The following article is a guest post by Dustin Chapman, an Account Executive at busybusy.com- a software that simplifies your payroll process and improves your workforce analytics through better time keeping. While working as a construction professional, he built out well over 1 million square feet of multi-family, commercial, institutional, religious, tenant finish, apartment renovation, green building, podium, and financial institution projects. Most recently he has been heavily involved in helping folks in the construction industry of all skill levels adopt technology.
Joining the tech world from construction was a big change. The transition was made more smooth because I went to work at a company developing technology for construction so there were some other construction vets around me. But still- going from working at a homegrown, mid-sized, family-owned construction company in Utah to a tech startup based out of the heart of the tech scene in NYC was eye opening.
One of the especially eye opening things was how many different softwares were used to run the company. In construction we used one large ERP software and then maybe a couple of side apps (PlanGrid, Trello), but that was it- Oh yeah, and Excel. There is A LOT of Excel in construction (seriously- we’re masters of Excel in our industry and we don’t realize it). In tech all of the softwares were meant to connect the company and serve a purpose. Tech shares a lot of parallels to construction, especially if the company has remote employees. The UX team is a lot like architects and the designers are a lot like project teams with specialties. The different design teams like iOS, Android, Web, etc., somewhat mirror the different specialty departments that exist in construction companies like commercial, multi-family, small projects, etc. One type of software that all of these teams used a lot were different communication apps- especially chat apps/programs. Upon seeing interconnected teams around the country (or world) in tech my mind pondered a lot on how we could accomplish this level of interconnectivity in construction.
I remember well my last week as a Project Manager at the GC I worked at prior to getting into tech. My penultimate day of employment I was on on the phone with one superintendent talking about a jobsite question while a project engineer sat in my office waiting for me to get off of the phone so he could answer a relatively simple submittal question. There was also an estimator standing outside of my office waiting to ask a scope of work question. That estimator was talking to my project assistant- who was waiting to ask me a question about a subcontract change order. There were four different people waiting on me to answer questions for them. Three of those four people had come from various parts of the office to ask questions that could’ve been answered without them standing in front of me in my physical office to get an answer. Every one of these people could have sent me a message via a chat app of some sort to ask me the questions they had and I most likely would have given them an answer in less time than they spent standing outside or inside of my office.
The problem we had was that my office didn’t have a company chat app. The “Office Chat” protocol we had was somebody (usually a company higher up) getting on the office phone system and using the intercom feature to tell somebody that he or she couldn’t find to come to his or her office. It was distracting at times.
So my question to you is this- What chat programs/apps/etc., are you using at your construction company to communicate? I imagine a lot of you are going to tell me you text. Some of you may even have a way to text from your computer (iMessage, pushbullett, etc.). I’m here to tell you that if your primary use of “chatter” communication within your company is texting you’re in essence playing the piano with only 3 keys.
What is chatter? It is simply the day to day conversations you have with everybody you work with. It’s the jokes you tell your co-workers, it’s asking somebody to grab you a drink when they go to the break room. It’s also asking your project engineer if they need help with the door submittal they’ve been reviewing for a couple of hours or asking the job cost accountant if they need anything else to process the pay request. These conversations make up the bulk of our day and yet we tend to want to do it verbally in a world that’s increasingly moving to text. We often unnecessarily wait to have a verbal conversation when it's quicker and more efficient to have these conversations via text.
There are many chat apps and programs out there and today I want to focus broadly on Slack. If Slack isn’t an option for you keep reading and use this as a guide when you are “shopping” for a chat app.
The reason Slack is so great is because it’s versatile. It’s probably not a place to do your “on the record” official or even procedural communicating- things like Change Orders, Delay Notices, Submittal Transmittals- use formal communication for that (Email, or better yet FieldLens). Slack fills a void that you may not know even existed. It takes all of the day to day chatter that happens and puts it into a single interface that works well on web and mobile.
The web and mobile interfaces for Slack are beautifully integrated too. They feel the same, look the same, have the same information, and the best part- you get notified the same. The trick to any communication app that goes on your phone is that it has to be able to notify you well enough so that you don’t ignore it. You have to respond to it and treat it with the same urgency you do with a text message or a phone call- that’s not an easy thing to do, by the way. Software engineering teams spend hundreds of hours trying to figure out how to make you react to their app like a core phone function (phone call, text message). Slack has figured it out and it works.
Let me give you a few pointers on what you should be looking for your chat program to do for you. I’m using Slack as a baseline here:
- Carry On Many, Many Conversations at Once- We live in a world where we talk to many people at once nearly all the time. All four of the people I described earlier standing in or around my office (or on my phone) could’ve been asking me their questions via Slack in their own individual conversations. There are obviously times where verbal communication is best- but more and more it can be done more effectively by text in a chat app.
- Groups and Teams and Whole Offices and Departments and Whatever Else You Want- Do you need to make general company announcements that includes your office AND field employees? How about talk to just specific departments or specific project teams, or specific groupings of positions (think all project engineers, all job cost accountants, all project managers). Slack allows you to do all of that. Groups can be limitless. It can be physical departments or positions. Likewise it can be just the folks that are attending the CPR training next week or just the folks participating in the office book club or happy hour. Groups can be longstanding conversations and they can be made for just a day or week. The grouping feature of Slack might be the best feature in my opinion.
- Be a Morale Builder- I work remotely much of the time for the tech companies I’ve worked for. It’s not unlike a superintendent or foreman or field engineer that is consistently out in the field and rarely at the home office. Having Slack, however, has helped me feel more connected to the rest of the company. I can see what folks in the office are talking about. I get general announcements (which honestly many times don’t get properly convened to folks in the “field”). It all makes me feel like I’m not on an island. It makes it feel like the home office isn’t 2000 miles away (which in one case for me it was), but rather makes them feel like they’re in the next room.
- Connect Field and Office More Effectively- I’ve mentioned how good Slack’s mobile apps are and how closely they tie in to the desktop/web interface. This connects the field and office in ways that are hard to understand until you see it. Project teams split between job trailer and office are now free to talk to each other in a team setting. Does HR have a question for a specific foreman or superintendent? It’s easy to do that without interrupting the meeting or inspection they are having.
The tech world has taught me a lot of things. One of those things is that communication can be improved greatly in construction- we just need to know how. We need to be exposed to more options and not be afraid to try them (if you need advice on how to try an app/software, or product out check out a previously written article of mine here). If Slack isn’t the best option for you- check out these other options and maybe you’ll find the one that works for you:
- GroupMe- Group texting app. Works much more like group text messaging, but it does have a desktop interface.
- Microsoft Teams- Microsoft’s much heralded “Slack Killer.” It’s new at the time of writing this and we’ll see how it plays out.
- Google Hangouts- Google doesn’t seem to be able to make up it’s mind on whether or not to keep Hangouts going. If you use Gmail for your corporate email it’s an excellent add on. Video chat is nice too.
- Hip Chat- This is definitely a tech tool- it’s used primarily by software developers using JIRA and/or Scrum methodology (future blog post), but it is self-hosted and can be very useful.
If you are using any of these tools (or others) in your company- let me know how the experience is going. If you’re thinking about implementing one of these and I can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out.