Taking to tablets

Colin Yates of Workmobile explains why housebuilders need to embrace digital technology for the future health of their businesses.

We are undoubtedly living in a new, digital era, where innovative technology is constantly changing the way we interact and go about our daily activities. Devices we carry in our pockets are becoming increasingly more powerful, and new technology like virtual reality is altering how we engage with our surroundings.

Businesses across a whole host of sectors, from retail to healthcare, are exploring how this sort of technology can revolutionise the way they operate. But the story is surprisingly different within the construction and housebuilding sector.

The number of new builds built between 2015-16 has risen slightly to 189,000, but this is still not enough to meet the estimated 220,000 new homes needed. To meet the rising demand for properties, the Government is calling for the housebuilding sector to embrace new technology, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), a collaborative process of building using computerised models.

But, according to research by ‘Big Five’ accountancy firm KPMG, just 8 per cent of construction companies would class themselves as ‘cutting-edge’ innovators, and only a third regularly use technology. A similar number have no mobile strategies in place at all. This figure is surprising, given that a large proportion of housebuilders operate remotely from various sites, and would consequently benefit from mobile processes that would allow them to work and connect with colleagues from any location.

So, what are the barriers holding back adoption? Cost is usually cited as one issue, but there are ways to begin implementing beneficial technology, while still keeping costs down.

Cloud technology

A housebuilding project will often involve people from several disciplines with differing skill-sets, from architects and admin teams to builders and electricians. Not only this, but workers will usually have to juggle different tasks. So, to stay on top of developments at each individual stage of building, everyone involved in the project will need access to a range of information while working remotely. For this reason, data capture and document management plays a huge role in the process, ensuring everyone is kept in the loop, work is carried out in a compliant manner and projects meet the required standards.

Before mobile technology was readily available like it is today, it could be a logistical nightmare to ensure that communications reached every aspect of a project. However, the development of cloud technology has allowed everyone to keep precisely to the same agenda. Saving information and work documents remotely to a cloud application gives all parties working on a project instant access to essential information, such as plans, drawings and work schedules. These applications can be accessed via mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, making it much simpler for data to be relayed between those onsite and those based back in the office.

For example, architects who have designed a building can digitally share their plans with builders and contractors, including photographs or videos to clearly show how the finished result should look. This data can then be uploaded to a platform hosted in the cloud and instantly accessed by everyone involved in the project. Work can be sequentially actioned straight away, and results recorded and signed off quickly. This is good news, given that the housebuilding sector is coming under increasing pressure to work more efficiently and cut costs, while still maintaining a high productivity level and operating in a safe and compliant way.

Digital data capture

For builders working onsite, and without regular access to a desk, juggling mountains of paperwork is far from ideal. Documents can easily be lost, damaged or incorrectly filed. And when document management is poor, this can mean incomplete audit trails, time wasted on searching for information, miscommunication, and even the failure of the project. It can also lead to endless compliance issues that put the business at risk of legal action. This could cause potential penalties or mean they are unable to invoice for completed work.

So, is it possible to completely eliminate the need for physical paperwork and reduce or remove these issues completely? The simple answer is yes. There are various cost-effective, digital applications that are now available to simplify the data capture process and allow information to be collected quickly and more accurately. With these mobile solutions, everything can be stored remotely in one place and backed up, so documents are safe, secure and can be managed more efficiently.

Data capture services help to reduce user errors, prevent damage and loss, and can save businesses money – on average over £2,000 per employee per year. As a result, this helps to increase productivity, improve operational return on investment and streamline workflows. By replacing traditional paper forms, field workers can easily collect, monitor and share data via their mobile device, such as report forms, timesheets, locations, photos and signatures. Some data capture apps can also give organisations live updates when the status of a job changes – such as when a specific task has been completed. This can help digitally record the exact progress of a project, making it easier to report back to clients or project managers.

Adopting readily-available forms of technology, such as cloud computing, smartphone devices and data capture services, can greatly benefit the housebuilding sector and help bring it up-to-date. Embracing this cost-effective technology will not only help firms to remain competitive and agile, it will also lead to greater compliance and more efficient ways of doing business.

Colin Yates is chief support officer at WorkMobile