Remember when cell phones were used solely to make phone calls? Now, cell phone capabilities include music and MP3 players, Web browsing, camera and video, instant messaging, e-mailing and text messaging. Some phones even have built-in pedometers to measure the number of steps users are taking throughout the day.

Instant communication, however, remains the hallmark of cell phones. As technology advances, it seems the number of ways to communicate using a cell is ever-increasing. One popular feature is push-to-talk (PTT), which is similar to two-way radio communication.

Basically, the technology turns cell phones into walkie-talkies. With the push of a button, one party’s voice is transmitted over a single channel — meaning only one person can talk at a time. In the case of a supervisor trying to contact a crew, a number of people can be simultaneously radioed with the same message. Obviously, the other party or parties must also have PTT and be on the same network. This can be an asset to building service contractors whose workers need to communicate in short, direct spurts.

“Back in the days if you wanted to do a two-way communication they had these big bulky two-way radios and the fact that now they’re being offered on a little cell phone became very handy for people,” says Helder F. Vieira, president of Superior Interior Maintenance in Toronto.

PTT is just another communication option for BSCs’ employees; whether it is more effective than picking up the phone and making a call is a matter of preference. It can be used in any situation in which a phone call or text message could be used, but unlike those methods, PTT doesn’t require a worker to pick up a phone to hear the message. It is broadcast right through the phone.

Message gets through

A manager who wants to contact one or more employees with an urgent command need only push a button and speak into their phone’s microphone. Calling employees is easy enough — if they pick up. If their hands aren’t free to do so, or they aren’t near their phone, they might miss an important call.

PTT makes it possible to broadcast a message that cannot be ignored by those of normal hearing. For messages that must get to recipients fast, such as news of a chemical spill or a restocking order, the technology allows senders to deliver that message with clarity.

How workers communicate is usually dictated by what is less expensive under a company’s service plan. Many building service contractors that got on board with push-to-talk technology did so because costs were marginal or, better yet, zero.

That’s one of the reasons Richmond, British Columbia-based Marquise Facilities Corp. used push-to-talk, says Jason Fuller, CFO. Not only was it free between users, but customers who used the system wanted workers to be able to communicate with them at job sites.

Combining cellular function, used for out-of-group calling, with a radio function was ideal for janitorial and maintenance staff, he says.

“We use [phones] essentially as radios, with the benefit that you are able to radio any specific unit and not a global message out to the entire group on the radio frequency,” Fuller says.

Some PTT phones are made to be sturdier, for use in trades where they might get more wear and tear.

Smart phones such as Blackberrys, which are becoming more prevalent in use among BSCs and their customers, are also equipped with push-to-talk technology, making them even more useful tools.

Noise a concern

Some BSCs don’t like PTT because of its intrusive nature: a communication that is meant to be between two people can be broadcast to a room full of people, causing disruption and annoyance.

Paul Senecal, president of United Services of America, Stamford, Conn., says his workers occasionally use PTT, but most don’t like it. The noise it creates is a big hindrance, he adds. Instead, they use cell phones to call and text message, as well as e-mails, to communicate. However, some BSCs don’t allow employees to text while working because of the possibility for crossover between work and personal texts and because it is a distraction from work itself.

The instantaneousness of PTT is a plus, Senecal says, but the noise factor is a con.

Some providers are offering more sophisticated features to address concerns, such as allowing PTT calls to be transferred to a regular cell phone call.

Some phones have the capability for members to view their network to see who is available. Status can be set to “Do Not Disturb” or “Busy.” In such a situation, workers who are in noise-sensitive locations would not be interrupted with a loud message.

Vieira’s staff used push-to-talk for more than a decade, but when their service provider recently announced that all in-network calls would be free, the company switched over to communicating via phone calls. That, for the most part, has worked better for employees because they’re able to hear better and aren’t disrupting others in their vicinities.

Whether BSCs use PTT or not, many are embracing the different ways cell phones enable them to stay in touch with employees on the job.