Digital Leadership Tactics for Office and Field
The Many Objections of Jobsite Supervisors … and How to Respond
High experience jobsite supervisors are some of the highest paid/most in demand professionals in the industry. Contractors rely on them to make the company money. They are not just technology adoption influencers, but often decision makers.
The overwhelming consensus is that the construction industry needs to adopt modern data-driven management techniques. Otherwise, it will never address its productivity and safety declines. The trade press publishes on this topic multiple times a week.
But a big blocker to faster adoption of digital solutions are these very important jobsite supervisors. What’s that all about? Why won’t they get with the digital program? Here are some objections we’ve encountered — and how to respond.
Spoiler alert: Most field objections are cultural, not logical. Digital leaders armed with a proven business case need to dismiss BS such objections with prejudice.
Supervisors Have Too Much To Do Already
There’s a good argument to be made that this is often true. Jobsite supervisors have a long list of responsibilities which we’ve covered in another post. But when a digital solution would actually make their job easier and firm more money, then it’s an excuse.
Do provide a temporary field engineer to assist the super during implementation. Don’t allow a super to escape responsibility for success or failure.
Not An Interesting Problem
Most supervisors have a background in the trades or engineering. Their motivation is Building, their identity that of a Builder, both with a capital “B”. Building is a physical experience more than an intellectual one. It generates a dopamine rush as you see a structure rise and overcome safety risks.
Process improvement and compliance may be boring compared to watching a building rise. But as a digital leader, your job is not to bring the most joy and pleasure to the work. Your job is to make your firm more efficient, profitable and safe.
(If there’s one digital technology they’re closer to embracing, it’s the digitization of architectural and design documents. Whether it’s BIM or any other acronym, the more visual the better. Unfortunately, most visual construction digital tech is also the most expensive and complicated to deploy. The metaverse has not yet arrived.)
There’s Nothing In It for Me
Site supervisors are compensated for finishing a project at its bid cost. Or make it up in change orders, ideally time and materials. Whether the company makes a profit is less of a concern. Not surprisingly, if technology doesn’t directly help the jobsite supervisor make more money, it’s going to be less motivating.
To build digital innovation into your company’s DNA, your compensation mechanisms very likely need a tune up. We talked about this issue earlier this year here. Unifying HQ and field means sharing profits equitably as well.
It Won’t Work Reliably
Much of the newest digital solutions require good Internet connectivity. When cell network coverage is spotty, it’s a legitimate concern. Jobsite environments are not like offices. Custom WiFi might be required on some projects.
But most devices these days are designed for ubiquitous computing, able to operate even in weather. And products have improved usability, security and speed to the point where the “won’t work” objection is getting pretty weak.
Not My Problem, Paper is Fine, & You Can’t Make Me Excuses
Field managers usually equate data with “paperwork”. They despise paperwork, but still prefer it to entering data. Circular logic used as an argument: More data means more paperwork and since we all know paperwork is bad, more data is bad.
Paper forms are also dismissed as a HQ problem if the departments that consume the data are at HQ. There usually follows a dispute about overhead cost allocations.
Whether it is OSHA or some other local regulator, there may be a requirement for data, but not specifically digital data. In other words, paper forms are just fine. Inspectors tend to be old school, and many are former supervisors themselves, anyways. (A similar BS argument is why much of our healthcare system still uses faxes.)
Jobsite supervisors are some of the contractors most highly paid and important personnel. Most will only take on a project if they can be captain of the ship. That means there’s an inherent imbalance of power between senior jobsite managers and younger data technologists. Even if the field supervisor is not really qualified to make technology decisions, they often do as the more senior partner.
Aas a digital leader, your job is to make your firm more efficient, profitable and safe, both in the field and at HQ. BS excuses like these should be summarily dismissed. First, grow a pair. Only ask for the support of senior leadership for the hard cases.
My Workforce Doesn’t Have Cell Phones or Speak English
This problem is probably the second most BS of excuses: Nobody operating in the North American economy lacks a smartphone. Yes, sometimes they are out of battery, or lost, but there are always workarounds, such as checking in workers with supervisor phones or tablets.
(We think the “no English” excuse is cover for “I don’t carefully check if my workers’ are legal”. In other words, keeping good data is a liability — same reason the Soprano’s all used public phones. And a variation of the no cellphones excuse comes from the states which require compensation for use of an employee’s cell phone in performance of their job. Rather than comp them $10 or $20 a month, many companies may, in fact, ignore digital efficiencies because of required changes to payroll. Even though the payback is much more than the monthly cell phone reimbursements.)
The Project Already Started, I’ll Enter Data Myself, My Workers will Quit
Pretending that once a project is started, nothing can change is a favorite. Almost all projects change personnel or scope once started, Onboarding of non-employee subcontractor staff is a more or less continuous activity for most firms. Another BS excuse.
One of the more passive/aggressive strategies is fake cooperation. Supervisors will agree to capture field data, and then have endless excuses why they are late or never get around to it. This one is closer to sabotage than just being a BS excuse, since it deprives project management software of essential data.
Speaking of Covid, even though vax tracking is easily done digitally, supervisors used the politicization of vaccinations to object to digital solutions. The excuse was “my workers will quit”.
The generational labor shortage in construction is caused by too many job openings and too few trained and experienced workers. The problem is especially acute with trade labor and field supervisors. That does give them more power.
But the only way out of the crisis is either by importing more workers, creating more workers in trade schools, or applying technology to raise productivity. So again: Grow a pair and only ask for the support of senior leadership for the hardest of cases.
Dealing with Complacency at HQ
Unlike field managers, headquarters staff are typical office knowledge workers who use a PC and a variety of software applications every day. They are either digital natives or will quickly become one.
Field managers especially resist digital change that’s contrary to worksite culture. But at the office, complacency and cost are the primary sources of friction if not outright resistance.
And because office work is native digital, the underlying technology used is more likely to change quickly. A kind of future shock sets in. If you’re following the coverage of AI recently, you know what I mean.
Create Data Urgency
Office workers use data the entire day, and better understand data-based arguments. “We Need This Data” is your strongest pitch, especially if the data is directly related to financial metrics.
For example, jobsite management data such as check in and out times can be used automatically update project plan actuals vs scheduled, assuring project managers of proper staffing levels of both employees and subcontractors. Daily log automation and digital archiving directly saves filing and records management costs. Check in data cuts the time needed to resolve claims and timecard disputes.
Budget the Costs of Change
Digital vendors and enthusiastic leaders often push benefits without addressing the costs of change. There’s no magical formula that makes change zero cost, even for the most advanced automation and consumer-friendly device. Skip implementation planning and costs are you’re headed for disappointment.
Digital project teams assisted by the CFO need to account for the costs of change in any new technology’s business plan: Capital and expense costs, training and time away from existing work, carrots and sticks, consultants, all on a realistic schedule. Yes, this will slow down adoption. But the most expensive tech is the tech purchased yet never used.
Counter Oversold Vendor Claims
Technology vendors always hype benefits and downplay costs, especially the costs of change & conversion. That’s just the way of the world.
Your best strategy is to measure yourself the costs and benefits to your company. Have your project team do extensive due diligence with a vendor’s existing customers. And always, always perform a pilot test with measurable results of both savings and costs before purchasing.
The Field Will Never Be Ready
If a new technology affects the field, HQ will often give up the fight before it begins: The vast majority of field workers are not early digital adopters. They’ve even been late to adopt smartphones. Training estimates are always too low because of the field culture resists digital. Unions will come up with new rules or compensation demands. On and on.
Subcontractors want to make their own technology decisions. Our standard contracts don’t require them to change their workflows just because ours did. They don’t bid the cost of changing either, and will want more money. And if they won’t change with us, we’ll lose a big chunk of cost savings.
All this may be true. But the really big opportunities are now in the field. Most office tasks are already technology enabled. But digital automation in the field is still minimal. Missing field data is now holding back further efficiencies at HQ.
HQ leaders will need to muster every argument, explanation and leadership technique to convince field operations managers to change for the good of the firm. Consider the arguments above as well as in our prior article on incentives.
Risk Reduction is Unquantifiable
Business insurance protects against risks. But it can also disguise opportunities for risk reduction. Even if digital reduces the risk of fines and claims, most companies pay the same as their competitors. Insurance socializes (as in “socialism”) the costs of risk. Unless there’s a big headline death or building collapse, fines and claims are part of doing business. Insurers aren’t offering any premium discounts, are they?
In response, any claim of any type is costly. On top of the deductible charge, just collecting the information necessary to process a claim is very labor intensive. And the fear of premium increases may cause firms to eat some claim costs.
Second, insurers like AXA are building momentum for finer-grained policies that reward firms for using more jobsite digital to reduce risks of all types. If you don’t start creating the data now, your firms won’t be able to take advantage once these new policies are offered.
Finally, keeping workers safe and properly compensated is as much a moral imperative as financial. As business people, at some point, you have to do the right thing.
Office workers are exposed to a daily vendor bombardment of emails, texts, social media and phone calls. Viral videos everywhere. Fear uncertainty and doubt lurk in every corner. Fear of missing out jeopardizes their careers. Greener job pastures are around the next block. And the competition is always nipping your heals.
Leadership must protect the office from unnecessary and unwanted interruptions. Maximize anti-spam tools. Train workers how to turn off notifications which default to “on”. Preach the virtues of focus and the evils of multi-tasking.
Above all, set the change agenda for your firm. Don’t allow your technology vendors to control the pace or justification for change. Their end of quarter revenue requirement is not your emergency.