By Nathan | Posted on
As a subcontractor, let's say your crew arrives on site and it turns out that you were blocked from doing a critical part of your job: for example, someone forgot to shut off the utilities or the areas you were supposed to be working on are locked up tight. When the superintendent finds out that the work wasn't done that day you try and explain why, but forgot where you put the pictures that prove your case. After a dozen phone calls and emails, the dispute reaches an uneasy conclusion with both you and the GC walking on eggshells and a potentially lucrative relationship has soured.
If anything like that sounds familiar then you're looking for a better way to manage your crews and make handing off information to the office a little faster and easier. And that's where construction management software for subcontractors comes in.
However, such software can be expensive and ineffective, so we talked to actual subcontractors and the GCs they work for to find out what system was best for them.
Construction Management Software for Subcontractors can be "A Useless Ferrari"
That's what John Albert, the founder of Unified Building Group, called construction management software that is too complicated for superintendents and subcontractors in the field to figure out, and it's arguably the biggest problem with construction management software today. "Whenever you adopt a new technology you have reservations because you spend a lot of money and then the problem is no one can use it," Albert says, "It could be the Ferrari of software but it's useless if no one can drive it."
Overly complicated construction management software usually comes when the technology tries to do too many things. Don't get us wrong, if you're a subcontractor looking to make your workflows easier then it can certainly be tempting to go for the all-in-one platform.
But experience doesn't recommend it. "You can purchase a software that has all the bells and whistles but then no one uses it, and it's not allowing you to communicate effectively with your team, then it doesn't work," Albert notes, "so we gave up on all the silver bullets out there as far as software because that was always our challenge; we could never get our folks in the field who we really need the right information from back to accounting or the customer and get a true reflection."
That's where Albert's observations are useful for a subcontractor looking for a construction management solution: he couldn't get his guys in the field to use it because it was too complicated, and we can guarantee that you and your foremen won't use an all-in-one that is too confusing. Albert goes on to tell the story of a subcontractor he worked with: a fifth-generation trim carpenter who knew his craft inside and out, but just couldn't communicate via technology as simple as emails, let alone navigating through complicated software.
When you think about what it takes to be a subcontractor it makes sense: working your way up to a foreman or starting your own subcontracting business usually takes years of apprenticeship and hard work, which means that the people in these roles aren't the youngest or most tech savvy. And that's not a negative thing. Subcontractors are specialists with years of experience. You don't necessarily want or need them to be tech gurus.
That's why the first thing that construction management software for subcontractors should be is simple and straightforward. That is the only way to make sure that your foremen in the field are going to use it, and that the PMs in the office are going to get the information they need without having to chase them down.
A Subcontractor Management Plan to Eliminate Double Entry
But let's say you have construction management software already: it's called an excel spreadsheet and it's what you've been using for 25 years. If you're firm has truly had no problems with the excel spreadsheet method then more power to you, if it isn't broke don't fix it.
How can you tell if it's broke? Just look for the following signs:
- Does it take you over 30 minutes to an hour and a half some nights? Noah Anderson-Davies of Elkins Construction says "when I didn't avoid doing it, dailies would take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, especially if you collaborate with subcontractors." And that's just too long.
- Can you add and manage your photos easily? Usually, subcontractors take photos on their phone throughout the day, then download them to a computer at the end of the day, name them, and put them into folders for safekeeping. If you've ever needed a photo in a daily report or to report on a task, then you know what we're talking about.
- Are you entering reports into your excel sheet or pen-and-paper log and then having to write out the same information again in the GC's system? Double entry is a huge waste of time. That's time that could be better spent doing literally anything else other than the same work twice.
We understand that some subcontractors out there might be a little hesitant to ditch their old process for something new, especially an app. For years companies have promised subcontractors and GCs alike a "silver bullet" as Albert puts it, a technology that would sweep in and solve all their problems communicating with each other. The reality turns out to be expensive, confusing, and always leaves either the subcontractor or the GC frustrated.
That's why we put simplicity first on our list: if the software is easy to use and makes field workflows faster then it makes more sense to switch from an old system to a new one that has clear advantages. "in construction it's been the same way for such a long time" says Anthony Solesbee, a Project Superintendent with Alta Construction. We've seen everything from excel sheets to scribbled notes. We've even seen time card data captured on a 2x4. The problem with all of these ways of subcontractor field reporting is that they do a bad job of communicating what your crews are doing back to the PM or PE in the office, and that leads to them having to chase you down asking for your daily, which wastes their time and makes you look unprofessional.
But if you choose construction management software that's easy to use and produces a professional report you can avoid the problems of a pen and paper method. "After using it, we love it," says Solesbee after Alta implemented Raken's construction management software, "and it was really easy to learn. Since using Raken the reports that we do have gotten so much cleaner." And that's the real benefit of switching to a construction management software over pen and paper (or 2x4) for a subcontractor: the reports you turn in will be clean, impressive, and something you can be proud of.
Construction Management Software for Subcontractors Settles Disputes
But what about the other side of the coin? It's easy enough to see how getting subcontractors on construction management software benefits the GC: they get a log of all the work that the subcontractor has done and can even use the records in the software to approve payouts. But a good subcontractor management solution has to work the other way as well, and that means protecting the subcontractor and their interests when a dispute arises. In those cases, you are going to need a lot more than a spreadsheet and photos hidden on someone's phone somewhere.
Take Sam Bacon, the manager of Green Circle Demolition. Much of what they do relies on other crews having turned off utilities and other tasks before they can do their job. This relationship naturally leads to some disputes about who turned off what when, and that's why Bacon needs good evidence to back him up. "In this business, he who has the best information always wins," says Bacon. Using construction management software for subcontractors with photos built in, Green Circle has proof of the work they do and can bring that proof up in seconds in case of a disagreement. "If there's a dispute all I have to do is forward them the report with the photo proving it," Bacon states, "There are no ten phone calls going back and forth, it's all right there in the report. It provides you with the ability to prove you're in the right and come to the conversation with the back up you need."
The ability to quickly and easily settle disputes between contractors and subcontractors is a huge benefit to construction management software for subcontractors because it helps save the relationship between the two: and any subcontractor can tell you that the majority of their business comes from working with the same GCs for years. If you can prove your position to the GC in case of a dispute then you can save not only time and stress in emails and phone calls but a potentially worthwhile working relationship that your business is built on.
The Real Problems Between Contractors and Subcontractors
No matter what the dispute, there's one thing that GCs and subcontractors can all agree on: tracking time in the field is tricky, and inaccurate labor reporting can really cost both the contractor and the subcontractor. That's where using construction management software for subcontractors like Raken can help save real dollars. "Getting unpredictable job reporting for man hours from subcontractors can eat a company alive," Albert says, "Raken helps get our costs dialed in. We want to use real data, so the worklog hours that the subcontractors plug in helps us find discrepancies."
While getting accurate hours in the field certainly helps the GC when it comes to payouts and estimates, it also helps the subcontractors keep tabs on their own crews and make better decisions. "Our biggest cost is labor," notes Bacon, "and Raken's labor tracking is the best thing out there. It's nice to have your time cards in the same place as the work logs so we can check those against when the trucks were turned off, we can compare it quickly and easily. You have the information that day, and it helps you keep tabs on overtime on a midweek basis," Bacon continues, "if I know some of these jobs are tight I can make that call on Wednesday."
So what do subcontractors really think about construction management software? It all depends on how easy it is to use, whether they can use it to their advantage in a dispute and whether they can use it to keep track of their labor. If the tool can check off those three boxes, then odds are any subcontractor will be happy they added it to their tools.