of truth, project teams can begin to dive into technology like virtual reality, augmented reality and AI-assisted site monitoring.”
“Whether you're in the office, at home, or visiting a client, you need to access all of your files and documents,” shared Gabe Paez, CEO and Founder of The Wild, an immersive reality remote collaboration platform for teams working in architecture and design.
Cloud-powered technology helps create a single source of truth for documents and data by enabling access. Gabe continued, “The foundation of virtual collaboration is about access – access to content, people, and locations, anywhere and on any of your devices. The first step to achieve this [access] is to get content in the cloud.”
When all data and documents are available on cloud-powered, connected construction platforms, teams can access their information from anywhere – whether it’s on a mobile device or from their home office. A strong data foundation can also open up opportunities for immersive types of collaboration, such as in AR or VR, through innovative technology integrations.
“Don't try to replace physical proximity with meetings,” stressed Gabe. “The minute you work from home, some companies and managers will try to reschedule a recurring meeting every day. You're just trying to replace the office with meetings, but it’s not going to be effective.”
He instead suggests embracing asynchronous communication -- when you send a message and don’t expect an immediate response. “There are different ways to create asynchronous communication and collaboration as a business. Email is one method we have been using for years. New products like The Wild provide both meeting and asynchronous spaces to collaborate in an immersive space.”
“Today, there are all sorts of new workflows that are asynchronous in nature that don't depend on everyone working a rigid 9-to-5,” shared Gabe.
“I think this is going to expose a new level of flow and trust amongst team members because they're able to work in a more flexible way during the hours they're the most efficient.”
Even in real-time, it’s important to accept that collaboration might feel completely different virtually than it does in person. “We are seeing the shift from daily standups to smaller group meetings,” said Stephen. “Teams are learning new ways they want and need to work together and connect, even if it’s on a smaller but effective basis.”
“With the amount of tools that are readily available, it can be all too easy to quickly download technology with a slick interface and start to on-board teams,” said Christian Claus, Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Partnerships at HoloBuilder, a company that provides 360° reality capturing solutions for construction projects.
Nevertheless, he urged teams to first take a step back before virtual collaboration technology is deployed. “From a data perspective, security is essential in the building industry. Before you just swipe a credit card, figure out if the tool complies with your company’s data and security policies. There are a lot of factors that need to be carefully considered. Remember, there’s a quick way to bridge the gap and then there's a right way.”
Once you confirm a tool complies with your company’s security policy, an important next step is to consider who will be using it and how. If your company is bringing in a range of professionals from various business divisions or other contractors to collaborate virtually together, you need to level the playing field for adoption. Generally, for tools that facilitate basic communication, technology that requires little to no onboarding resources will be adopted faster.
“Having technology that is simple to use is essential to getting teams to connect virtually,” noted Geoff.
“Don't get carried away buying the fanciest, most expensive tech just because you can,” added Angel. “Think about the project end-users and make sure they can get into a virtual meeting without needing IT to set something up every time.”
Virtual worlds are easier to access than ever before. In construction, new technology can make plans and drawings come to life, as well as capture and immerse workers in current site conditions. As a result, these innovations can empower incredible levels of collaboration and coordination.
According to Rafael, the capture of high-resolution, georeferenced, 3D data with a drone can help create powerful collaboration workflows. “By using modern virtual collaboration systems, coupled with accurate and up-to-date imagery and data from the construction site, all stakeholders can be equipped with the necessary information to have informed and productive discussions,” he said.
Laser scanning and 360-degree reality capturing technology like HoloBuilder are other solutions for capturing and interacting with virtual site conditions. “When teams are at home or don’t have access to a physical worksite, [virtual] documentation, preferably in 360-degrees, can still help drive processes forward,” shared Christian. “Combining [virtual documentation] with video conferencing is also very powerful. When you can share and join one screen that has a 360-degree view of a project, teams can do virtual walkthroughs together and plan to put work in place once they can access sites again.”
Virtual reality is also becoming more popular in the construction industry, including for remote teams. With the right hardware at your disposal, teams can improve communication and collaboration by reviewing models in a virtual environment – even before anything has been built.
Angel shared, “In virtual reality, you're not bound by the laws of physics. This means project teams can easily fly into places that would be really hard to access or place themselves in congested areas that need a thorough review. In virtual reality, you can walk through an unbuilt project at a 1:1 scale – you can't do this in real life unless you have the budget and time to build full-scale mock-ups or wait until the project is built but by that point, any necessary changes are far more expensive.”
The tools (and the people/companies that use them) that facilitate virtual collaboration in construction today will help advance the industry now and into the future. Contractors who continue to keep a pulse on new innovations that empower flexible workforces and virtual teams will remain ahead of the curve.
Christian cites artificial intelligence and robotics, such as Boston Dynamics’ Spot, as an area to watch for the future. “Having a robot walk and document the site remotely will be a compelling technology that firms will consider for future planning.”
There is an abundance of resources available to help construction teams improve how they collaborate – whether in the office or remotely, especially in light of today’s challenging environment. We’ve compiled some of the top ones, below: