PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog
meeting the construction labour shortage

How to Build More with Less: Insights from South Korea’s New Labour Regulations

Why Technology Can Solve Construction’s Labour Complexities

Earlier this year, the nation of South Korea passed legislation that dramatically decreased the maximum number of hours that employees could work. As of July, companies with greater than 300 employees will have the limit of potential worker hours cut from 68 to 52 hours per week. While smaller businesses will have until 2020 and 2021 to enact the changes, depending on their size, this is a major move to reduce the professional burdens many Koreans face.

The operating premise of this law, which has been similarly enforced in regions like Europe, is that overworked employees have little time for anything else, and deserve a work-life balance. Furthermore, the law also intends to encourage young people in the country to enter these industries with the understanding that they can do so, and still have a life outside of work.

As the third hardest working country in the world, this new regulation comes as a relief for many Korean workers, who are far too comfortable working nights and weekends. On the other hands, to critics, this labour regulation could further burden the construction labour shortage felt intensely in South Korea, as well as the broader Asia-Pacific regions and the world.

As global populations age and long-term construction professionals retire, there are fewer and fewer apprentices coming in to fill those roles. Even in South Korea, this has created a large dependence on a migrant workforce, since they cannot find enough talent within their borders to fill the available work. Although companies in industries such as manufacturing and construction claim that this will cost jobs, proponents say that it may actually save businesses by making jobs in construction more efficient.

Labour regulation or not, construction companies in Asia-Pacific, as well as globally, need to address the elephant in the room; the construction industry’s productivity problem. Work-life balance in construction is essential for productivity in the construction industry. While labour hour restrictions certainly pose an immediate obstacle, companies can improve their overall project productivity with the right arsenal of “digital tools”.

Below, we’ll discuss how a reduction in your workforces hours, whether regulated or not, can be a positive thing, as long as you have the right technology to fill the gaps.

Working More Doesn’t Always = Greater Productivity

Systemic reluctance to adopt new efficient practices means that a lot of people are still trying to run a business in what is effectively the Stone Age. In the past decade or so, while the worldwide labour shortage has brought construction inefficiency to a head, not implementing technology to streamline workflows has further halted companies from moving the needle and overcoming increasing project complexity. The mashup of the labour shortage and project inefficiencies, delays timelines and forces overhead ever higher. In an effort to supply the industry with new workers who are willing to stick around and build a career, countries like South Korea are looking to decrease the workload without compromising output.

For changes like this to be a success, construction professionals need to officially let go of the idea that more people and more hours mean more projects completed. In an industry where late projects are the norm, and cost overruns happen more often than not, having a sufficient labour pool is not the only factor. In a study conducted by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, experts attributed the use of paper over online and mobile technologies as the leading cause of large construction projects that come in late and over budget.

In short, people can’t address one issue without taking a careful analysis of the other. If you’re not solving systematic inefficiency problems from the outset, increased work hours on the project timeline doesn’t create a sustainable solution. All it does is increase your long-term costs and puts you at risk for running past deadlines.

Do More With Less? Yes.

South Korea has somewhat of an uphill battle since it has a history of long work hours and productivity on the lower side of average. But a quick look at other nations that have tackled this problem reveals a number of different perspectives. Analysis of the length of a country’s average workweek, compared to productivity, often yields a reverse correlation. The tiny country of Luxembourg has the highest average productivity in the world, but also the shortest average work schedule, at 29 hours per week. Germany workers, who also have one of the shortest work weeks worldwide, are three times more productive than their longer working UK counterparts.

What do businesses in these countries understand that the rest of the world has yet to grasp? Not all work hours are created equal, and more doesn’t necessarily mean better work. Often, it means the opposite. South Korea and Mexico, known for some of the longest-working weeks in the world, rank nowhere near the top in overall productivity. And if you pause for a moment, it makes a lot of sense. Studies have found that longer work hours in no way lead to more productivity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and can have a negative impact on efficiency and contribute to worker burn out.

Going back to the example of Germany, it’s widely recognised that when German workers are at work, they’re doing just that; working. In construction, when you think about the time that many workers spend on the clock waiting for another task to be done, or tracking down staff and information manually, you realise that inefficient hours could be costing you more than you previously thought. There’s got to be a better way. In fact, there is.

Stop Construction’s Labour Concerns From Wrecking Your Workflow

It’s not just bureaucrats who hate inefficiency. Workers dislike getting to the jobsite and having to wait around for instructions that may well turn out to need rework a week later. Supervisors loathe having to accommodate sudden changes in plans, especially if it means they just wasted a day of work. Project managers resent the disruption of their workflow when plans need to be manually sorted through. Owners despise a repeated pattern of faulty practices that lead them to continually fall short of expectations.

Simply put, every stage of the project could be quickly improved by incorporating software that:

  • increases transparency
  • focuses less on an individual relay of information
  • improves accessibility at all levels

Although the construction industry is notorious for its slow adoption of technological innovation, research suggests that this is more by default than design. In fact, according to a survey created by professional service company KPMG, the vast majority of construction companies believe they have the capacity to consistently deliver projects on time. A notable 95% think that technology is the way to make it happen, even if their company has yet to climb on board.

Increase Team Connectivity Across Multiple Barriers

As more businesses are realising, the key to addressing a smaller labour pool without having to cut down on project size or scope is to streamline collaboration. So many tasks could be automated and brought to the site that hours spent reading emails and passing messages from one team to another are rendered completely unnecessary. It’s not that workers are trying to be inefficient. Rather, structural inefficiencies built into outdated practices require them to take longer to get the same amount of work done.

Software available on a multitude of platforms, from mobile to desktop, online or offline, generates shortcuts that allow even large or international teams to stay on-task from one day to the next. Projects that require multiple groups working on individual shifts do not need to rely on each other to pass on relevant, updated knowledge. Using devices with shared information, people can look at their devices, find their obligations and start right where the previous team ended.

With a pool of labour that increasingly draws from other countries, ensuring adequate communication to and from non-native speakers could cause a significant lag. But it doesn’t have to. Some software tools offer multilingual support, decreasing your overall reliance on word-of-mouth translation services. For teams in South Korea that rely on Chinese migrant workers to complete work, this is a huge advantage. The benefit, which is much more simple to deliver using technology, allows you to improve your overall accuracy and confirm that everyone on every team can get and stay on the same page.

Add Digital Tools, Not Hours

Finding ways to increase your construction company’s efficiency while you work with the complexities of the labour shortage and regulations is not something a business owner or project manager should feel they have to do under duress. While not every country will face the labour legislation emerging in South Korea, a reduction in working hours for labourers won’t make an impact to your bottom line–as long as you have the right assets.

Construction workers don’t need more hours to do their job; they need more tools to keep them working productively. Adopting technological innovations like productivity software is an opportunity to set your business ahead of the rest. By implementing processes that increase your profit margins and guarantee a higher rate of project success, you can better ensure that your business can sail on the upcoming wave of changes to the industry. And while it might push companies to innovate so that they can keep their operating margins in line, a decrease in working hours could be the best decision you’ve ever made.

Adele Bernard

Adele Bernard (@Aadelebe) is APAC Marketing Director at PlanGrid and has spent the last decade as an APAC Tech Road Warrior, presenting to leaders of enterprise organisations and organising corporate events around the region.

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