Change is a constant in construction. When disruptive, or beyond a worker’s control, it can also be a source of great concern. Here are some of the changes workers find most confronting—and advice on turning the challenge they pose into an opportunity.
The How We Build Now 2020 report identified several types of change causing disruption or concern for builders and trades. They include shifting to digitised processes for design and delivery, new technologies including automation, cultural change, and external disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or fluctuations in financial circumstances.
As the industry concentrates on improving quality, safety and compliance standards, there is an increasing emphasis on the use of digital technologies for design, construction management, project documentation, financials and team collaboration.
However, introducing these technologies can cause a degree of disruption and concern for workers. The key to overcoming these concerns is taking a strategic approach.
At the HWBN panel discussion, Matthew Rayment, Chief Operating Officer at PBS Building, said “one size does not fit all” when it comes to rolling out new technology and bringing the workforce up to speed in its use.
People learn at different paces, he said.
The first step of a successful rollout is to find out who will be affected the most.
New technology and change can increase friction and frustration in the workplace. Therefore, Rayment said, the first step of a successful rollout is to find out who will be affected the most. This will allow you to learn where they are starting from in terms of technology use and its relevance to their role.
This, in turn, helps determine where to start implementing a change and where it will have the biggest impact, Rayment said. “And you must include subbies and clients,” he added.
This approach creates a “heat map of change” which grows with each new piece of technology.
Creating Psychological Safety
Increasing the participation of women in construction and trades is a priority in the industry. However, there can be some resistance due to the established industry culture, according to HWBN panellists. “Psychological safety” is a significant factor, said Mapien Workplace Strategists Consultant Isaac Baker.
Fear of the unknown is caused mainly by concerns around what change might mean for an individual, Baker said.
It can also be caused by top-down changes that have not involved a consultative process, or where managers have been “tone-deaf to the needs and perspectives of their people.”
Techniques, such as surveys and focus groups, are valuable to inform a strategic approach to change. It shows workers their voices matter, Baker said. It is also essential to work with individuals who are respected within the organisation.
This is particularly so when it comes to cultural change as there will be strong social practices in the workforce that encourage individuals to “go along with the group.”
“The role of social leaders is very important in uniting people and navigating to the future,” Baker explained.
The leader whose influence is based on social identity within the group is the “prototypical leader.” They may not have words like ‘manager’ or ‘supervisor’ in their job titles, but they do have respect and influence. They can help smooth the path of change by “uniting people under a shared social identity.”
Uniting people under shared values, concepts, and behaviours leads to inclusion which then creates psychological safety.
Baker also recommends creating safe ways for people to air issues, such as informal conversation or anonymous suggestion options.
By identifying and fostering shared values everyone agrees on and creating traditions and rituals for the business, you grow culture and create new social norms.
It can be something as simple as having a custom of everyone greeting each other when they encounter other workers, Baker said.
Explaining these kinds of cultural habits can also form part of the induction and onboarding process for new staff or trades on a project.
Robotics and Automation
Almost a third of respondents to the HWBN survey said keeping up to date with new building and construction technologies is a challenge. While automation and robotics offer ample opportunities for increased productivity and safety, there is also a level of fear among workers regarding their future.
A recent report by Deloitte identified that increasing use of automation and robotics would lead to significant changes across the workforce.
However, as Deloitte Australia Chief Executive Officer Richard Deutsch noted, the unique skills humans bring to their work will remain necessary.
“People, and their unique interpersonal and creative skills, will be central to the future of work, and how we structure this future and prepare our workers, will say a lot about us as a society,” Deutsch said. “Our decisions now will be a key driver of our economic success. After all, for every problem, there’s a job, and the world isn’t running out of problems.”
“After all, for every problem, there’s a job, and the world isn’t running out of problems.”
The CSIRO and Construction Skills Queensland Farsight Report emphasised the importance of supporting workers to upskill in new areas including not only the technology but also “soft skills” like problem-solving and interpersonal communication.
It predicts new roles will begin to emerge as the industry shifts towards increased use of technology and automation. These include drone operators, building assembly technicians, robot resource managers, and virtual reality trainers.
Baker said company leaders could be strategic in how they support workers through these kinds of changes. They can start by having discussions about the company’s plans for the next few years.
There needs to be a balance between what will be most efficient and what will keep workers happy.
“Educate people and provide clarity, explain to them ‘this is what the trends are telling us’,” Baker said.
As part of awareness-raising, give worker examples of what has happened elsewhere in the world where new technologies have already been introduced.
“People don’t want to be blindsided by change. Build certainty and move back the locus of control into an individual’s hands,” Baker said.
Managers can also assist people with planning how their careers might evolve soon and facilitate the skills training leaders in the workforce think is necessary, working with them to raise awareness of its usefulness.
Managing Unexpected Changes
COVID-19 is an example of a sudden economic shock that can generate rapid change. Others include client or head contractor insolvency, or other financial blows. Baker believes honesty is crucial in discussing any change of this type.
“Incorporate the personal element,” he said.
The conversation needs to be about how management will deliver outcomes and bring everyone on the journey. Explain what has led to the current situation, and what makes the solution management is proposing the best available option.
Giving people as much notice as possible if jobs will be lost is vital, as is providing support on the journey out, Baker said. “It’s about taking a more empathetic approach.”
That might mean bringing in specialist services to help with exit planning for workers or assisting with upskilling to ensure they can obtain a new job as quickly as possible.
“Taking appropriate action to help people find more jobs will result in a better outcome and a healthier viewpoint of the organisation,” Baker said. “It’s about people feeling heard and valued—feeling that they are not just a number… and knowing the thinking that went into the decision.”