Digital Builder Ep 51: Can we REALLY Put People First During ConTech Deployment?

The construction sector is undergoing tremendous changes, and we're all facing tough challenges and questions. What should the industry do about the labor shortage? Which technologies should your teams invest in? How can firms build more sustainably?

There are no clear-cut answers to these questions, and the right path forward will vary from one construction company to the next.

However, one of the best ways to gain clarity is to have conversations with one another. Comparing different experiences can breed new ideas and help us come up with solutions to the hurdles we're facing.

To that end, the latest episode of Digital Builder explores the toughest challenges in construction today—and how we can solve them.

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You can also listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, and anywhere else you get your podcasts. 

On this podcast episode 

Jon Marks, Principal CEO at Corvus Star Consulting/Former CTO at Swinerton shares his thoughts on how leaders can put their people first when implementing technology and process changes.

He also discusses the labor shortage and examines how the industry can attract more talent. Finally, Jon offers his views on sustainability in construction and talks about the technologies and innovations to keep an eye on.

Putting people first through human-centered design processes and communication

There's a wealth of tools and technologies out there, but let's not forget that the construction industry is powered primarily by people. So, it's vital for leaders to be human-centric and prioritize the needs of their employees and customers.

This is where human-centered design comes in. "It's when you put people first with your technology—and more than your technology," says Jon.

He adds, "You really can't go wrong in implementing human-centered design. You can make mistakes along the way, but you will ultimately hit your goals."

This requires active listening, observation, empathy, plus constant and transparent communication.

As Jon puts it, "It's important to listen, observe, and have a deep sense of empathy for the customers you're trying to serve with technology, whether internal or external. And ultimately, communicate, communicate, communicate."

Facilitating new technology and the curiosity to learn more

Our conversation also explores how firms can encourage teams to adopt and implement technology. Here, Jon starts by recognizing challenges like restrictive schedules and capacity.

"Construction teams will be over their heads for 18 to 36 months, and they don't have time or bandwidth to absorb change during that period. So you really have these limited opportunities to deliver change to project teams effectively. That's typically during downtimes in their construction schedule or between jobs."

Jon continues, "If you scale that across an organization, you can't teach an entire organization something all at one time. You actually have to run that change management process over the course of 18 to 36 months."

As such, an effective way to get information across is to deliver it in bite-sized pieces.

"Keep it small, keep it short, and deliver it so people can consume it in five minutes or less," he remarks.

Implementing tech may have its hurdles, but the good news is that people are often curious and willing to learn, says Jon.

"Usually, the curiosity is already there. It's really about giving people room and permission to be curious." This could mean giving employees a day or so to choose what they work on and what they learn. In some cases, group knowledge sessions are an excellent way to go.

Whatever the case, Jon says organizations should recognize that embracing technology isn't just about "training." Instead, it's about "skill development."

"Skill development happens every day. It happens in your experiences. It happens in those bite-sized knowledge transfers I mentioned earlier. It happens in your experience with mentors and coaches," he says.

Retaining and attracting new talent during a labor shortage

Jon's input on employee training and skill development transitions nicely into a discussion about the labor shortage.

According to him, one of the best ways to attract great talent is to focus on diversity and inclusion.

"I believe the most effective organizations are those that make diversity a priority in their talent. Having different perspectives sitting around a table will lead to the best decisions. So, it is critical for companies to have that community engagement and make sure that their organizations reflect the communities they work in."

Beyond that, Jon says we as an industry could do a better job promoting how rewarding it is to work in construction.

"We don't toot our own horn very well. We need to share with people why it's so much fun to be in this industry. There's a sense of camaraderie on job sites. There's nothing more rewarding than working with a high-performing team, and you get those opportunities in construction all the time.

He continues, "I work with young people in the industry today, and they have a ton of fun in their jobs. They work hard; they play hard afterward. They form lifelong friendships in the trenches of construction."

"If we can share those stories, we wouldn't have the labor shortages we're talking about today."

Accessible ways owners and contractors can start thinking about sustainability in their projects

Sustainability is another hot topic in construction, and for good reason - as an industry that contributes significantly to carbon emissions and waste, we need to take steps to reduce our environmental impact.

So, how do we do that?

Jon says we shouldn't underestimate the positive impact we can have on the environment.

"I've talked to a lot of leaders who believe that their ability to influence the sustainability of our industry is severely limited, but I don't think that's the case."

"By having conversations with our clients, subcontractors, design partners, and engineers… we can have an outsize influence. General contractors and architects sit at the nexus of the industry, and they influence the decisions that everyone else is making."

Another "low-hanging fruit" with sustainability is optimizing the design phase and ensuring we make those sustainable decisions early on.

"Owners are concerned not just about the cost of a building, but the total cost of operation of that facility. Sustainable decisions can positively impact those costs, and they can lower expenses over the course of the building lifecycle."

Jon also brings up the role of organizational culture in promoting sustainability.

"Doing small things like eliminating single-use plastics from the construction project… Those may have a limited impact on the big picture, but they send the right signals. They shift the culture, and then all the individuals in your organization start making decisions that lean towards sustainability."

"That has a real impact. So, send those cultural signals, make sustainability a part of the value system of your organization, and then watch the magic happen."

Exciting innovations and advancements within the realm of materials and supply chain

The materials used in construction projects greatly impact sustainability (among other things). When asked which materials and supply chain advancements he's excited about, Jon says he expects the industry to lean into mass timber and more sustainable materials.

"I'm excited about the mass timber systems. Not only do they have a lower carbon footprint in their production, but they also sequester carbon. If you build a building for the long term, you could be sequestering carbon for hundreds of years, and that helps a lot."

He continues, "The other thing has to do with productivity. Erecting a mass timber structure takes five people. Plus, everything is pre-fabricated. They slide in together, so there's no custom work in the field. It creates a lot of productivity gains, which is great for schedules, owners, and contractors."

According to Jon, mass timber systems are helping drive quality, efficiency, and profitability at Swinerton.

"It allows us to own more of the supply chain. We're fabricating our own connectors and handling the fabrication of the glue, lamb columns, and beams. We can ensure the quality of the product before it ever gets to the field."

"We're able to drive and increase profitability and lower cost for our clients. Often these structures are price-competitive with concrete and steel. It's a very exciting product and creates a lot of opportunities."

New podcast episode every week 

Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week. If you want to learn more about hot topics like implementing technology, attracting talent, and promoting sustainability in construction, listen to the full podcast episode of Digital Builder to hear more from Jon.

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Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.