In an interview for Dateline on NBC back in 1992, Microsoft founder and then CEO Bill Gates told host Tom Brokaw that “electronic mail will be one of the big things over the next couple of years” and shared his surprise that “it wasn’t happening a little faster.” Jump ahead almost 20 years and Gates’s prophecy has proved to be more prescient than he probably realized at the time, and email has come to dominate our lives quick enough. However, it’s arguable that while it can be convenient in certain situations, relying on email alone to communicate effectively has become an outdated approach.
In his latest book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, New York Times bestselling author and Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport writes, “Prioritization of abstract written communication over in-person communication disregarded the immensely complex and finely tuned social circuits that our species evolved to optimize our ability to work cooperatively. By embracing email, we inadvertently crippled the systems that make us so good at working together.”
When Workers Cannot Communicate Effectively, The Result is More Waste
In the construction industry, crippling such systems has led to communication becoming increasingly fractured. It’s not the fault of email alone – bite-sized messages are also dispersed in text messages and notifications in the average of nine applications that the typical worker uses a day. The scattered nature of onsite and offsite communication makes it hard to track complete threads, create meaningful context, and access pertinent information at the precise moment it’s needed to be actionable.
The results of this haphazard approach include waiting, excess processing, unnecessary motion, and the other five wastes of lean construction that we explored in a recent in-depth blog series. Such wastes drive up costs, create delays, and push timelines further out than any stakeholder would want. As long as workers continue to be bombarded with emails, texts, and messages via multiple disparate platforms that don’t integrate with each other, these wastes and other inefficiencies will keep perpetuating themselves.
How a Quarter of Each Work Day is Lost
So exactly how long do construction workers spend looking for the data they need to do their jobs well the first time without having to do expensive rework later? While there aren’t many definitive statistics pertaining to email on construction sites specifically, workers spend 23 percent of their time searching for, consolidating, and following up on information according to an article on the Construction Productivity Blog. This not only takes time away from them performing practical work that advances the projects they’re involved in, but also cuts into family and recreation time. It’s arguable that construction workers are having to do more to earn their paychecks than ever before, and certainly more than they would be doing if insufficient tools like email and text were replaced by more intuitive and user-friendly technology.
Another challenge that email presents in the construction industry is that it allows onsite workers and the people who manage them to pursue a CYA approach, whereby they can always claim, “Sorry, I didn’t get the message.” There’s no good way to track who opened a message, which links they clicked, and what other actions they might or might not have taken (or when). As a result, email presents a get out of jail free card when work isn’t performed correctly or on time, or when other mistakes are made on the jobsite. This lack of accountability is a thorny problem for construction companies everywhere.
Augmenting Email Rather Than Replacing It
Rather than eliminating email altogether, it and other existing types of messages could all be ingested into one platform that offers a clear “single pane of glass” view. Such a system would present complete, updated, and coherent information to the people and teams that need to see it in a timely manner. To overcome the accountability issues with email, this application would offer open confirmations, read receipts, and other features that provide peace of mind that intended recipients have seen the messages they need to and taken the appropriate follow-up actions.
This would ensure that the current holes in construction communication are bridged and that workers can communicate effectively. Additional functionality such as tagging would make it even easier to target and retrieve pertinent data so that workers can more easily stay up to date on what has happened, what is occurring, and what’s coming down the pike. As a result, they’d come to the jobsite every day more informed and prepared to do what’s needed to advance the ball and keep the project on time and within budget.