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The Unconventional Guide to Work

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Building the case for technology in the construction industry

Guest Post, by Bob Drainville, president, Timesheet Mobile

Running a large construction project is likely one of the hardest management challenges that exists. The variables that can throw a project into turmoil seem nearly infinite. Bad weather, a fluke accident or regulatory/permitting issues constantly threaten to undermine a project, if not by stopping it in its tracks then by gradually eating into profits by driving up costs.

However, as is the case with other industries, building & construction work is becoming more efficient due to numerous technological advances. The sector is poised to change even more dramatically in the coming years as more construction firms adopt new tools that allow them to make much more effective use of their resources, including labor, raw material and, most importantly, time.

A consistent labor shortage

One of the most vexing issues facing the industry is the persistent labor shortage. Throughout much of the country, money is flowing into the business but relatively few workers are available for hire. That has driven up the cost of labor and put more pressure on managers to keep their operations as lean as possible. That means keeping the workforce small as well as making sure workers aren’t going overtime.

Of course, finding efficiencies in construction is clearly easier said than done. In this business, cutting corners can put people’s lives at risk. Trying to make do with fewer workers is often not an option. Nor is doing away with the lengthy and costly analysis of the construction plans to ensure that the project won’t endanger a nearby creek or that the structure won’t get blown over by a gust of wind.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that many firms are balancing multiple projects at a time. The larger the operation, the harder it becomes to ensure that you are paying wages for hours that were actually worked and that the job is being done right.   

Making workflows simple

While construction will likely remain more dependent on human labor than many other sectors, including manufacturing, the industry is beginning to reap the benefits of automation on several fronts.

For starters, just like other types of employers, construction leaders are putting in place automated systems to handle important administrative functions, such as payroll, inventory and customer management.

One compelling example is WorkflowMax’s job management system. The software is tailored to business owners tasked with managing multiple projects for multiple clients, as is the case for many builders. It allows you to track your invoices, leads, quotes and time-tracking in real-time, from any place. That represents a far cry from the traditional route of having to regularly get updates on that information from different people tasked with overseeing those areas.

The company I founded, Timesheet Mobile, similarly offers construction businesses a way to track employees and their hours that is less labor-intensive and far more accurate. Rather than having workers punch in and out at the multiple job sites, we developed an app that they can download on their own phones, so that they can punch in and out anytime, any place. And rather than hiring a bookkeeper to assemble and add up all of those timesheets, the data from the worker’s app just flows straight into your payroll system, immediately calculating what you owe and alerting you to upcoming overtime costs.

WorkflowMax and Timesheet Mobile are just two examples of technologies that are simplifying the administrative side to construction. They allow builders to save money because they naturally spend less hiring accountants and other administrative professionals to handle their affairs. But perhaps more importantly, such technology promises to make construction managers use their own time more effectively, since they are not relying on others to belatedly process and explain key information about their business to them. Instead, the managers themselves are always in touch with the numbers and able to react immediately.

Further innovations

It’s not just innovations focused specifically on project management that will have a major impact on the ability of builders to get projects done on time and on budget. A number of promising technologies will render building more adept simply by cutting down on expensive mistakes.

Geofencing is one example of an emerging technology that can help builders cut down on wasted time and spending. Those who use our time tracking and scheduling software, for instance, can put in place geofences - or virtual boundaries - around a work site so that they know whether employees who have punched in are where they’re supposed to be, thus reducing time theft. Other employers are using geofences to keep track of equipment and cut down on theft. Still others are using the technology to keep their workers safe, so that they know if there are any people in an area that is about to be rocked by a blast operation, for instance.

Drones are also transforming the construction industry for the better by doing things that would otherwise require significant manpower. Take a walk through any growing American city and you’re likely to see tiny aircrafts hovering above construction sites, taking high-resolution 3D photos that assess the progress of the project faster and more safely than human laborers.

A 2015 survey found that 30 percent of construction contractors had already worked with drones, and more recently the president of the Associated General Contractors of America said that over 1,500 construction firms were using drones on projects. Whatever the number is, it’s growing and will continue to grow as the technology develops and becomes cheaper and more accessible to firms of all sizes. As a result, builders will make fewer mistakes, be on the hook for fewer injuries and be able to get the job done with fewer workers.

Finally, another exciting technological development that could render construction dramatically more effective is augmented reality (AR). Many builders are now using AR tools of varying price and sophistication to get a better understanding of their construction plans and foresee expensive mistakes. One example is Microsoft’s HoloLens, which costs $3,000 and you strap onto your head, just like a virtual reality video game. The investment can quickly pay for itself when it helps you identify a problem in the plans that might end up costing you big in terms of wasted time, labor or material.

It’s time to embrace change

Groundbreaking changes in construction management don’t necessarily have to be associated with a technological advance. The industry is also changing for the better thanks to new ideas on how to better manage a construction business. The Lean Construction Institute, for instance, has been advocating for new ways of doing business in construction for 20 years now, focusing on what it defines as the three major problems in the industry: wasted movement, wasted time and wasted human potential.

But ignoring or dismissing advances in technology is not an option either. The efficiencies that your competitors gain by embracing groundbreaking technology will allow them to deliver a higher quality product at a lower cost. And when that’s the case, your success as a construction manager may no longer be merely challenging, but impossible.

Bob Drainville is the president of Timesheet Mobile, a GPS-enabled time tracking and scheduling company that helps businesses manage their mobile workforce. Timesheet Mobile’s solutions are used by thousands of people worldwide, in industries as diverse as construction, transportation, healthcare and many others.