Communication turns a group of workers into an organized crew. Ever since our cave-dwelling ancestors started using hand signals and birdcalls to corner a mammoth, we’ve been trying to perfect communication to achieve our goals faster and more efficiently.
We’re still working on it. Especially in the workplace.
Workplace communication now comes in a variety of form factors, including email, text, cell phone, instant messaging, radios, intercom, online collaboration tools, face to face, and hand signals. Nevertheless, poor communication is still responsible for most project failures.
Communication can always improve. Whether or not it does is a matter of urgency and technology. Often, if it’s not mission-critical it won’t get done. If a solution is too expensive or disruptive, it’s a non-starter. Regarding the mission-critical point: If you keep bumping into any of these seven signs, then you need to improve communication for your crew sooner rather than later.
Sign #1: Interference Battles
There are two kinds of interference: visual and audio. Visual is when there’s a physical barrier between you and someone else trying to signal you. If you can’t see it, then you don’t get the signal.
Audio interference is more complex. If you rely on face-to-face communication, then environmental noise can interfere. You also have to factor in the distance between you and your crew.
If you rely on a two-way radio, then interference can result from a variety of issues, including broken antennas, cross talk, button mashing and narrowbanding. Mandated by the FCC to create additional channels, narrowbanding reduces frequency range and makes certain sounds indistinguishable, such as the high-frequency letters “s” and “f.” That kind of audio confusion can be frustrating and even dangerous.
If you rely on a Bluetooth-connected device, then you’re in competition with WiFi routers, security systems and, with the advent of the Internet of Things, refrigerators, cars, watches and just about any other product labeled as “smart.”
Finally, if you use cell phones, then you’re at the mercy of the network. Coverage typically fails when you need it the most.
Sign #2: Safety Issues
Any time there’s an accident, communication falls under the microscope. Investigators scrutinize everything from training to posted warnings to response times. To a lesser degree, you may go through the same kind of review if you are cited for a safety violation. Either way, improving communication always improves safety.
Sign #3: Missed Deadlines
Not meeting production goals? Are construction delays so commonplace that they’re now considered normal? Project estimates paling in comparison to actual costs? Many factors contribute to singular events. But if falling short is a chronic issue, then your crew will benefit from better communication to help them work more efficiently, since even tiny improvements can snowball into big savings.
Sign #4: Hurry Up and Wait
Observe your worksite or plant floor. Is part of your crew constantly waiting around? A finely tuned crew finds its own pace to optimize productivity. You see this in crews that have been together for a long time. They spend so many hours working together that they know each other’s rhythms. It’s like a back-shoulder pass from a quarterback to a receiver. It’s not safe to attempt such a risky play unless the two players have spent hours practicing the timing.
Unfortunately, most crews don’t have the luxury of controlling their membership. Shift changes, new projects that require new expertise, and the need to collaborate with other crews on larger projects can throw off the timing of the most experienced crews. Improving real-time communication helps make up for the lack of experience by reducing the time spent waiting around for materials, equipment, contingent processes, or instructions on what to do next.
Sign #5: Visual Dependency
Hand signals, flags, lights and visual alarms are invaluable to safety and efficiency. They are even more effective when supplemented with audio communication. Plus, it’s more common today for workers to become overwhelmed by too many visual alarms—a phenomenon known as alarm fatigue. Adding dependable audio communication closes up those gaps where an operator accidentally misses a life-threatening visual signal.
Sign #6: Equipment Damage
If your equipment repair or replacement bills are going up but your profits are stagnant, then a lack of real-time communication on the worksite may be to blame. A crew that needs to rush to complete tasks may be more likely to push equipment beyond its limits. Also, communication interference or breakdowns may result in misunderstood directions. Improving communications reduces operator error, prevents collisions and keeps the worksite safer.
Sign #7: High Stress/Low Morale
Nothing upsets workers more than being set up to fail. Except being placed unnecessarily in a dangerous situation. Both result in high stress and low morale. Avoid both by improving communication.
The ability to hear and be heard in real time instills confidence across your entire crew. No one feels out of the loop and everyone has the opportunity to contribute. In challenging environments, workers understand that dangerous situations require optimal situational awareness. They need proper communication tools to allow them to use their equipment safely.
Every worker wants to end their shift in good health and with a sense of accomplishment. Improving communication empowers them to do just that.
Ignoring It Doesn’t Help Your Crew
What you know influences what you see. It’s a phenomenon of human perception. Basically, once your brain registers how you perceive something, it cannot reverse itself.
So when you recognize one or a few of these signs, maybe you tell yourself, “We’ll learn from this and figure it out for the next project. Or, “We just need to hire a strong leader/fire a weak leader.” Or, “Next time, be sure to yell louder.”
But now you’ll know when you see the signs that it’s time to improve crew communication. And until you do, you can’t unsee them.