Improving Communication Field-to-Office and Office-to-Field

Communication failures generally result in delays and rework. Unfortunately, they can also put lives at risk. This was sadly the case during construction of Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Stadium in 1995, when a light tower collapsed killing one construction worker and injuring two others. After looking into the accident, investigators determined a communication failure was to blame.

Centennial Olympic Stadium

Centennial Olympic Stadium

It’s impossible to predict the impact of poor communication, which is why it’s essential to maintain continual, thorough, and effective communication over the life of a project. In the incident mentioned above, the Structural Engineer of Record found a flaw in the design of the light tower, notified his client of the issue, and recommended a repair. However, because he was unaware of how far construction had progressed, he neglected to indicate the correction's critical nature.

By the time the client received the notice from the SER, the light towers were 10 days out from construction. As the message wasn't marked urgent, the client failed to read it and construction proceeded according to the faulty plans, ultimately resulting in the death of a construction worker. Though he corrected his error and notified his client, the SER was ultimately found to be at fault for his negligence to convey the issue's importance.

This example highlights one important fact: communication between field and office needs to be consistent and comprehensive. Implementing a framework that encourages proper communication is a challenge. Software can change that.

Communication Methods in Construction

Communication in construction needs to fulfill two central requirements:

  1. Rapidly transmit information
  2. Maintain a complete record of communication

A number of processes have been created to meet these criteria, most of which come from the pre-internet era when achieving these goals was much more difficult. Before digital communication became the standard, it was important to maintain rigorous, paper-based processes for record keeping.

However, carrying these over into modern software applications actually hinders their effectiveness. We’re going to take a look at some of the most common communication methods to see what they're meant to accomplish and how technology can improve them.

Change Orders

Construction contracts inevitably change, and a change order is the official agreement outlining the terms of a revision to the contract.

Change order template from SmartSheet.

Change order template from SmartSheet.

Challenges

Because change orders are legal documents, they are inevitably difficult to manage. They must be extremely thorough, well-organized, and have agreement from multiple parties. While there is nothing that can be done to avoid having this formal document, there are a number of things that can make compiling them easier.

Software's Solution
Having well-organized evidence and documentation is the biggest obstacle to creating change orders. Software that logs and organizes your build activity in a cloud server, like Unearth, makes creating and agreeing upon change orders easier and faster.

Drawings

Drawings refer to the documents that explain how to build a structure.

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Challenges

Drawings present a number of challenges to GCs, owners, and architects, which is why several software companies have set out to improve them. Keeping everyone up-to-date on the most current version of the plans is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome, along with organizing and storing the digital copies.

Software's Solution
Software has changed blueprint management for construction firms in a huge way over the past few years. PlanGrid has set the standard for the industry, allowing users to annotate, organize, and manage their drawings while ensuring that everyone works off the most current set. Another useful feature to have is plan overlays, a feature that allows you to stitch PDFs into a single georeferenced layer and superimpose it on top of a project map. You can check out Unearth’s overlay feature here.

Email

Email is one of the most common forms of communication on construction sites. It's used for conversations on all manner of issues and updates.

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Challenges

For all of its benefits, email also presents a number of issues. It is:

  • Easily overlooked
  • Often lacking context
  • Difficult to track
  • Too informal
  • Forgettable

Software's Solution
Putting all your communication on a single platform can eliminate many of the negative aspects of email, while retaining its benefits. If you implement software with a chat functionality, you’ll maintain instant communication, while having easily searchable records stored in your cloud for dispute resolution and issue tracking.

Field Reports

Also referred to as daily reports, these documents summarize construction site activity on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Each firm has its own template, but they commonly include sections for the weather, work completed, physical conditions, safety issues, delays, deliveries, and other site activity.

Sample Daily Report from Iowa State University

Sample Daily Report from Iowa State University

Challenges

Daily reports are an essential piece of evidence in dispute resolution, but often seen as a pain in the ass. The biggest hurdle by far is getting people to fill them out.

Software's Solution
This is one area where software has really stepped up to make a difficult process easier. There are options, like Raken, dedicated solely to simplifying daily reporting. On the other end of the spectrum, you could opt for a comprehensive software platform that records all your site activity and produces a daily report automatically.

Pay Applications

Applications for payment, commonly shortened to pay apps, are the official documents used to request payment from the owner to the general contractor.

Pay Application Template From Cornerstone

Pay Application Template From Cornerstone

Challenges

Accuracy and documentation plague project managers when filling out pay applications. Often times, quantities are based on estimates, and if the owner or architect questions an item, this can delay payment and set the entire project behind schedule.

Software's Solution
With the right software, drone photography can provide you a digital map of your construction site. Using a platform like Unearth, you can use these images to take accurate distance, area, and volume measurements that guarantee you bill for the correct amount and provide the evidence to back it up.

Requests for Information

Universally known as RFIs, these widely used documents are the formal way to ask a question on a construction site. They are most commonly used by subcontractors looking for clarification on the design.

Pay app template from California State University

Pay app template from California State University

Challenges

RFIs are problematic because if they aren’t responded to quickly, they can hold up progress on an entire project. They are also essential to tracking why things got built the way they did. Given that people tend to lose track of them easily, having a system in place to manage RFIs is essential to every construction firm.

Software's Solution
The right software should record who submitted an RFI, when it was submitted, and who is responsible for responding to it, as well as organizing and tracking any corresponding photos, documents, or drawings. Ideally, your system for tracking RFIs integrates seamlessly into your overall project management software.

What's the Future of Construction Communication?

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The industry is in the midst of a major disruption of its current processes and norms. As you can see from the above examples, software improves upon the speed and accuracy of every document construction has used in the past. However, many of the digital solutions currently available only handle one particular communication roadblock.

Construction's digital future will be a single system that streamlines all of communication onto one platform: support for your plans, site maps, change orders, RFIs, and more living in a single interface stored securely on cloud servers. Check out our product page for more details.

Let us know how you're using technology to overcome communication hurdles in the comments, and check out our blog homepage for more information on technology in construction.