6 tips for handling technology distractions in the construction industry

Our culture of interruption is everywhere. I recently observed a construction jobsite where a project manager and three laborers were working. I had seen them work together as a team and knew them to be hardworking and proud of the quality of their work.

But, evidently, it was not a normal day for this team. Something serious must have come up, and it had them all on their phones. They became a crew distracted by their phones to the point of uselessness. Twice, due to error, one of them ripped out an element of the project that had already been put in place. One worker dropped his power tool while reaching for his phone. Another, engaged in a phone conversation, tripped backward over a pile of boards. They were unhappy, unproductive, distracted and endangered.

With this scene fresh in mind, I came across new research, led by Michigan State University and conducted for the United States Navy, which stated: “Brief interruptions are ubiquitous in today’s society, but the ensuing errors can be disastrous for professionals, such as airplane mechanics and emergency room doctors.”

“What this means is that our health and safety is contingent on whether the people looking after it have been interrupted,” said Erik Altmann, Michigan State University professor of psychology and lead researcher. Researchers found that interruptions of roughly 3 seconds doubled the error rate of the task, according to CBS News.

So that poses the question: how much do interruptions cost your company? There’s the cost to repair errors caused by interruptions, the time it takes away from productive work and any give-back to appease the customer. But there’s also the cost in reputation. You may never know how many potential calls you missed because one customer complained about poor quality.

And on top of it all, there’s the sheer 
inefficiency of employees and managers who only devote half of their attention on the job. The manager, disgusted with the job he was supervising, didn’t take control of the job. He couldn’t—he was also distracted. In the end, did anyone learn anything?

Additionally, there is the very real concern about safety. Inattentive workers have accidents. I sympathize with business owners who wish they could simply forbid phones on the jobsite. But that’s not feasible in any real-life scenario. Many workers get their instructions from phone apps, fill out their time sheets electronically and locate jobsites using GPS technology. Regardless of necessity, listed below are six ways to reduce the damage that interruptions from frequent phone use can cause.

1. Earn phone use

Let people earn their phone use after a proven amount of time on the job. When workers are new and still adjusting to the routine, they are often more susceptible to the damage of interruptions.

2. Limit incoming calls

Require workers to limit their incoming phone calls to 1 minute. That is long enough to learn if the caller has a real emergency. When they take such a call, require them to put down their tools and materials, step off the jobsite and stay at a distance for the duration of the call.

3. Turn off alerts

Require workers to turn off all alerts and push messages. Some alerts might be worth receiving, but they don’t need to roll in throughout work hours. Bank notices, doctor’s appointment reminders and 
discounts from favored vendors must be disabled during work hours. Of course, if the alerts are truly health or safety related, they can remain active.

4. Be task aware

Workers trying to multitask end up performing multiple functions poorly, whether it’s typing while on a phone call, surreptitiously checking texts while listening to a lunch companion or checking email while watching a training video. Construction 
workers need to be instructed to end one task before beginning another. If they disagree and continue to try to multitask, put them through training that reveals how poorly they perform when their minds are busy focusing on anything that does not apply to the current jobsite.

Technology interruptions are insistent and hard to ignore, but so are other sources of interruptions—and sometimes they are harder to ignore because they come from people we know, respect or fear.

5. Instate time-lock agreements

Workers need to be trained and held accountable for not interrupting each other. In working with in-office employees, we teach “mutual time-lock agreements.” A worker desperate to be able to work uninterrupted can strike a formal agreement with another worker, under which they 
each get to work unfettered.

6. You can’t prevent all interruptions

Technology is simply too widespread, with machinery beeping and alerts going off and the distraction of other work crews nearby. With this in mind, it is management’s job to help minimize technology’s effects. For that, workers can learn “mental hygiene”—
or ways of dispelling distractions. They must take control over where their minds go and when. A few examples include:

  • Transcending the environment means rising above physical issues that you simply cannot change. A worker might think, “When blowers and beepers are so loud, I can’t concentrate on measuring the site and calculating how much cement we will need.” But what they need to concentrate on is how much his or her co-workers are depending on him or her to get it right.
  • Constructive acceptance means gracefully accepting the things that cannot be changed. “My manager’s phone seems to ring every time I try talk to him, but I guess he has to take those calls, so I’ll make a note of 
what I need to discuss, and find a time when he is not so in demand.”
  • Visualizing the ideal means 
picturing the positive outcomes of staying focused on your work. “This isn’t a very exciting project, and it’s hard to keep my mind on it with all the interruptions, but I know they are shooting a new brochure. Wouldn’t it be great if this building were featured in it as an example of our quality?”

Today’s culture of interruption is only 
getting worse, and construction workers will not be spared. Plan now to minimize technology interruptions and help manage any remaining distractions.