Provide a 'Safety Net' to Achieve Greater Productivity in Construction

Seven problematic work issues for construction contractors that could benefit from having a 'safety net' in place

Gaining greater productivity isn’t only about doing more work, working more hours, installing new technology, etc. Just as important is improving our workers sense of safety, physically first, but also mentally and emotionally.
Gaining greater productivity isn’t only about doing more work, working more hours, installing new technology, etc. Just as important is improving our workers sense of safety, physically first, but also mentally and emotionally.

There is a story about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge that should resonate with contractors of any size. During the construction of the Bridge, several workers fell to their deaths into the San Francisco Bay’s cold and turbulent waters. Concerned that their bridge would be slowed down from finishing on time, the builders had a large safety net secured to the building portion of the Bridge. In fact, it extended several feet outside the width of the bridge as it ran the length of the bridge across the Bay, more than a mile and a half across. (The net was similar to a net that might be installed under a tight rope preventing a walker from injury or death.)

After the net was installed, several men did fall during the remaining construction, but they fell into the safety of the net; scared to death I’m sure…but alive and able to go home at night to their families. In fact, men had to be instructed not to jump into the net for entertainment purposes; that’s how much trust they had in their new security blanket!

Now, to bring this story closer to contractors, and a very interesting side point of this illustration, the productivity of the bridge after the installation of the safety net was said to have increased some 25%. What had been a project behind even the most conservative of schedules began to pick up steam and finished strong.

Consider this point: While working on a dangerous construction project, when the workers knew they could work with little risk of falling to their deaths, they were secure to unleash their real work potential. Lesson learned?

Provide a safety “net” in your work culture and you may realize even greater productivity!

Now, while most contractors will never build a “Golden Gate Bridge” project, there are risks involved with just about every specialty of construction. A contractor should always recognize any unsafe threats to his or her workers and assertively reduce those threats while educating their people on safe work processes and techniques. However, there are other types of threats that also need a “safety net” to ensure the workers are comfortable and confident to give their best effort every day.

Let’s take a look at some of the problematic work issues today that might benefit from having a safety net in place.

The first day on the job for a new employee

Most contractors do a less than great job at making the new employee feel welcomed and appreciated. Remember, the first day on a new job for an employee should leave them with nothing but affirmation that they made a wise career choice. When the new employee is provided a clear picture of what the company represents, who their customer is, what they will be doing, and whom they will be working with, this same employee will gain confidence sooner and be more excited to work harder…earlier! 

The safety net here is to ensure that every new employee is clearly welcomed to the company from their leader and work associates. Additionally, they should receive a “90-Day Plan” that lines out what the new employee will be doing, when he or she will be learning new skills, where they might be working at, and with whom they will be working. Such a “net” will inspire early positive attitudes and create greater confidence within the employee that the company wants them to succeed and has prepared for their success!

The Senior Leader is not open to ideas or challenges

This remains one of the oldest frustrations for many construction workers of all ages and experience levels. Working for the manager who demonstrates little interest in new ideas and does not want their decisions or ideas to be challenged can quickly accelerate what I call the, “motivational plunge,” within promising and thinking employees.

The safety net here is that leaders must show visible proof that not only do they welcome new ideas but also that they appreciate workers who can challenge their ideas and past practices. This is how companies improve. It is through challenging old processes and seeking new and innovative methods that a company grows, expands and excels.

Lack of project planning and organization

Nothing sends a clearer signal to employees than beginning a project without knowledge of what the job is, what will be needed and what are the job expectations. With all the proof today that planned jobs produce better results, it is unforgivable that any contractor would ever allow their crew leaders to begin work without a work plan for the day, a week or more “look ahead” schedule, and a confirmation that key performance, safety and quality issues have been addressed.

The safety net for this issue is really quite simple. First of all, no contractor should ever allow any of his or her project and crew leaders to commence work without a clear work plan that identifies key concerns, contact information, and job expectations and goals. To do otherwise is simply inviting nervous workers to fear that they will “fall.” Therefore, every contractor should have in place, and consistently exercised, the completion of every organizational and planning tool available and appropriate for their specialty of work. Investing in such tools and executing them consistently will remove much of the fear of failure and instead unleash a clear production focus by all workers.

Worker not being included as team member

Many contractors are realizing employee turnover. For some, they may have something close to a revolving door of workers who are hired and then in less than a few days to months leave for another company. After studying this phenomenon in construction I have concluded that many contractors simply never really developed a good, team-based work culture among their existing employees. I recently witnessed a new employee who literally was not addressed by other workers on their crew or project. At the lunch break, the new employee was sitting alone and away from a few of the workers engaged in lively discussions.  

The safety net for this issue is pure and simple, it’s called “socialization.” Humans have a need to interact with other human beings. When that is not in place it can negatively impact the morale and intrinsic motivation of employees. The “Net” installed should engage education for all workers on communication skills, how to conduct “small talk,” and recognizing the benefits of different personalities and people who are “different.” Employees who do not feel welcomed or part of a team are high risk to leave.

Fear of making mistakes

Similar to working for a manager who doesn’t appreciate new ideas, if our workers have a fear of making a mistake, the “kiss of death” is upon the leader and company. Certainly we need to prevent repeating the same mistakes, but learning is still greatly accelerated when mistakes are part of the learning process. I realize that making a $100,000 mistake is different than a $500 mistake. However, I’ve worked with many contractors through the years who made that big mistake and “lived through it” to confess today how much they learned! The take away for us on this issue is that as leaders, we must reduce the fear of making a mistake or risk employees giving less effort, providing less improvement suggestions and certainly producing less profitable results.

The safety net needed is regular and consistent reassurance, spoken by the leader, to clearly state the need to work hard and smart without fear of “falling.” That's the installation of the “Net.” Then, the leader must back that verbal commitment by not over reacting or worse, disciplining or terminating a worker when they make a mistake. I would encourage leaders to buy a box of straws and chew on them when a mistake has been made. Explore why a mistake happened, what the process was that “wasn’t,” but do not go after the individual personally.

Working under a “micro-manager” or “control freak”

I hear these nicknames about leaders from direct reports and, to be honest, I think the names are misplaced. In most cases, the leader in question, is simply just following up on assigned tasks, ensuring that what was expected to be completed, was completed! However, there are those leaders who can be almost obsessed with never “letting go” of tasks, jobs or projects and this is issue, like many of the prior issues addressed, can cause a real “motivational plunge” in workers attitudes. 

The safety net for the confirmed “micro-manager” or “control freak” is made more challenging because of the personal nature of the individual involved. This safety net is very much controlled by the leader; they must learn to trust their workers. These same leaders must learn to more properly delegate, working to ensure that the individual taking the work understands the expectations, knows how to work the needed systems and processes, and understands the priority and time-line needs. It’s important also for the leader to understand how their action can send employees off the cliff with frustration and anxiety because they feel that their leader doesn’t trust them or lack the faith in their execution. The leader must get over such issues and recognize that they cannot expand their boundaries of greater accomplishment if they are spending time micro managing.

Older workers looking down at younger workers; younger workers demonstrate a lack of respect for older workers

There has always been a bit of a rub between older workers and their younger peers. Most of the time the “rub” can be good-natured teasing but when there is a problem with this same issue, leaders must address it head on. In most cases it’s a matter of the older worker feeling threatened or not wanting to embrace perhaps an idea that came from the younger generation. For the younger worker, they may feel like the older worker is discounting their ideas or skills, perhaps even feeling like they are being spoken to like a parent would speak to their child. Either situation isn’t healthy and should be addressed.

Our final safety net suggestion is that contractors need to embrace all ages in their organization and ensure that everyone, including front line supervisors, foremen, project managers, etc., all understand that in construction, we can learn many things from many different employees…regardless of age. This thought can be reinforced at meetings, through company wide emails and through daily interactions. The effort should be to reinforce who shared an idea that is working, or who made the extra effort to correct a problem, no matter the age of the individual. When senior leaders demonstrate their appreciation for workers of all ages, ethnicity, work backgrounds, etc. then you will begin to see the barriers separation begin to fall away.

Implementing the “safety nets” presented does not guarantee 100% success.  Even the Golden Gate Bridge, after the net was installed, lost several workers who fell to their death due to something even the engineers could not have planned for, but the net did empower the workers to work harder, faster and with more confidence in their safety.

Gaining greater productivity isn’t only about doing more work, working more hours, installing new technology, etc. Just as important is improving our workers sense of safety, physically first, but also mentally and emotionally. 

Here’s to raising your workers to trust you no matter what happens because you have provided a “safety net” for their physical, mental, and emotional safety!