Is there any industry for which #remotework is irrelevant? Well, you might say … construction.
Chris Postill would respectfully disagree—as I learned when he reached out to me on LinkedIn last week, to learn about networking with other #remoteleaders.
Potential clients sometimes look at him like he’s crazy, he told me, when he explains about doing construction-project planning and oversight via remote work. They will chuckle at him, he said, like you would chuckle at the old codger at the end of the bar in some old movie who tells tall tales that nobody believes – until it turns out he was telling the truth.
“As an industry,” he told me on a Zoom call, “we are spending millions of dollars just making sure people are at work 10 hours a day, when we could save 30% of our costs by having people working from home.”
Not for hammering or welding, obviously, but for many other aspects of the work: accounting, cost tracking, project planning and management, scheduling, reviewing bids. Particularly for admin staff, he asked, “why are you forcing people to work onsite, and then sending them emails? If they’re only there for meetings, why can’t they be happily working at home? It blows my mind.”
As the conversation began, he apologized for the sound of a child crying in the background. “It’s bedtime,” he said. “They don’t want to go to bed.” I told him not to worry, that this is the new normal.
Like me, Postill lives and works in a remote rural location. He’s a mile and a half away from the highway, 15 minutes away from a town about 30 miles north of Edmonton. His region sounded a lot like my home in Wyoming: Rodeos, cattle, oil and gas, cold winters.
The longer Chris Postill spoke, the closer I listened. How many times have I heard about people in this part of Wyoming drifting away for a while, to work on a rig somewhere else in the state, or maybe way down in Texas? Or driving an oil tanker just to make ends meet? Could they learn project management skills online and work remotely for the same companies, working from home right here in the Valley of the Warm Winds in the company of their friends and families?
Postill began as a steam-fitter and worked his way up to project manager in industries including oil and gas, chemicals, fertilizers, and uranium mining. Today he calls himself a “master planner and scheduler”.
He and his partner, Curtis Hermans, began promoting remote work in 2019, before the pandemic, when they realized it could save companies money while giving many employees a better life. The firm, Progressive Plan Inc., serves primarily the major industries in his part of Canada: energy and agriculture.
Of course, actual construction and safety control do have to take place onsite, he said. But many of the job functions that might seem to demand in-person presence could be done remotely, he added, by leveraging technology that is already available.
“With 3D onsite imaging and drone technology, you can send a drone into the site, put [its data] into a program and view it on something kind of like Google maps, that looks just like you’re there. If you can get 2 mm. accuracy, which is about as good as you can get with a tape measure–and you’re not endangering people–it’s insane not to use it.”
The word “outsourcing” can be a stopper for some clients, he admitted. But besides offering consulting by experts in planning and scheduling, Progressive Plan Inc. also provides scheduling software and certification courses in skills such as project management and team leadership for clients’ employees. These can be taken, of course, online.
The object is to focus on efficiency, not just clocking employees in and out, and avoiding the kind of mistakes that lead to people standing around idly or just doing busy work while waiting for something else to happen. “If you can schedule around having the managers and teams only go in when necessary,” Postill said, “it’s a no-brainer for me.”
Postill told me that the firm has quadrupled in size since 2019 — although many people in the industry are still stuck in the past when it comes to planning and scheduling construction projects.
“This is how we do it,” he hears over and over. “This is how we have always done it.”
Recently, representatives from a large fertilizer company were just that kind of skeptical at a meeting when they learned about the new concept. They had expected to see a proposal with nothing but numbers, Postill told me. Instead, they got a look at a drone image of a construction project with detail so clear they could make out the rungs on the ladders.
“Hold on!” they said. “If we can get that kind of detail, maybe we can plan remotely.”
Postill said that he and Hermans started their company partly because they were “tired of seeing people being treated like numbers” in an industry that often operates as much on blame as on finding solutions to cost and time overruns.
“We’re starting to get some traction now, people realizing maybe it makes sense,” he told me. “We’re betting we will win in the long run.”
© Lois Wingerson, 2021