Successful collaboration in the construction industry

Managing a successful, mutually beneficial partnership with contractors

Construction projects that rely on teamwork have the advantage of specialised expertise, cost savings, efficiency and more. However, bringing distinct organisations and corporate cultures together can also be challenging. Understanding the consequences of a weak partnership, its effect on the workforce and how it undermines success motivates organisations to become aware of and actively pursue the qualities that make for a rewarding collaboration.

Effective collaboration brings tangible benefits

Collaboration on construction projects is widespread. It promises access to specialised expertise, innovative problem solving, cost savings and overall efficiency, and when successfully implemented that is precisely what it delivers. However, when collaboration between clients and Engineering, Procurement and Construction Management (EPCM) companies falters, the project enjoys none of the potential benefits and usually suffers on many fronts. Conflicts that arise at the management level and from errors made in the contractual and planning phases are felt keenly by the workforce and affect every aspect of the project, from time management to quality to safety and more.

The sources of strife

The root causes of failed collaboration often lie in the partnership’s earliest stages. If the client doubts the competence of the EPCM company or for any reason withholds trust or communicates distrust, cooperation is undermined. A lack of trust manifests itself in punitive contractual stipulations or in an inability to step back and allow the contractor to exert control over its areas of expertise. When a client consistently interferes in EPCM matters, the contractor typically yields in an effort to keep the client satisfied. This results in a weakened and possibly ineffectual EPCM. In the worst case scenarios, contractors attempt to fulfill client demands by taking unadvised risks, perhaps sacrificing quality or safety along the way.

The workforce suffers the side-effects

While this sort of dysfunction originates at the leadership level, it is not confined to top management. Instead, it plays out among the workforce, where inevitably it is absorbed and reflected in how tasks are completed. To start with, when a client and an EPCM company are at odds, employees receive mixed messages. There is confusion as to whose rules are in effect, what the chain of command is, which information to trust. Workers attempting to sort all this out end up expending energy and attention on questions that should already be answered clearly and unequivocally for them. They are distracted from the task at hand by speculation, either internally, as they wonder whether they are following the “right” set of instructions, or externally, in the form of gossip or discussion with their colleagues. Confusion best describes workers’ mindset in this scenario, which in turn leads to a motivation deficit as well, perhaps, as diminished respect for leaders, a fearful or self-protective attitude, or an us-versus-them mentality.
Other side effects of poor collaboration might be redundancy in managerial positions, such as two competing HSE supervisors, or, at the other extreme, gaps in leadership. In the first case, workers experience the same sort of confusion described above and may feel pressured to remain “loyal” to one manager over the other. In the second situation, responsibility lapses, workers have no one to turn to when questions arise and indeed may seldom see anyone in a leadership position during their shift. In such a vacuum, employee safety and the quality of workmanship could be at risk, and it would not be unusual for work to need redoing, deadlines to be missed and resources wasted.
Although the responsibility for a successful collaboration rests with those in charge, it is often the less powerful who shoulder the blame when things go wrong. As we’ve seen, a workplace infected with distrust, conflict and miscommunication is a breeding ground for errors. When a worker makes a mistake it is convenient to view it in isolation, not as part of general mismanagement. The power dynamic in these situations can result in blame disproportionately assigned to less educated, lower ranking employees. The workforce is fully aware of the potential for this kind of outcome, which only heightens the atmosphere of distrust and conflict.

A path to profitable cooperation

Thankfully, problems such as these can be avoided, and collaboration can be rewarding and profitable for the clients, the contractors and the workforce as a whole. The key is understanding that trust is an essential ingredient for success and cultivating it at every stage and in every aspect of the collaborative project. First, clients must thoroughly vet their contractors, reading case studies and getting to know the individuals who will potentially become partners and colleagues. Indeed, viewing the EPCM company as a resource and respecting its expertise is fundamental to building a productive relationship.
In drawing up the contract and planning the project, client and contractor must continue to prioritise trust, respect and effective communication. At this crucial stage, partners voice expectations, clarify responsibilities and, most importantly, establish a shared vision that motivates both parties. When the foundation for a strong relationship is laid and leaders of both companies feel able and willing to work as a team, the workforce is better positioned to perform to its best ability as well.
Once established, maintaining a positive collaborative spirit is best achieved by actual physical proximity. Sharing offices whenever possible projects a united front between client and contractor and eases communication. Conducting regular, weekly meetings in which both partners are present, engaged and respectful allows information to be shared and problems to be solved jointly and in a timely manner. Sometimes third party on-site coaching with or without complementary behaviour-based workforce training can be a worthwhile investment. When DEKRA was enlisted to improve the quality of collaboration between client and contractor on a construction project, they combined intensive, individual on-site coaching to strengthen leadership with a targeted behaviour-based initiative to boost workforce engagement. There are, in fact, a range of tools experts can use to enhance cooperation, even after a project is underway.
Collaborating effectively may not be second nature for many organisations, which is why being aware of the pitfalls, the high cost of a dysfunctional partnership and how the workforce is hindered is a good place to start. The next step is to adopt measures that guard against missteps and to cultivate trust, positive relationships and respect that will set the tone for a motivated workforce and the project’s ultimate success.
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