Remote Construction Management–Does Your Workplace Presence Matter?

The Covid experience changed many people’s perspectives in the workplace. Some became more anxious, some more empathetic, some more lenient, and a whole other category of people became less committed to their employers, associates, and the responsibilities that accompany their paychecks. No matter what position you hold within a construction management firm, unless you are uniquely, strictly back-of-the-house, standalone corporate support, your role involves working directly on projects or with people working on projects. This means that eyes and ears and team collaboration are essential to being the best you can be in your job, with few role exceptions. You may not be jobsite based, but you are most likely far more in tune with others on your team—good or bad—when you commit to cohabitating and interacting face-to-face with them during working hours.

We recently ran a campaign on behalf of a client for a remote estimating position. The client themselves did not know what type of individuals would surface to apply for this role. The results were fascinating. The post was specific for estimators, and ironically, every estimator who applied did not do so for 100% remote. They were all willing to at least do hybrid and explained why that was necessary.

On the other hand, we received an abundance of construction assistant project managers and project managers inquiring about a 100% remote role. When I asked why they wanted to work remotely, one of the most common replies was that they worked remotely when Covid hit, and they did just fine. In further discussion, we found out they were now either back at work or being told that in 2023 remote work was ending and they must return to their workplace. These individuals were from construction firms of all sizes doing all-sized projects. Remote project management in construction typically lends itself best in situations where the companies have leading field managers and the projects are shorter, so human capital logistics and costs are prohibitive to support on-site management. The decision to allow project managers to work from home instead of a centralized office is a corporate one.

Why did companies that had never had a remote workforce prior to Covid grant remote options to employees starting in February 2020?

They had to comply with the government mandate or choose to face potential lawsuits or close their businesses. They were just trying to figure it all out while facing their own destiny of unknowns. Care and concern for others’ well-being as a work-family is commonplace in our industry.

Why did companies allow many to stay remote, whether continuing to be top performers or not?

For most employers who applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program funds, to not owe the monies back, they needed to keep the employees under that program employed. Another reason is the cost of turnover and the lack of manpower, so they chose not to rock the boat until the right time to do so. Again, care and concern for others’ well-being as a work-family is commonplace in our industry.

Why are most construction companies ending (or have ended) fully remote work opportunities?

Managing a remote workforce requires trained personnel and technologies that align the efficiencies of the remote workforce with those on-site or at least hybrid. Companies have now had time to evaluate what does and doesn’t work for them, while providing the right work-life balance to those who fit long-term within their culture. Those that can allow for some or all remote workforces have their model in place for the time being, subject to change.

Forbes’s recent article on 2023 project management trends states, “From a project management standpoint, this transition (remote workforce) has its pros and cons. Working in the same physical location as other team members promotes team-building and spontaneous collaboration that can be otherwise limited in a virtual workspace. Despite the perks of in-person collaboration, remote employees enjoy the flexible nature of working from home and report increased satisfaction with their work. When given the choice, many remote employees would prefer to remain remote or partially remote instead of returning full-time to the office.”

Being an employer myself and an employee within my organization, I know remote work can be more efficient when it does not require others’ input to be done. After all, nobody is walking up to you. Inefficiencies happen the moment you have a stopgap in your work because you are unable to visually see something or someone and you have to ask another to get involved in your absence. Your employer now has double the labor burden for something that did not have to be to accommodate your remoteness.

Most employees don’t know their labor burden rate, which is the overall cost to an employer annually, including not only your wages but also other costs, such as tax and benefits. A good rule of thumb is to multiply your hourly rate by 1.24. So, if your annual salary is $100,000, your hourly rate is approximately $40 before or at least $49.60 with your labor burden. If your workplace-based co-worker makes $80,000 a year and has a labor burden of $47.69/hour, and a task requires two of you to participate because you are not in the workplace, not only does it cost your employer $97.29/hour to get something that should be $49.60/hour, it also takes time from the other worker doing their job. I know you are going to say this happens all the time when both are in the workplace. The difference is that in the workplace, it is behavioral; when you are remote, you have no choice.

Yes, we hear all the time from those who work or worked as remote employees that they put in more hours when they worked from home than they did at their workplace. The question is why? Are they less efficient because they are not at the office? Are they more dedicated than they would be in the office? Do they find more things that need to be done or put more detail into their work when they are remote? Why is the time you work differently in or out of the office? The job is the same, isn’t it?

The real answer to remote or not remote is it’s a business decision for the employer and a personal decision for the employee. Just like with any decision we make; we should be ready for the consequences if the expectations of the other party do not add up.

One of those assistant project managers I spoke with was on a major multiple-year project with a top-100 general contractor. When they hired her, she was jobsite based. When Covid hit, she went remote. In January of this year, they asked her to come back to the jobsite, and she chose not to. They are now closing out the project and have given her an ultimatum: be jobsite based on the next project or be laid off. It was not obvious to her that they did not lay her off sooner because changing out a teammate with twelve months left on a project that was well underway before Covid posed a lower project and company risk than ramping up a new player. Yet they would not have asked her to come back to the jobsite a year ago if her remote performance was equal to being with her teammates on site. After all, with each year that she is off site, her constructability, front-facing, and other skill sets are not being developed. They now have the policies in place to lay her off, with ramifications if she does not comply.

On the other hand, this year, we had a dedicated employee, only a few months into the job, get notified of her husband’s work transfer out of the area. She approached her employer to help them train someone to take over, and instead, they came to mutual terms for a hybrid option that required the employee to travel further monthly for a mandatory meeting yet continue her successful employment working remotely. Her role did not require jobsite visits, and she worked primarily with outside agencies supporting the business as opposed to internal staff. The decision to retain her made sense for the company, and it made sense to others as to why her role would qualify and not theirs.

During the 2008 five-year recession, construction management graduates and those less junior in the industry were handicapped for opportunities at competitive wages because of their lack of jobsite experience. I would be interested in hearing more from you about the pros and cons of remote construction management. Is it a yes or no for a construction management career? You can share your thoughts here by commenting below or share this article on LinkedIn with your comments and tag me @SuzanneBreistol.

To Being Present, Even When Remote,

Suzanne Breistol


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