Although much of construction is the visible output of labor, the process for achieving the finished project is complex. Arguably, it’s more complex than it needs to be, writes Robert Salaj  

The standard approach to building is widely understood. Every project is broken down by a variety of factors. This includes tools, materials, and a slew of information such as estimates versus actuals, local regulations, change orders, RFIs, submittals, and more. All those project tasks have several sub-tasks, many of which are contingent upon a smooth workflow. A change to one aspect of the project has a ripple effect, which can lead to project delays, higher costs, or even accidents.  

Meanwhile, in recent years, construction companies have increased their use of technology. According to Cemex Ventures, investment in construction tech was $5.38 billion in 2022, up from the record-setting $4.5 billion in 2021. 

The primary reasons construction companies invest in technology are to boost productivity and get a better view of the status of every part of the project. This way, potential delays can be identified and fixed before it is too late. Unfortunately, for many construction companies the benefits of investing in technology are not meeting expectations. Projects are delayed despite employees putting in longer hours. Why? 

Gray work: the insidious productivity buzzkill 

The obvious reasons for project delays are the labor shortage and the rising cost of supplies. Yet there is another not so obvious factor. It is the valuable time employees spend on activities that detract from moving projects forward. To understand the issue, let’s go back to all the sub-tasks required in any project.  

The information for managing each activity is often created and stored in a technology tool. This may be a spreadsheet, a database, a project management platform, etc. Those tools are valuable and have been proven to streamline a lot of processes while also replacing paper and pencils on the jobsite. The problem arises when it comes down to putting those various sources of information together. Since many construction companies are in various stages of digital transformation, it results in a mix of digital tools that are used both in the back office and on the jobsite. Alone, the tools are helpful. If they are not connected, it is impossible to quickly get a big picture view of what is happening with any given project.

Robert Salaj 
Robert Salaj

Asking a project manager or administrator to whip together a project status report is more taxing than you may think. What often happens is workers must pull together disparate pieces of information from across all those tech tools.  

For a mid-sized construction company, employees spend 11 hours per week, on average, tracking down the information they need to do their job. By the time they get the information they need, hours and sometimes days are lost. In this example, the ripple effect and subsequent delays are caused solely by the construction company. The time that detracts employees from working on more meaningful and revenue-generating activities is known as gray work. 

The sunk costs of gray work 

Given the project-based nature of construction, gray work is especially prevalent in the industry. There is irony in the fact that for many construction companies, the increased use of technology does not always equate to employees getting more done.  

Consider the findings from the April 2024 Gray Work Index. The annual productivity survey from Quickbase provides insights from nearly 2000 workers, with more than 300 in decision-making roles at construction companies. While 66 percent of respondents reported increased investments in tools/software to enhance productivity, work management and collaboration, other key takeaways from the survey reveal larger issues:  

  • 94 percent of today’s workers are overwhelmed by the number of software solutions they need to do their work. 
  • 58 percent spend less than 20 hours per week on meaningful work that drives results.
  • 74 percent report that the amount of manual work has either stayed the same or increased over the past year.

These data points can be jarring, but it does not mean technology investments are not worthwhile for construction companies. It does mean, however, that existing investments in technology are not being maximized. Ideally, the information contained in all those digital information sources is woven together in a way that makes it easy for anybody to quickly see the status of a project without creating gray work. 

 When talking about reducing, or potentially eliminating gray work, the question of AI often arises. Can it help or hinder the process? 

The impact of AI on construction productivity 

AI holds potential for streamlining administrative functions and boosting productivity. Yet many construction decision makers are convinced that widespread use of AI is not ready for prime time.  

According to the Quickbase survey, when respondents were asked about the use of AI, it was clear that while curiosity is high, confidence is low. The survey found that 92 percent are curious about AI-powered tools to enhance productivity and efficiency. However, 90 percent have some level of doubt about the accuracy of information generated by AI. Further, 94 percent are at least concerned about the risks of AI in matters of data security, compliance, and privacy. 

Yet ignoring the impact of AI is not optional. As AI continues to evolve, it will decrease the prevalence of gray work; but only if it is strategically factored into a larger business and IT strategy. One that is built on a dynamic work management platform with high quality data as its underpinnings. After all, AI tools are only as valuable as the quality of data they are being fed. 

The construction industry already struggles with razor-thin margins on each project. Technology has always had the potential to improve those margins. It starts with addressing the areas where the company has complete control over the outcome. This includes eliminating gray work and establishing an AI strategy. A failure to address these primary issues can lead to the unrealized potential of technology and related investments in productivity, project management and collaboration tools.   

Robert Salaj  


Quickbase is the first application platform built for dynamic work management, empowering nearly 12,000 global organizations to bring together people, processes, and data into one centralized location. The Quickbase platform enhances productivity and reduces gray work, the time lost when searching for data and information, by connecting everything through a single source of truth.