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Do digital solutions really make you more productive?

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There can be little doubt that technology has radically transformed the modern workplace, but not everyone has embraced digital innovation with the same enthusiasm. This reluctance is prevalent in the construction world, where some workers still prefer to stick to tried-and-tested methods on the basis that the newer ones are more trouble than they’re worth.

Here, we’ll consider both sides of the argument, and explain how investing in the right technology really can make a difference to your company’s bottom line.

Current Low Productivity in Construction

According to recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics, the construction sector is among the least productive sectors in the UK economy, with output-per-hour sitting at 27% for the fourth quarter of 2017. This compares unfavourably to the 33.7% figure for the economy as a whole, and the 66.4% found in the finance sector. Another unwelcome fact for the industry is that average project lengths have actually increased over the past three decades.

Labour productivity graphic

These figures represent something of a paradox, given the explosive rate of technological change over those decades. Shouldn’t more technology cause things to get better? A plausible explanation is that whatever labour we’re saving by adopting spreadsheets, databases, video conferencing and cloud storage, we’re losing somewhere else.

Technological Grey Areas

Investing in new technology

You could be forgiven for thinking that investing in new technology always leads to a return. But the fact is that not all digital tools make a positive contribution – especially when there are so many to choose from.

Too often, excessive multi-tasking can actually prevent work from being done. The constant pinging of a mobile phone can be hugely distracting and disruptive, particularly if a worker can’t afford to ignore it.

Another problem arises when the technology in question isn’t sufficiently interoperable. This term refers to the ability of one piece of software to exchange data with another. Sometimes, interoperability might be compromised deliberately: a boiler manufacturer might feature cutting-edge modulating controls, but make those controls available to thermostats made by the same manufacturer. Or, a software company might make their spreadsheets incompatible with programs made by their competitors.

The construction industry, more so than perhaps any other, is already fragmented between the various professions that contribute to any given project. As such, careful management is required to get these tradespeople to collaborate effectively. If the workforce is further fragmented by non-interoperable software, this job is made more difficult.

The industry as a whole also suffers from a lack of differentiation between the workplace and home life. Being constantly connected can lead to workers feeling tied to their devices, which in turn can lead to digital fatigue. This fatigue, in turn, can lead to disillusionment, a lack of mental focus during the workday and a general decline in mental health. Each of these negatively impacts productivity.

Too many Apps, not enough Work

Apps pictureNot so long ago, when you wanted to get in touch with a colleague, you’d pick up the phone or write an email. Now, you’re part of a WhatsApp Group or community on Slack, and you’re arranging video calls on Skype. The list and possibilities are endless, and the developer behind every piece of software is naturally eager to emphasise why their particular app is indispensable.

With so many competing (and often conflicting) apps available, it’s quite easy to find yourself juggling numerous versions at any one time. In practice, this crowded digital marketplace can make the entire communication process more convoluted than it needs to be. Switching between apps is time-consuming, and keeping them all up-to-date even more so. And lost time means lost productivity.

This confusion could be eliminated by consolidating the workload onto a single, intuitive digital location. The right digital solution can ensure that decisions are made more quickly, while minimising risk and ensuring data transparency.

To Communicate or not to Communicate, that is the Question

Through our smartphones, tablets and laptops we’re able to communicate more frequently, even if we’re in a remote location. This is a good thing, in the sense that it can expedite the sharing of important information. So, if a given client’s wishes change, a worker can be made aware of that change before they carry out irreversible work. Similarly, a disruption in a supply chain can be more easily accounted for if everyone on-site knows about it.

But there are downsides to this increase in communication. Sometimes the information in question is of questionable quality – even if it’s unprecedented in quantity. Sometimes it’s outright frivolous. As such, the relationship between communication and productivity is complex. Constant interruptions to work, and an expectation that workers must remain on standby at all hours, can really tip the work/life balance the wrong way, pushing valuable skills out of the industry for good. In the long term, this is a disaster for productivity.

What’s the solution? Well, it would be impossible to try to roll back the technological clock. And even if we could, it wouldn’t be desirable: digital solutions confer undeniable benefits. But there’s a balance to be struck. Used in the right environment, with the right human resources procedures in place, real-time technology that seamlessly integrates across multiple devices can allow tasks to be administered in the here and now. What’s more, they can do so without duplication and other productivity-compromising side-effects.

Using Technology Wisely

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has enabled us to work smarter, faster and better. But there’s also no escaping the fact that adopting technology in a way that’s arbitrary and unfocused has contributed, at least in part, to the construction industry’s productivity crisis.

We need to be wiser in our use of technology. Every construction project, whether it’s building a skyscraper or repaving a patio, requires the use of tools appropriate to the task, and the skills necessary to wield them effectively. If we’re to address ailing productivity, we need to extend this approach to our digital tools, too.