In the building industry, projects depend on many different minds working together toward a common goal. There are technical experts, designers, government planners and inspectors, and interested members of the public, to name a few. Learning how to provide technical information, project timelines, financial guidance and so much more to all parties involved, takes practice, patience, and a lot of smart communication.
A good project leader can figure out the strongest forms and timing of communication for the team they are managing, while communicating equally effectively with the client and owner. Communication about design details among the architects and engineers on a project may look different than communication to the end client. For example, your team knows that COs slow things down in the construction phase, but your end client might not know that “CO” stands for “change order.”
The tone and sense of professionalism you wish to convey applies to all audiences; there are tools that support effective communication no matter who you need to share information with. Once you have a few proven techniques for delivering information, there are no “difficult clients” and there are fewer instances of lost time or money on a project. As design consultants, we strive not only for timely and efficient communication, but also for straightforward ways to share our expertise as we move through a project. An educated and empowered client will go on to advocate for architects and engineers — and their smart building practices.
Taitem staff members are always working to improve the way they deliver engineering expertise and seeking new forms of communication among building industry professionals. I sat down with two of our top project managers to learn how they are communicating with their teams. Beth Mielbrecht is a Partner and Senior Engineer at Taitem, where she manages contracts for statewide energy programs and research. Her projects and the teams she manages typically grow and change over several years. Evan Hallas is a Senior Energy Analyst who manages the Aeroseal department and communicates daily with building owners, developers, contractors, and other building professionals.
These conversations have led to the insights I’ve shared below. I’ve also included some GENERAL TIPS that I’ve overheard while working alongside other outstanding engineers at Taitem. Check out what we’ve shared and please reach out with any of your own techniques for effective communication.
Know your audience
Evan says that a key component for communication is knowing who on the team already understands the value of his work and the technology he is presenting — and who needs more information. You don’t need to spend time convincing the person who already supports your work; you need to give them the tools they need to convince their team. Know your role in the decision-making process. If you are the technical expert, show up and give them the technical expertise they need with confidence. Each project has a decision-making team, and some have one final decision maker. Support the team by understanding whom each person reports to, and ask yourself, “What does each team member need to understand the information? Data sheets? Visuals of the final product in place? Financial documents?”
GENERAL TIP: Ask your client if they have any upcoming meetings where they will be delivering information that includes your services or potential project support. Offer to format your materials in a way that they (your contact) thinks their team will understand. They may not think you can help with that aspect of delivering your value and they will appreciate you taking that extra step.
You need more than one form of communication
Beth uses a blend of email and phone communication to deliver messages to her team. Some people prefer one over the other. The best way to determine what works? Ask! Decide on the best form of communication at the project kickoff meeting. If your client says they appreciate phone calls, find time for the occasional call to check in or deliver news.
Beth notes, “If I have a meeting over the phone, I’ll send an email as a follow-up to the phone call. I have a general format in my mind that I use to provide an overview of what was discussed. I’ll summarize our talk, offer some bulleted action items, and close with a reminder of our next meeting. This is great for documentation. I also send regular project updates via email no matter what communication platform is preferred. This keeps the team up to date.”
GENERAL TIP: Put the project name and phase in the subject line and apply it to all email communication for the project. This will make finding the right email thread quick and easy.
Evan likes to over-communicate with brief updates throughout the project. He shared, “I call all the time. Good and bad news. I over-communicate so that if something does go bad, the clients knows that you have control over the project. Delivering good news builds confidence. They understand that things happen and situations arise in buildings that you don’t necessarily have control over. If they hear from you all the time, they know you’re not being negligent. It might be a voicemail that doesn’t need a response — just an FYI — and I’ll let them know they don’t need to take the time for a call back.”
GENERAL TIP: Tell your client how much you will communicate so they are aware of your routine. You might have 20 projects going on, but for them, this is the only one they are working on right now. I bet they want to know how it’s going.
Lists are important
You might already be using a shared list that for managing communication among teams during the design and construction phase of a project. Identifying the need for additional lists among trades in different phases of a project could help with project efficiency and provide the end client with a strong sense of what you need to keep things moving forward.
When the building design components start to get laid out at meetings, there are always questions that come up from supporting trades as well as the end client. Questions to help clarify the design come up when you’re outside of meetings too. In an effort to keep things organized, it makes sense to list questions in a shared place. You could create a list of all of the questions that arise (stored in a cloud such as GoogleDocs that supports live editing by several people) with columns that clearly identify when and whether the question is answered, what the answer is, and who best person to answer the question is. When the question is resolved, you change the color of the row (I vote for light purple, but gray is easy on the eyes). The most important part of creating this type of list is sharing it with the entire team, including the end client, and including a simple email message that explains how you will work within the document.
GENERAL TIP: Email the team (or only those who have questions that need attention) at a set time each week. For example, on Monday, the team gets the list and is asked to review questions that need answering.
To meet or not to meet
Beth shared, “Periodic project meetings are very common. I prefer to have meetings when there is set agenda of items that need to be discussed. This makes the meeting more important and much more productive. When I have an outlined agenda, I also don’t get nearly as many cancellations.”
She continued, “Because I am the key liaison for my projects, I personally communicate with the entire project team. All members of the project team report to me, and all of their reports and updates come to my inbox. When an issue arises, after careful evaluation, I invite the people on the team who are involved in the problem to the meeting to work on the resolution. Depending on the size and scope of the issue, I inform key stakeholders of the communication, resolution and milestones once they are achieved.”
GENERAL TIP: Before you use the CC fields, ask yourself, “Does this person really need to be part of this communication?”
Clear and concise with a dash of feeling
Beth believes that using bulleted lists and simple spacing between paragraphs, can go a long way. Technology threatens to overwhelm us with information, which makes it hard to find and process the information we need. There is so much information written in so many different ways, and standards for clear writing are often overlooked. Beth shared, “Through years of managing different teams and various projects, I have learned how concise and clear communication builds trust and confidence in everyone. This informs my work now. My emails need to be simple and clear. My goal is usually to state action items and deliver the message effectively without additional noise.”
GENERAL TIP: Always include a deadline. Whatever the action items include, even if a definitive deadline does not exist, provide a date.
Leverage your firm’s brand
Your firm has its own mission and key values that help to develop its brand. Use that to your advantage when you are developing your communication plan at the project onset. Allow that to inform how you’re talking to the team, and keep it in mind when you’re crafting emails and presenting options. If your firm focuses on dependability and sustainability, for example, then use words that reflect this position and apply those words in your emails.
Evan shared, “I communicate Taitem’s responsibility. I make sure the client understands that Taitem is a responsible firm…that we are expert engineers with years of experience. I let them know that they don’t have much to worry about because I have the weight of Taitem behind me and that even though the client may not know me personally, I stand for Taitem as a whole. We will make things correct and work alongside the client to deliver expert service. I’m super confident when I communicate that. It goes a long way.”
GENERAL TIP: Don’t be afraid to use and repeat the words directly from your mission statement and website.
Debrief to review successes and shortcomings
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s tough to take the time to do this after a project is complete. Establish a process for closing out a project that includes an internal debrief with your team. This debrief is the opportunity to revisit successes and where identify tasks and people might need support moving forward. This builds morale, makes it easy to share ideas, and improves the design process. If you’re comfortable getting feedback directly from the end client, have that ready to share internally when your team comes together. Celebrate your successes as a team and acknowledge where you can improve.
GENERAL TIP: Don’t delay. Get some feedback from the client as soon as the project is complete. Then meet internally before a month goes past. It’s important to share best practices and potential for improvement when the project is fresh.