This month, "Smart Business" addresses ways to minimize problems when working with people around.

Many trade workers have grown up on the construction side of the business. Some have trouble adapting to the subtleties associated with the renovation side.

Renovations, both residential and commercial, present special challenges that you don't have to deal with on new construction jobsites. In new construction, you're working in isolated locations surrounded only by fellow hardhats. That creates an entirely different culture than when homeowners or business patrons occupy space just a few feet away. Different behaviors and work practices are called for - vastly different. It's comparable to the different ways you behave at a church service versus hanging around with buddies at a local saloon. Here are some of those differences, along with tips to minimize disruptions.

Be Flexible

With home renovations, it's of course desirable for your crews to be there when the customer is not. Frequently, the occupants work during the day, which makes it convenient. Try to coordinate your schedules as closely as possible. If the homeowner doesn't leave for work until 8:00 a.m., it's a big hassle for your crew to show up at their normal starting time of 7:30.

But what if the customer works a night shift or odd hours? Could you persuade your crews to do likewise? No doubt some of them would complain, but consider this: A company that offers work schedules to order has a competitive edge. In some cases, maybe this will be enough to sway a person away from competitive bidding.

Commercial renovations present even bigger scheduling dilemmas. Not only do you have the owners to worry about, their patrons may be milling about. They may not be all that cognizant about the dangers of bumping into ladders and scaffolds. (Tip: Try to avoid scaffolding in business areas. Rent a man-lift or cherry-picker instead. They can be moved when not in use.)

Owners don't like it at all when noise and debris drive away their customers. We all know you can't obtain a silent and pristine jobsite. So the only other solution is to do the work outside of the client's business hours. Off-hours work may require bribing your crews with premium pay. Give the client an option. S/he may choose for you to work regular hours at base pay, or an off-hours schedule at a higher price for overtime labor.

Level with the Inspector

I've heard more stories than I can count of unreasonable or unknowledgeable inspectors. Yet, I suspect that, in many cases, at least part of the blame lay with that old bugaboo of failure to communicate. Contractors are wise to anticipate and inform inspectors of predictable issues.

If you foresee any problems with the job, let the inspector know ahead of time instead of trying to talk your way into a variance after the work gets done. They'll be more likely to bend the rules in your favor if you invite them to help solve a problem. This is only human nature and professional courtesy.

Minimize Dust

A recent survey of homeowners, which I'll report on in a subsequent column, turned up these biggest pet peeves about the contractors who did the work:

  • Not cleaning up after the work is finished.

  • The mess and the dust.

  • The invasion of “personal space.”

This brings up unpleasant memories of the first renovation job I ever contracted for in a home that I owned. It was a combined kitchen expansion and bathroom addition, and a nightmare. Dust invaded every nook and cranny of our house. While our kitchen was being revamped, we had to store all the dinnerware on our dining room table in the adjacent room. This meant that not only did we have to wash dishes (in the bathtub or lavatory) after eating, we also had to do it prior to meals. The crews sometimes strung up a drop cloth in the doorway leading to the work areas, but at other times neglected to do so. Even when they did, they failed to seal the edges, so plenty of plaster and wood dust seeped through.

Do all you can to minimize dust both in homes and businesses, especially when working around saleable merchandise. If it's a long project, block off work areas with plywood walls, and consider painting the walls to make them more attractive. Gaps between panels and walls or ceiling should be sealed with strong plastic tape. Also seal gaps between panels, even small ones, with tape or plastic.

Minimize Noise

This especially is an issue with light commercial projects. Use power tools as far away from customer traffic as possible. Maybe you can schedule the noisiest work for after-hours or at least when business traffic is slowest.

Radios and boom boxes are good for crew morale. I don't see any point in prohibiting them, but instruct your people to keep the volume at a reasonable level.

Minimize Debris

Another expensive renovation project by my family was a re-siding and window replacement job seven or eight years ago. That contractor got several other jobs as a result, because I recommended him to everyone I knew. He was a consummate professional from the first measurements all the way through the job and even beyond - he stopped by a few months after completion just to ask if we were happy and everything was in good condition. I've never known a contractor to do that. Most wouldn't have the guts.

One of the things that impressed me about this company's operations was that, every day, his crews made sure to clean all debris out of our driveway by the time we came home at night. And there was plenty of it, as I found out on a couple of occasions when I happened to get home early.

Some of you will read this and think, “Of course we clean up debris after work.” It should go without saying. Alas, I feel a need to say it, because so many times it does not get done.

Oh, and I've heard tales about people finding soft drink cans, food wrappers and even more disgusting debris behind walls, in ductwork and other household nooks and crannies. The thinking is that it will be years before people find it. Folks who think that way usually are guilty of plenty of other stinkin' thinkin' as well.

Watch Your Tongue

Salty language can be shrugged off on a new construction jobsite, but not where people congregate. Crews need to be read the rulebook about this.

Your crews also need a little instruction about how to speak with citizens likely to be encountered on a renovation jobsite. This includes owners, neighbors, business customers, inspectors, other trade workers and so on. You don't need to send them all to Dale Carnegie classes, but at least be sure they understand the need to exercise “please, thank you, excuse me” in their vocabularies.

Make sure you have a way to communicate jobsite rules and regulations to any non-English speakers in your work force. The siding contractor whose praises I've just sung had an all Spanish-speaking work crew, some of whom spoke no English. But there always was a translator around, and every one of his workers exhibited exemplary behavior on the job because they were taught to do so. Communications gaps are lame excuses. Where there's a will, there's a way.

Safety Counts

Keeping jobsites clear of tools and debris after hours isn't just a matter of aesthetics; it's for safety reasons. It's bad enough when your crews step on and trip over objects. You don't want customers - or their kids - doing it.

Some of these special treatments cost money. Build enough into the job price to support them.