2022 will see more construction firms turning to digital tools

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Richard Warley, CEO of BigChange, shares his thoughts on why more construction firms, particularly SMEs, will turn to digital tools to grow stronger in 2022

The challenge for construction firms in 2022 will be to meet a spike in demand as the economy rebounds while maintaining excellent service and customer relations. To square that circle, many more will turn to all-in-one digital tools to manage their operations.

Demand has boomed for the UK trades since the end of the first lockdown. Construction firms saw workloads spike, rising by 66% in the 12 months to July 2021 according to ‘The State of the Field Service Sector’, a recent report published by BigChange.

But how many of these businesses are built to grow stronger? A host of factors, from rising materials costs post-Brexit to disrupted workflows caused by employees having to isolate, has meant not all firms were able to profit from this extra work.

In fact, a quarter (25%) of small to medium-sized construction companies surveyed, reported a loss over the 12 month period. A further 15% feared their business could go under in the next year if things don’t change.

With climbing operational costs and a growing gap between workloads and employee numbers, a firm’s ability to manage this new business sustainably will be crucial for their prospects in 2022. If businesses want to keep job backlogs down and customers happy they need to manage their teams as effectively as possible, using workers and materials to maximum efficiency.

To help tackle these challenges, many construction companies are turning towards digital tools like job management software to manage their teams in the field, boost productivity and improve customer experience.

Across the construction industry, the survey suggests that firms spent an average of 54% more on technology investment than in the previous year. And this trend looks set to continue. Those surveyed estimated they will invest a further 51% in workplace technology next year.

Why 2022 is the year for digital tools

With both costs and demand rising, firms often can’t afford to take on and train a proportionate number of new employees. Even those who can are starting to feel the impact of a growing skills shortage.

In the year to July 2021, more than half (57%) of construction firms said that hiring the people with the right skills was a challenge, while 60% expressed difficulty in retaining frontline staff. For leaders then, delivering a smoother, less-stressful workflow – one that isn’t so hindered by complex processes and paperwork – should be a priority.

Using paperless solutions obviously helps here. For construction teams in the field, it means critical checklists and safety worksheets are available quickly, all in one place. For staff in the back office, it means cutting out low-value, repetitive work like double-keying data from the field.

Solutions exist to plan and schedule jobs intelligently, and to help in dispatching the right resources to the right place more reliably. The result? Workflows are less disrupted, while more time is spent on site.

Smart, tech-supported working can also build businesses up as a more attractive prospect for the generation currently entering the workforce – digital natives who have communicated on, and worked with, devices their whole lives.

Keeping Amazon-age customers and third-parties up to date

Construction jobs are varied, with some involving third parties – such as other service providers like crane operators and hauliers. Therefore getting a full picture of the work across all organisations involved can have a big impact on productivity.

Achieving this is a key aim for many sectors that operate field-based teams. In fact, more than 80% of the field-service leaders surveyed want oversight of all parts of their operations in real-time as they focus on productivity.

In construction specifically, projects involving multiple parties can require project managers to spend too much time gathering data for product specifications and updates. Although data is essential, data entry shouldn’t have to be and these high-value employees should be spending their time on higher-value work.

Live reporting and tracking can work to keep the customers and managers fully informed, while tools that automatically generate and share communications (such as arrival times or completed job sheets) make sure everyone you work with is engaged and up-to-date.

Rigorous compliance checks, without the headaches

Rigorous compliance processes are another factor keeping project managers and engineers chained to their desks instead of working on-site. Of course, it is for good reason. Projects of this nature require strict adherence to best practices and health-and-safety regulations.

However, 44% of construction firms surveyed said that industry legislation introduced in the last 12 months made running their businesses harder and more complex. Add this to the fact that companies need to be working more productively and suddenly we’re in need of a solution.

Digital tools give field workers fast access to key compliance documents and give managers real-time oversight. Mobile apps can completely replace paperwork with live data reporting and can capture time and location stamped photographs, as well as customer signatures.

When you are working on paper, sharing compliance information and gathering the results can lead to information being lost or delayed. Digitally, nothing slips through the cracks.

Making customer experience a competitive advantage

The turbulence of the last two years has limited how competitively construction companies can price their services. This has led some to focus elsewhere, on areas like customer service, to find a source of competitive advantage.

Yet in this increasingly connected world, the definition of ‘good’ customer service is only becoming more demanding. Now, 65% of field-service leaders define it as customers being kept informed digitally every step of the way.

In projects of a wide scope, gathering and delivering these updates can be crucial but needlessly time-consuming. We’ve already touched on time lost gathering data for updates, but construction work involves client input at many stages across the project. To feel confident about these decisions, clients need to be kept in the loop.

Dean Barber is Managing Director at Nserv, which provides facilities maintenance and construction services to retailers, restaurants and care homes across the South East of England. He invested in work-management technology, in part, to keep clients more informed on shifting material costs.

“We were quoting market rates and spending a lot more time justifying why they’ve gone up so much,” he said. “The cost of ply has increased by 40% in the last six months, for example, so a quote could end up being inaccurate by the time it’s approved.”

This is just one area where automated updates can give clients a better customer experience. Digital tools can keep clients informed from end-to-end – from simplified booking to automated invoicing.

Dean says, “Our slick processes and strong finances help attract new customers every week now. We are hiring across the South East in anticipation of further growth and another good year.”

The digital future is now

The businesses growing strongest since the end of the first lockdown are doing it by working smart and staying in control of their operations.

They are turning demand into profit by using technology to improve oversight, plan better and automate processes – improving communication and response times, and turning customer experience into a new source of competitive advantage.

BigChange research indicated that the regions investing heaviest in operations technology – like London (74% increased spend) and Scotland (55%) were also seeing the biggest increase in profits (86 and 73% respectively).

By focussing on productivity and customer care, construction companies across the UK can not just grow, but grow stronger.

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