Why unified communication is key for the construction industry

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Kristian Torode, director and co-founder of Crystaline, explores why construction needs to up its communication game

UK construction accounts for around 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs over 3 million people. But despite its significance, many firms are far behind the modernisation and digital innovations seen in other parts of the economy — this includes its tools for communication.

The construction industry is facing multiple productivity challenges. While Brexit has caused disruption to supply chains, pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic have amplified in labour and material shortages, creating delays for many construction projects.

Research from the Contractors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme (CHAS) found that 80% of the 900 construction business owners surveyed have had to postpone or cancel projects because of the pandemic. As a result, the industry is falling behind in productivity, operating on very tight profit margins and even the smallest inefficiencies are having a considerable impact.

Besides this, the industry is slow in its adoption of digital technologies, which is making communication difficult.

Challenging comms

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), poor communication is the main reason why construction projects fail one-third of the time. In fact, more than half of project budget risk is due to ineffective and improper time management of project communications.

Even if the project doesn’t fail, the effect of poor communication can still be detrimental. Poor communication can contribute to major delays in several areas of a construction project. This can include delays in the flow of information, directing communication to the wrong person or area, and unclear communication leading to confusion or error.

The PMI found that, in projects with minimal communication, only 37% were completed on time and just 52% met their original goals. In contrast, projects where effective communication was implemented resulted in 71% completed on time and 80% meeting their goals.

Considering the industry is already under pressure from external, uncontrollable challenges, it must make improvements to reduce communication problems that can worsen these issues. So, how can the industry change its ways?

Playing catch up

Construction may be one of the largest industries in the UK, but it’s also one of the least digitalised. In 2020, research by IDC and Autodesk found that while almost three-quarters of construction firms say digitalisation is a priority to improve their processes, business models and ecosystems, only 13% are well on their way to achieving this.

The emergence of IP-based telephony, along with cloud (hosted) technologies and Unified Communication (UC) presents greater opportunities to upgrade legacy systems and develop effective communication tools for construction businesses.

IP-based telephony services such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls will become a necessity from 2025 when British Telecoms (BT) switches off the public switched telephone network (PSTN), moving to an entirely IP-based model of voice communication. The switch off is coming into force as the PSTN is deemed a legacy system — the equipment used to run it is aging and is difficult to maintain. Plus, many of the components used in the infrastructure are becoming obsolete.

Initially, this change might seem overwhelming to construction companies struggling to digitalise, but the switch comes with numerous opportunities for the industry. Firstly, mobile devices are crucial for construction, but maintaining a reliable connection can sometimes be impossible for workers in rural areas.

VoIP works independently from local power and systems availability, so as long as the user has a stable internet connection, workers can enjoy high-quality voice calls with 99.9% connection uptime. This is ideal because it offers a way to communicate independently from a mobile network, meaning project managers will always have a direct link to employees on, and off site — instantly helping to improve communication.

Besides dropped calls being a major inconvenience, they can also cost businesses a small fortune. This is eradicated with IP-based telephony, along with roaming charges.

Uptime can be boosted even further by ensuring access to a backup power source in case of power outages. So, in the event of an unpredicted outage, workers can still access the people and information they need from any internet connection or mobile device. Furthermore, there is no additional maintenance costs with VoIP as the hardware is located offsite in a data centre.

In to the IoT

As one of the least digitalised industries, it’s no wonder that the construction industry is yet to invest in data management tools. In fact, 95% of data produced in construction is either disregarded or not collected at all. Bring in the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT has changed the way the world connects. It incorporates a network of devices connected to the internet that exchange data between them, facilitating faster and more effective communication. Smart devices, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics all are commonly known IoT technologies. However, the implementation of IoT outside a factory setting can look different.

In a workplace environment, IoT is most effective in cutting costs and improving productivity by making objects and devices more intelligent. According to a KPMG survey, 95% of construction organisations believe emerging technologies like IoT will fundamentally impact the way they do business.

In construction applications, IoT can improve machine control, fleet management and site monitoring to improve communication among the workforce. The most significant benefit of the IoT is that it collects data in real-time, which enables project managers to oversee all areas of a project and make faster, reactive decisions.

With the construction industry falling behind in project completion and deadlines, IoT devices such as sensors can help the industry tackle these problems. For instance, sensors can enable machinery to detect and communicate when maintenance is required. When a machine is out of action, it inevitably causes delays. But, by predicting when a machine is going to fail, the industry could avoid major downtime.

Although equipment inspections are a crucial part of any construction company’s operations, IoT sensors aim to determine when problems will arise using statistics from sensor data with a machine learning (ML) algorithm. If a machine begins to fail, the sensors can alert the operator or project manager to remove it from site for further inspection and repairs. This turns preventative maintenance into predictive maintenance, enabling issues to be resolved before breakdown and prolonged delays.

Furthermore, this data can then be communicated across the site using automated alerts to project devices such as tablets, helping to keep everyone on site in the loop.

Improving communication

In remote and rural areas where connectivity isn’t reliable, it can be difficult for colleagues on-site to communicate with those located elsewhere. So, how do dispersed teams keep in touch? If time-sensitive information isn’t available in real-time, such as last-minute changes or updates that could impact workplace safety, workers must wait to retrieve it, delaying work.

With mobile devices being key to connecting employees located in different locations, construction companies should implement a Unified Communication system that integrates landlines, mobiles, tablet and desktop connectivity on one system, allowing on-site workers, project managers and those back at headquarters to remain connected on any device.

This ability to remain connected enables workforces to have a live, shareable view of project information at their fingertips, helping to bridge the gap between on site and the office. As a result, streamlined communication between workers improves across the project, making operations more efficient. 

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