Procore and Dodge Construction Network’s recent survey and report identified an industry-wide challenge among special contractors to keep their teams productive and efficient. In the face of continuing labor shortages, this trend will only continue unless companies find a way to improve their processes and communication.
The main problem respondents called out is that low productivity tasks are taking up a disproportionate amount of time, especially that of project managers, project engineers, and field leaders.
What exactly are “low productivity tasks?” The report defines them by example: tracking down documentation, updating project logs, recording data using pen and paper — these are all examples of tasks, often administrative, that take a lot of time relative to their importance. The roles most affected are those responsible for keeping projects on track and on budget, so wasting time on low productivity tasks hurts their ability to focus on critical ones.
A variety of productivity challenges
On average, 20% of employee time is spent on these tasks, but the numbers vary widely between different groups, companies said. For instance, in the U.K., time spent on low productivity tasks was higher than the global average for more than half of respondents, while in the U.S. it’s less than a third. Different trades report different rates as well: less than a quarter of mechanical contractors spent more than 20% of their time this way, while more than half of electricians reported being tied up with mundane tasks more often than the average.
Interestingly, half of large companies said their employees reported above average time spent on these administrative tasks, while for small companies only 28% did. This suggests that there’s a lot to be learned from one another, especially if organizations look outside their own trade, region, or company size. While there typically isn’t a lot of cross-pollination of these types of practices between, say, mechanical and concrete contractors, an exchange of knowledge might prove fruitful for all involved. Large companies may also want to look to smaller ones to find inspiration in their responsiveness and agility.
Despite these tasks accounting for so much time across the industry, they’re among the easiest to solve for using technology. Document location, report generation, and other administrative tasks are core features to productivity suites, but survey respondents showed that such tools are underutilized. Twenty-six percent of small companies and 39% of large ones use them, an intuitive finding given the greater resources and administrative demands of the latter. But, even between trades there are wide disparities: nearly half of mechanical contractors reported investing in productivity technology, but only 17% of concrete manufacturers.
Make the best of the team you’ve got
The issue will only become more pressing as labor shortages intensify. Survey respondents reported that a full third of their skilled workers are on track to retire in the next five years. A shrinking workforce makes it critically important for specialty contractors to make their reduced workforce as productive as possible. Improving efficiency, replacing outdated systems, and deploying tech solutions will be essential to survival, and potentially an opportunity to grow.
Facing so many simultaneous retirements, nearly half of respondents said they were focusing on employee retention efforts. These can take many forms, but an improved and more efficient working environment does double duty as both enticing workers to stay and making their time more productive.
Low priority tasks and legacy methods don’t just subtract time from more important ones — they can be a drain on employee morale as more time is spent on low productivity tasks than on those crucial to project success. When project managers, project engineers, and field leaders feel they are contributing to their personal and team success and not simply grinding away at unrewarding paperwork, they are likely to experience greater job satisfaction.
Another common approach companies are contemplating is an increase in overtime to compensate for fewer workers. A certain amount of this will be necessary in a labor crunch, but overtime that results from poor planning, lack of communication, or outdated processes is entirely avoidable. Specialty contractors may find opportunities to reduce the need for overtime by employing more tech-based automation and management tools. Accelerating the completion of low productivity tasks will reduce overtime hours and help keep projects on time and on budget.
Avoid rework with better communication
Rework is another culprit in lowered productivity among special contractors: labor that ought to be allocated to tasks moving projects forward are caught up in rework instead. This would be trouble enough in any era, but with a rapidly dwindling workforce and a growing volume of low productivity tasks, it’s especially pernicious now. Respondents said rework is responsible for about a third of their margin erosion.
While eliminating rework altogether is impossible, organizations can address the underlying problems that are causing it to be more frequent and severe. The survey found that the top drivers of rework basically come down to the same thing: poor communication. Whether it’s with clients (the most common complaint), with management, or between business units, a team’s ability to be productive and effectively manage schedules depends on whether their communication processes are effective.
Teams need to be able to quickly respond to changing and dynamic project conditions. They can’t do that if they’re waiting on approvals or decisions, manually sorting through documents for answers, or jumping between disconnected communication methods. This leads to systemic miscommunication and eventually consequences like rework and missed deadlines.
Improving communication practices is a big step that specialty contractors can take that will help them avoid mistakes leading to rework. If teams know they’re in sync, they can focus on the task at hand and have greater confidence that their work will not need to be redone.
Industry-wide problems, company-specific solutions
The causes of low productivity are complicated and differ depending on the size, work, and resources of a given organization, so there’s no single source or solution.
But there are ways to move forward: replacing outdated and manual systems can help offset shrinking labor pools, and improving communication and documentation can avoid rework. Different trades have a lot to teach one another, as do different regions. There are also many tech solutions on the market that offer specific solutions to these problems, like automation of menial tasks that bog down teams in the field and office alike. Pursuing one or all of these options will help specialty contractors keep projects moving forwards, instead of worrying about whether they’re going backwards.
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