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At any given moment, there are an estimated 5,000 airplanes in the skies over the U.S., all of which require vigilant monitoring and critical orchestration by air traffic controllers.

Miles down on the ground, a similar process of careful scheduling, constant oversight, on-the-fly problem-solving, and cautious maneuvering is happening on construction sites. An unlikely comparison? Perhaps. And yet today’s construction manager may be likened to an air traffic controller in that both have tremendous responsibility for the safety, efficiency, performance and ultimate success of their respective assignments. Whether its controllers keeping the airways safe and flights on schedule, or construction managers keeping workers safe and projects on time and on budget, knowing what’s happening as it happens and the ability to forecast what will happen next is what determines success.

The FAA wouldn’t let its air traffic controllers attempt to do their jobs without complete visibility and access to real-time data, including weather forecasts and other critical information affecting schedules and flight plans. Likewise, how can we better equip and enable our general contractors, site managers and subontractors to manage construction projects with improved visibility and up-to-the moment information about the workforce on their jobsites?

Closing the gap among labor tracking, scheduling and project management

By far the best way for construction managers to understand the real-time status of construction projects is to closely monitor what crews, contractors and subcontractors are doing on the jobsite. And, with labor making up the majority of a project’s total costs, effective personnel management and ensuring crews are working at optimal productivity is a top priority. Site managers are constantly assessing how many workers are onsite and in what areas; is the crew arrangement appropriate for the scheduled work; have they completed the proper safety certifications; or is everyone accounted for in an emergency evacuation. It used to be that the most common way to answer these and other related questions was to walk the jobsite taking headcount of crews and subcontractors, jotting down status of work on a clipboard and then returning to the office to enter that data into the project management system. Not only is this process inefficient and error-prone, it’s a retrospective look at what’s happened. By the time managers create, upload and analyze the reports, delays, costs and risks could have already taken hold of the project.

The introduction of mobile time tracking applications and RFID-enabled access control points has helped improve the efficiency of jobsite personnel management. Further, RFID-enabled badges and access control points automate personnel tracking and can be invaluable in preventing unauthorized workers from being onsite or in controlled areas without proper credentials. However, most solutions are not without limitations. Mobile time tracking applications often require contractors to manually log their hours via self-check-in and check-out, which leaves room for misuse and mistakes, not to mention an added requirement for already overextended subcontractors. Moreover, few time tracking solutions are integrated with project management and scheduling systems, creating disparate workflows and silos of information that need to be manually stitched together.

Few systems take the next logical step to integrated workforce and productivity tracking with project management tools. With an integrated workflow and holistic project view, including real-time data on crew size, location, resource allocations, certifications and performance, construction managers can validate project costs as work is completed, provide proof of compliance to maintain safety, pinpoint discrepancies and risks, or identify opportunities to optimize the work process. A real-time feedback loop provides the mechanism to verify progress against plans and projected costs against actuals. Without this kind of integration, it’s like managing projects by looking through a rearview mirror.

Data-driven construction workflow

Thanks to innovations in mobile and cloud computing, a new breed of automated labor tracking and workforce management solutions have an application interface that can provide an active connection to project management applications, enabling workforce information to be easily used for scheduling, daily reporting and other processes that enable contractors to operate more effectively to improve project delivery.

Following are a few examples of how real-time workforce management benefits the construction workflow.

Minimize unpredictability
Construction projects are inherently complex and fraught with uncertainty due the simple fact that “stuff happens.” One small design change or error, material or crew delay, weather postponement, or even miscommunicated or misaligned project priorities, can have a snowball effect resulting in delays, additional costs, and ultimately dissatisfied contractors, subcontractors and building owners. Real-time information about work crew location, status and performance helps construction mangers quickly asses issues, make rapid and necessary adjustments to minimize risks, better control costs and optimize scheduling.

Improve collaboration between General contractors and subcontractors
Transparency into workforce data helps align priorities between contractors and subcontractors. Information about how long it’s taking to complete a job, or comparative data about what’s happening with certain crews ahead of or behind others in the schedule helps everyone get on the same page--promoting trust and synergy of project priorities. Project owners and managers also can leverage crew performance data to more accurately predict schedule changes and provide subcontractors with an early heads-up about schedule changes and re-allocations, allowing all stakeholders to better plan and adjust.

Monitoring worker behavior more closely and accurately also tends to have a positive effect on workforce performance. Open communication by managers about performance can encourage positive behavior while realization of issues can promote timely communication and quicker resolution. For example, habitual offenders can be identified and corrected.

Ensure more accurate schedule adherence
Being able to answer the “who, what, where, when and how” of each task gives managers the confidence to know if the project is really on track, or identify corrections. Leveraging this data as part of production control enables more accurate forecasting and provides an effective early warning system to identify when a project is falling behind or is at risk. For construction companies managing a global portfolio, the ability to visualize changes in flow-line trajectories is even more important. An integrated workforce management system enables project managers to optimize labor flow so work does not wait for workers and workers do not wait for work.

Contractors face a variety of issues that can either enhance or disrupt their ability to successfully manage a project. Whether it’s having confidence that crews with the right skills are there when needed, clarity on how much time is actually required to complete a job or just knowing where people are in case of emergency, labor issues can be a real challenge for projects large and small. New integrated workforce management systems not only automate labor tracking, but also provide consistent and deep insight into workforce performance--giving project managers, site superintendents, safety personnel and operations managers in the office and in the field the ability to operate more efficiently and make timely and accurate decisions to improve project delivery.

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