Complete digital project environment at Brink Groep creates time and space
2011 – Brink Group in Leidschendam, with sites in two other places in the Netherlands, focuses on management, consulting and automation for construction industry, housing and real estate. In the field of automation Brink Group – with 215 consultants employed – is leader in the calculation and maintenance industry. Commitment to clients and projects is the key for Brink Group. In that process independence and integrity are natural values.
With three locations in congested areas and customers throughout the country, Brink Group sought ways to make employees in their work less dependent on time and place; using time for productive work, instead of for traveling. However in large construction and consultancy projects the rapid exchange of information is an obstacle. Therefore Brink Group decided to introduce a fully digital project-environment for large projects. The site is accessible for consultants, project managers and clients. This changed the way of working and caused a significant efficiency boost and less traffic congestion at Brink Groep.
“I would recommend any company to explore the possibilities of a fully ‘digital-environment’ project. This may bring many huge efficiency gains. At Brink Group all information is in one place, it is easier to manage and to update. The secured project area is accessible from any PC and many basic communication about the project takes place in the project area. This also saves a lot of trips to colleagues and customers to discuss the last project changes. For us the advantages are obvious” said Arthus Tutein Nolthenius, HR manager at Brink Groep.
Brink Groups’ employees mostly work in teams and are often on the road or at customers’ places. The nature of project work puts requirements on various aspects of the organization. Traveling to a client, colleague or external party takes more and more time. Since project teams are variable in nature, cooperation with colleagues differs per project. Brink Group has looked into these aspects and implemented three measures:
- facilities to work from home and flexible workplaces at the office;
- a system for video conferencing;
- a digital project environment.
All locations have a room with video conference facilities. This facility can be used for meetings between people at different offices or with clients. This system provides employees with freedom to choose from which place they want to work. Due to the nature of the project work and the freedom to work at home a traditional design of the office is not efficient. The occupancy rate is low and it varies by project with which colleagues one collaborates. That is why the employee when he comes in the office, chooses out of a number of activity-related workplaces that fit the work he or she has planned to do that day.
A third measure Brink Group has taken, has emerged from the need to support employees who work untethered time and place in their work, as well as possible. With this measure Brink Group wanted to address some gaps in the method of project-work, at the same time. This was accompanied by questions like:
- How do we ensure the widest possible access to employees?
- How can we facilitate the availability of relevant information and data as well as possible?
- How can we increase the accessibility of specialized applications?
- How do we reduce the time and error sensitivity in managing project documentation?
- How do we take care of document management and ensure the parties that they always work with the last draft?
- How can we make transparent by whom and when documents are checked, approved, modified etc.?
- How do we prevent server problems when sending large attachments in the email?
Brink Group uses an extranet for large construction projects with an online project environment and access to specialized applications. All parties involved can log in on this area via a secure Internet connection. In the project area you can find:
- documents, such as drawings, photographs and reports, including workflow management (so: control mechanism, version management, status management);
- the project schedule;
- the project planning;
- the entire project archive;
- messages, discussions and tasks associated with the project.
All parties involved have access to the project area on the extranet. This centralizes discussions that used to be bilateral (email), it can provide actual documentation, it prevents errors with sending large attachments and also ensures an almost paperless way of working. Furthermore travelling time is shortened considerably because visiting the office to access specific software is no longer necessary. Brink Group currently has 60 ongoing projects that make full use of the digital project environment. Three quarters of the 215 consultants and managers within Brink Group make extensive use of this extranet in their daily work.
Introduction and promotion
Brink Group did not organize a major launch. Through a number of pilot projects the software package was tested. For this purpose Brink Groep selected projects that suit to the new way of working. An important criterion was the professionalism of the customer; the customer had to be accustomed to complex projects with a comprehensive project approach. And the customer had to agree, indeed not only Brink Groep had to switch to the new method but the client as well.
The project teams at Brink Groep consist largely of technicians, who were enthusiast for an experiment with a new digital environment. The consultants are already accustomed to working from home and have the freedom to plan their work themselves. That is embedded in the work culture of Brink Groep, employees are given room for that and managers do not need to control them. Such a culture is helpful to implement the new way of working properly.
After several test projects the system was introduced in other projects. An extensive training for all project participants was organized in advance. Who participates in a project according to the new digital method, is required to work by the system. It contains all communication and data exchange. Since everyone saw the advantages of the new method, there was enough support and little resistance to work in this way soon. Some customers and other external parties felt cold feet at first, however these are now convinced of the great advantages.
Managing the New Way of Working
Within Brink Group managers are working consciously to create the conditions for a culture of trust. This is achieved through giving personal attention to employees protecting them explicitly for the pitfalls of the ‘new ways of work’. Things like: involvement in the Brink Groep, work-life balance, self-reliance, etcetera. These aspects are also discussed in annual performance reviews. For junior staff, there is extra attention by coaching . They have slightly less autonomy than their senior colleagues, because for them it is of great importance to develop the bond with the company and to learn from their colleagues’ professionalism. As soon as the recruiting process it is investigated whether the candidate fits Brink Group and the new Ways of working that it pursues.
Brink Group has a role as project manager in large construction projects. Deployment of the extranet with a project management environment and implementing improvements to this system provide Brink Group a precursor position in the field of automation of project management in the construction industry. Bringing this system on the market adds to the visibility of the knowledge and skills of Brink Group in managing large construction projects.
The introduction of this system has numerous benefits:
- time savings: by using specialized applications a visit to the office is no longer necessary;
- higher productivity: part-time employees indicate that they often study the state of affairs on the extranet the evening before. This allows them to start quickly on the working day;
- greater involvement: employees indicate that they like it that they can see the project documents any time they want, even in free time;
- reduced probability of failure: working with the most recent documents and data reduces the likelihood that decisions are taken on ‘obsolete’ documents;
- ‘as built’- documentation is accumulated by the use of the extranet. After the project has finished nobody has to worry about collecting all the latest documents;
- less printing costs: the use of easily accessible digital data reduces the need for printing.
Because each construction project is unique, it is difficult to quantify benefits. On operating costs there can be saved about 42 % by using the extranet. This system leads to less travelling time and therefore to a more efficient use of people and their skills. Time savings can be invested in the project which benefits the quality.
Employees can work on large projects time – and location-independent, as long as a computer with internet access is nearby. It is much easier to travel when there are no jams or not to travel at all when it is not needed. Brink Group believes that by introducing time – and location-independent work about 15 % less mileage are made by employees. This contributes to a better work-life balance.
A part of the investment in the system Brink Groep gets back, because it sells the licenses of the system in the Netherlands. However there are costs for less quantifiable aspects. Costs are less tangible investments and/or pitfalls, such as:
- when you see each other less often by posting or working from home, you will get familiar with each other less intensive. This makes email traffic more sensitive to misconceptions;
- there need to be explicit attention to involvement in the company. Brink Group tries to collect all employees by organizing an evening meeting to discuss a theme once a month;
- you don’t control people, therefore confidence is necessary for both parties (employer/ employee). You do not always know what is going on. It is wise to pay more attention to juniors.
- Choose for a step by step approach. There is no need for a major policy change or a big bang as turning point. Look what is needed and just start.
- Choose a number of pilot projects to try the new methodology.
- Coach not only employees, but also customers and other external parties who will have to deal with the new system.
- Provide for good training.
- Give employees room to deal with their (travel) time in a really flexible way.
- Oblige working to the new method.
This case description is provided by Foundation Telewerkforum, which recently changed its name to: Forum Duurzaam werken (Forum sustainable work). The main role of this forum is to promote new and sustainable ways of working in the Netherlands. More information can be found on the website: www.forumduurzaamwerken.nl.