The construction industry may have been slow to warm up to mobile technology, but new data shows that firms are embracing mobile work strategies faster than ever. As they do, they face many new challenges. How can a firm make technology work for everyone? How can a company keep data accessible but secure? And with the rapid pace of technological change and improvement, how does a firm prepare for what’s next?
In March, a study conducted by Sage North America found that the vast majority of small- and medium-sized construction firms in the U.S. and Canada are using mobile technology: Three of four companies surveyed provide employees with mobile devices, and nine of 10 decision makers said mobile technology has had a positive effect on productivity.
What has changed? Widespread Wi-Fi accessibility means that construction teams can connect to the Internet at any time, from any location, at relatively little cost. And the explosion of consumer use of mobile devices and apps in day-to-day life means employees are becoming more comfortable using smartphones and tablets for email and other work tasks.
The benefits of mobile technology are increasingly apparent as well. On-site access to the latest drawings, specs, contracts and other communications saves everybody time—and money. “The biggest choking point in construction is the flow of information,” says Lee Tillett, project engineer for RCI Builders Inc., of Raleigh, N.C. “There’s always someone waiting for someone to get them something before they can complete their design drawing or coordination drawing or shop drawing. Today’s technology only aids in that effort. It sells itself. Time is money in construction.”
Share Data Anytime, Anywhere
Technology that helps firms share information faster, easier and without the need for paper, shipping or FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a particular boon to productivity. Moving to cloud file storage and electronic file sharing eliminates cumbersome FTP and fax usage, reduces postage and courier costs and can shrink your need for costly servers. It also allows multiple parties to access up-to-date files from any location, at any time and to share notes, revisions and questions easily and securely.
Tillett recalls a day—not too many years ago—when drawings and submittals were marked up by hand in as many as seven copies, overnight-shipped to architects, engineers and clients and returned days later with additional hand-written markups. Those markups would then need to be processed before the document could ship to subcontractors.
“Now we use PDF markup tools to mark up digital files,” Tillett says. “I upload it, which triggers automatic emails to whomever is tied to the folder, and I get an email alert when everything is downloaded by them. Being able to have concurrent review of everything and see everyone’s notes in the document itself is huge. It saves us a ton of time, which equates to money. And it saves money in a more basic way, too: no more overnight shipping of submittals.
“With mobile apps, I can have every RFI, every bulletin, every drawing or submittal on my handheld, on site,” he adds. “And not only that, but my whole team—subcontractors, architects, engineers, everyone—has access to all that as well. There’s now no excuse why anybody would ever miss a drawing package, bulletin or RFI or not be able to coordinate with a different trade shop’s drawing or submittal.”
Make It Easy for Everyone
Construction firms are rapidly adopting mobile technology, but that may not be true for everyone a firm works with. It’s important to make sure the tools you adopt are easy for everyone to use, even less tech savvy partners.
“There are people in the industry who are a few steps behind,” says Juan Restrepo, senior project engineer for Swinerton Builders in San Francisco. “An owner’s level of tech savvy will vary from project to project, and then you have the architecture firm or subcontractors. These team members’ technological skills will also vary greatly.
“You also will always have to deal with whatever authorities have jurisdiction on your project,” Restrepo adds. “Whether it be local, federal, state or any combination thereof, these agencies are notorious for still living in the age of faxes and microfilm.”
Adrienne Lester, product sales specialist for Citrix ShareFile, a file sharing and cloud storage service, agrees. “Ease of use is critical for any mobile technology,” she says. “We hear from some of our customers that their subcontractors are still looking for the cup-holder on their computers, because technology is still alien to them. If the technology is too hard to use, people won’t use it.”
When evaluating a file-sharing tool, Lester says, consider who will need to use it, what operating systems and devices it works on and whether it will allow you to share information with or export a file to someone who doesn’t have that app. Tillett advises that you avoid programs that require people to download software or create an account before they can access your files.
Many familiar file-sharing tools such as FTP and fax do not have security mechanisms to protect confidential information. And as employees become more familiar with mobile technology, some are using personal devices, personal email accounts or consumer applications to get their work done. The BYOD—bring your own device—phenomenon presents challenges for firms that deal with sensitive and confidential information.
“Consumer file-sharing systems don’t encrypt files, so whatever you send is potentially a security risk,” says Lester. “But many employees turn to these services, because the email systems they use at work have restrictions on attachment sizes that make it impossible to send the sorts of files you deal with in construction.”
As firms evaluate tools for sharing, editing or storing documents, they should critically evaluate the security measures, Restrepo says. Look for encrypted communication and storage of data as well as tools that allow you to control who sees what within the application.
Leave Room to Grow
As you evaluate tools to make your business more efficient, keep in mind that your business will likely grow, and