The outlook for communication on construction sites

June 30, 2020 Matti Huusko construction, communications

Construction sites are hectic by nature and the pace of the work is fast. In this chaotic environment, communication and information sharing problems are inevitable. Usually information is fragmented and the availability can be really low, with only certain people having access to the information. This in turn leads to low productivity, delays, misunderstandings and redoing.

The chaotic environment is only one of the reasons behind the information-sharing and communication problems. Construction sites have grown in size and complexity, but the methods and tools for communication might still be old. Word of mouth and paper slips are still heavily used in the industry. There might not be a common process between different sites, and tacit knowledge about with whom and how to communicate can play a major role. And since workers are nowadays jumping between different sites frequently, it is no wonder that they have a hard time keeping track of what has been communicated to them and when.

A typical large construction site has many subcontractors, with workers from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. It is sometimes hard to find a common language, in which everyone has the required proficiency and is familiar with all the industry terminology. This raises barriers to effective communication and it is not hard to see how this can cause misunderstandings. 

Forms of communication at the site

Let’s take a look at what is usually communicated at the sites. How can it be so hard to get the messaging right? Well, in addition to the daily small talk and greetings, there is a lot of detailed information exchanged at the sites. Let’s take a simple example:

"John, could you please tell Mike from the utilities company to fix the electricity installation in the kitchen of apartment A in building one on floor two".

There is a lot of information that is exchanged in just one short sentence. Depending on how well the receiver is listening he might already lose half of the information before it is even processed. And depending on how much information, and from how many sources, the receiver gets during the day, he might be subject to an information overload and be easily overwhelmed by it. So, can anything be done to improve the situation and make communication more effective? How much easier would the life of the receiver be, if he have all the information in one place, instead of scattered around in her memory or on paper slips? And how convenient it would be, if the information would be immediately at hand once it is needed again?

To tackle this problem, we at Congrid introduced a LITE version of our solution to improve the communication between subcontractors and main contractors at the site. CongridLITE® helps to solve the issues described above and gives the workers more time to focus on their actual work. The solution will bring all the tasks to the subcontractors phone in a easy to understand and structured format. This makes communication more effective and reduces the amount of miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Of course, not all communication should be forced to the mobile application and there are still good examples where direct verbal communication is far superior to any app. For example the following short messages:

-> Would you help me carry the ladders over there?

-> Could you pass me that hammer please?

-> What time will you be here?

-> C´mon guys, let's go have lunch


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Effective communication in numbers

But let’s get back to effectively communicating more detailed items or tasks. We will use an example construction site with the following parameters:

- 20 000 tickets recorded in total

- 50 subcontractors working on the site

- 200 tickets / subcontractor on average

- 30 seconds used for communication per ticket

Let’s say that after a main contractor has recorded a ticket or task, all time related to communication of the task takes 30 seconds with traditional verbal communication or paper slips. This 30 seconds includes the main contractor informing the subcontractor about the task and explaining it, and then the subcontractor again informing the main contractor when the task is done. This 30 seconds also includes all the waiting on the line for the other party to pick up the phone or receive the note. If we could take this time down to a few seconds after the ticket has been recorded to our system, then how much time would that have saved? It would save about 155 man hours or four weeks of time for such a project.

28 sec * 20 000 = 560 000 seconds => 155 hours => 4 weeks

Time saved = number of tickets * time saving per ticket

These figures completely leave out the scenarios where information is lost or misunderstood. It also does not take into account the interruptions in work when someone needs to pick up the phone to verbally receive new information. Additionally, it is hard to estimate the value of easy follow-up and automatic audit trails for the tasks. These together with reporting capabilities can already form an attractive solution for documenting what has been done during the construction process.

Since everyone is carrying a mobile device nowadays, it is more up to the industry to decide whether they want to renew and improve communication on the construction sites. The tools for this exist, now it is just a matter of applying them. Additionally, taking what might seem like a small step in information sharing, can actually be a significant leap towards lean construction and improved productivity. The best way to see if it fits your construction site is to try it out yourself. 

Originally published 5.9.2017, updated 30.6.2020.