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Hard Hats and Soft Skills: When Construction Worlds Collide

There are few spaces where empathy, humility, and the pneumatic torque wrench are fellow travelers. Today’s construction jobsite is such a place. The jobsite is, after all, in the throes of a couple of helpful revolutions. The tech revolution continues to dramatically sand the edges off inefficiencies that have plagued the low-margin building biz forever. Machine Learning, Building Information Management (BIM), SaaS Computing, Drones—the new jobsite is a tech wonderland whose digital innovations, for all their space-age sleekness, are about adding productivity to our irreplaceable old pals, the hammer and nail.

The other construction revolution is taking place in a comparative whisper, and in the more complicated realm of flesh and blood.

“When your project is in trouble, you can tell when people start getting divided,” says Nancy Novak, SVP of Construction at Compass Datacenters. “Understanding the team—the strengths, weaknesses, blind spots—that is a huge part of being able to analyze the behavior. And then you look at the behaviors to see whether people are trusting each other, whether they're supporting each other, whether morale is high…”

Oh, right. People.

Building People

Tech itself has wowed human culture for thousands of years. A personal meeting with the Great Pyramid of Giza (~2570 B.C.) can still cause a tourist on camelback to drop his phone and stare. But what about the people who have been hand-assembling the world’s built environment for six millennia? People are the broad foundation of the construction ecosystem. Human dynamics are infinitely more complex than the most daunting construction mega-project, but can be similarly tamed with the proper tools.

On Wednesday, November 14 at 3pm, Nancy Novak and Tamara Yang will be presenting at Procore’s annual Groundbreak conference in Austin, Texas. “How to Predict if Your Project is Going Wrong” is a title whose unfussy shorthand contains volumes. Getting a wayward project back on the rails has everything to do with understanding and owning the human dynamism that is the project’s engine, and whose energy can be cohered into project momentum.

Tamara Yang, Balfour Beatty’s National Learning and Development Director, has strong opinions on the joinery that turns a group into a Team. It starts with the E word. “Empathy plays a key role. You can't come in, like we so often do in our industry, with, ‘All right, well, who's to blame? Who's fault is this?’ You really need to come at it from understanding. Typically these things don't happen overnight.” Yang pauses, as if to signify the brakes that need tapping in these situations.

“There's a long chain of events and decisions and choices and actions that have been built into this problem that we have now,” she says rhetorically of a potential project issue. “The key with empathy is just making sure that we understand all sides of the story, from your own perspective as a contractor, to the subcontractors, the owner, the architect—all the stakeholders.”

Tech and Community

Procore’s annual technology conference, Groundbreak, a yearly construction innovation summation, offers the construction community a smorgasbord of paradigm-testing sessions, thought leadership, colorful networking free-for-alls, and less describable experiences. Construction technology is Groundbreak’s theme, human community the animating spirit. In their Groundbreak talk, Novak and Yang will speak to the specifics of moving a stalled project forward, in plain terms that make it clear the solution marries human-interactivity to construction technology.

“You can come to an agreement when you have a polarizing issue to deal with, but you still need to know your sh*t,” Novak says. “When data is presented to you, you need to able to analyze it, be technically able to understand what's being presented by the different parties. So you have to know what you're doing. But that's, again, where I think tech knowledge is power. Data with integrity, that matters a lot.”

How to Predict If Your Project Is Going Wrong
Groundbreak in Austin TX
Wednesday, November 14, 3pm
Presented by Nancy Novak, Compass Datacenters
and Tamara Yang, Balfour Beatty Construction