PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog
outdated email in construction

How Dependence on Email in Construction Is Hurting Your Productivity

8 Reasons Why You Can’t Rely on Email in Construction

Email: That thing you check approximately 7 million times a day. That thing your workers do even more often, the black hole from whence important missives never returns. The “task” that makes everyone feel so darn productive, while often doing a whole lot of nothing.

Now, we know you’ve probably already heard the tired chant that email is pointless, a waste of time and the harbinger of Armageddon and we’re not here to repeat these facts. Instead, here’s what we are saying:

Email was a groundbreaking innovation back in its time – but its days of total company dependence are numbered. In 2014, studies showed that email occupied 23% of the average employee’s workday, and that average employee checked his or her email 36 times an hour (just slightly off our 7 million estimate). As of 2018, that number was 269 billion total emails per day across the globe, which translates to an average of about 35 emails per person per day.

If you’re starting to understand what a deluge of email represents and wonder whether it might be harming your projects, gold star. Dependency on email in construction may well fail to provide the best answer to many needs both in the industry and outside it. In short, email creates a system of disconnected data, increases risk and wastes time, decreasing a company’s overall productivity on a daily basis.

Plus, ask yourself: When it comes to critical details on a big construction project, should we really trust the same tool our grandparents and other quirky relatives use to forward their superstitious and spam chains letters?

To the point, is email in construction dampening or ruining your projects? Let’s take a look at that question (and others) today as well as what you should be doing instead of email.

Emailing Increases Multitasking, Productive or Not

While we tend to laud good multitaskers, research says that those who jump between tasks aren’t actually that effective at all. Even if you turn your attention only briefly to a task, you have disrupted the flow of your current activity. This is harder for the brain to do than we think, and the “switching cost”–your brain’s ability to change tracks–is also much higher than you might think. The simple sentence, “Now where was I?” is mega-bad news, but most of us don’t even realize the time suck it takes.

The trouble is email in construction by its very nature is sporadic, offering only bits and pieces of information here and there before you must return to your original task at hand. The number of emails, combined with switching costs (which can devour as much as 40% of your productive time), make email a voracious monster.

Plus, it’s not that pleasant. Despite the dopamine that surges through our neurons each time we see a new message (yes, more research points to consider), email actually pressures our systems beyond comfortable tolerance. “Email increases multitasking,” said Kostadin Kushlev, a behavioral scientist. “It fragments our attention and contributes to our feeling that there is too much to do and not enough time to do it.”

Email Often Fails to Create Accountability

It’s true that in simple, two-person, “you do this, and I’ll do that” email chains, ye olde electronic mail can provide useful accountability.

Much of the time, however, email creates uncertainty and confusion. The habits of forwarding, cc’ing, bcc’ing and building long chains can quickly add up and be unmanageable. Once you add in features and built-in truncations meant to make emails “easier to read,” emails become a puzzle that no one has the time, willingness and sometimes mathematical capability to untangle. Hence, accountability remains vague.

It’s often a lot like playing a game of telephone, too, with the message changing slightly each time. If you only read the top message, well, let’s just say we all remember grade school. No one was trying to say “The monkey got his socks stuck in the cheese sandwich,” but there you have it.

Email Drains Massive Amounts of Employee Time

Remember above when we said that the average employee spends nearly one-quarter of their time on email? Well, three minutes later, that’s still true. Between multitasking and trying to parse accountability from monstrous group chains, it’s a huge time suck.

That’s before you even account for the other time sinks inherent in email, such as finding and referencing old chains, add in the gnarly task of sorting through messages to find old documents, to-do lists or contracts and you have a pretty mess on your hands. Most importantly, the email time drain distracts construction teams from what they really need to do–project execution.

Email Causes Stakeholders to Get Left Out

Everyone has heard the phrase “It must have gotten lost in my inbox,” right? This cookie-cutter answer is a neat palm-to-forehead way of explaining gaffes, but it hides a deeper truth: simple disorganization leads to many a mistake in construction.

Email in construction is essentially a fragmented system. What goes on behind the electronic walls of that email string is entirely opaque to those who aren’t on it. Which means that too often, email really only benefits the sender, and perhaps a few others. The company itself doesn’t get much out of it unless the correspondents take action to translate those emails for other stakeholders, which they often don’t.

Moreover, information and key documents that are attached are not searchable from multiple project stakeholders, and things can get lost easily. The takeaway? Project members might get left out of important conversations or miss seeing documents completely – at which point it’s like it never happened.

Tasks Aren’t Easily Prioritized in Email

Email cannot properly manage tasks, plain and simple. That’s a problem because task management is essential in construction to work towards project completion. Everything may seem urgent in emails, but in reality, some tasks should carry more weight than others, making the level playing field email represents very misleading. (Don’t even get us started on the red exclamation points.)

Plus, email is static. It does not define work, put in processes and truly establish when things have been completed. Instead, it just hangs out forevermore, failing to respond to changes in real time.

Email Is Not Meant for Collaboration (Though It Poses Like a Tool That Is)

On the surface, email seems to increase a team’s ability to collaborate. Anyone can talk and connect with anyone–how democratic!

Yet in practice, email is not nearly so flexible. Changes get lost, and errors occur when editing back and forth. There’s no way to see the most recent information if someone makes the change unless that person ensures everyone gets a copy of the update.

In short, it is not meant for collaboration. Communication, yes. But collaboration, which is critical to success in construction? Not so much.

Email Does Not Offer Integration

Unfortunately, email does not play nicely with others. By not connecting to other systems and technologies, it makes life more difficult for everyone on the jobsite. Why? Because real-time data is critical to a successful construction project, and you need your systems and communications to integrate to empower better decisions that affect the project outcome. Email doesn’t do that; instead, it hides crucial information away behind the exclusive walls surrounding those on any given email string.

What Should You Do Instead of Using Email in Construction?

If you’re starting to get all “So what should we do then, Negative Nancy?” then we don’t blame you. We’re not just highlighting the downfalls of email to bash Outlook and Gmail. Email has become such a firm part of the cultural fabric in construction, and across other industries that it’s hard to imagine life without it. Nonetheless, there are more modern solutions.

So what should you do instead? Our vote: Make the switch to collaboration software. As much as 25-30% of all time spent on email could be saved if the primary channel for business communication in a company was moved over to a social platform, according to McKinsey.

Collaboration software offers additional benefits as well, such as increased communication, better task prioritization and management, enhanced project visibility and documentation and improved productivity.

So should you get rid of email in construction entirely? No, that’s not what we’re advocating; there are a number of positive ways to utilize email in a collaborative space, such as:

  • Looping in external stakeholders
  • Using it as a notification system in conjunction with collaborative software
  • Enabling external stakeholders to respond directly to tasks like submittals via email

It would be a shame to lose these useful abilities by completely getting rid of email. Nonetheless, it’s time to stop relying on the outdated technology as your central project communication system.

The Takeaway

Email is not about to be replaced any time soon. It still has an important purpose to play, especially in construction. But the time is now to get away from your dependence on email, to avoid fragmentation and inefficiencies via this unreliable medium, and to make the switch to collaboration software.

Bottom line: Let’s not put email in construction to the death quite yet, but let’s consider depending on something that adds to our productivity in construction.

If you’re interested in reading up on another outdated and common technology in construction, take a look at our post, “Ditch That Excel Budget Template: Why It’s Time Get Rid of Excel in Construction.”

Further Reading:  Getting to Lean: Why Lean Construction Is a Journey of Perpetual Discovery

Grace Ellis

As a Content Marketing Manager at PlanGrid, Grace is the managing editor for the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. With over eight years of experience in marketing, communications and PR for technology companies, she is specialized in high-quality content creation across both traditional and digital media platforms.

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