Use of social media to enhance communication and productivity on construction sites
Social media applications like WhatsApp have been adopted by construction site workers as a free, easy to use and decentralised way of facilitating effective communication on a variety of issues that affect their productivity. However, the use of consumer applications that are available for personal rather than commercial use may not be within the terms of services of the companies that produce them. With the use of social media being clearly instrumental for effective site-level communication and subsequently productivity, there is a need to provide further support and guidance on the pros and cons of the various social media and other communication packages to construction businesses to help their decision making in terms of which to promote amongst their site teams.
During a series of workshops with site operatives as part of the Innovation Driven Procurement programme, the use of social media apps like WhatsApp were identified by the participants as a means of communication they were using on site to improve their productivity. Site level operatives across the different subcontractors explained how the use of WhatsApp as a consumer social media messaging platform provided a solution to the problem of timely communication within their respective companies and on site. It enabled them to communicate with their colleagues quickly and efficiently and participants in supervisory roles explained that the use of their WhatsApp group chats helped them maintain or improve productivity by coordinating efforts of their teams and reacting to events in real time across different locations on a project.
Based on the workshop insights, the IDP analysed trends in the use of social media technologies in the construction industry using data from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS, 2019). Figure 1 indicated that the use of social media platforms in construction has increased over the last decade. Whilst the use of social media messaging platforms like WhatsApp is not clear from these statistics, increased use of social media technologies in the construction industry seems to be reflected in its use on site.
Figure 1: Social media use in the construction industry (ONS, 2019)
Messaging platforms allow instant text communication between individuals using smartphones or desktop devices. They can distribute the same message to multiple workers as well as receiving texts in real time. A further advantage of these platforms is that they allow for the attachment of documents, photographs, or videos. Some of these platforms are consumer applications that are available for personal use, while others are business applications aimed at commercial use by businesses rather than individuals. This distinction is not always acknowledged by users, creating legal and moral dilemmas between using a social media technology that is popular in the consumer market for personal use but has been adapted by individuals in the workplace to overcome workplace issues.
The use of these social media messaging platforms is not always likely to be the within the terms and conditions of the companies providing them. The terms of ‘legal and acceptable use’ may prohibit the use of such a social media platform for anything other than personal unless authorised by the provider. There are broader implications in use of these platforms in respect to data storage and being capable of demonstrating compliance with national legislation and regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act (2018). Direct control of such instant messaging platforms by businesses to prevent abuse can be a challenge whilst there is also a danger groups can be created with the intentional exclusion of other members of a team. These findings promoted further research to collate some of the existing software applications with instant messaging capability that are available for business/commercial use. This could help construction businesses make more informed decisions about their choice and use of instant messaging applications for site communication.
The pros and cons of some of the existing social media apps with instant messaging capabilities have been summarised in Table 1. Some of these software applications like LetsBuild, Field chat, and Plan Grid have been developed specifically for the construction industry and can interface with other construction software. As part of further engagement with supply chain businesses as part of IDP innovation challenge project, opportunities are being explored on the use of these software applications to improve site-level communication, including coaching and mentoring support to realise the full productivity benefits.