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We’re part-way through our action research project exploring how to create flexible roles, on and off site, in the construction industry. Here’s what we’ve learned to date.
If you were asked to guess the biggest cause of death in the construction industry, what would you say? Most people would assume that the answer is something to do with on-site accidents. But they’d be wrong: in fact, it’s suicide, with male construction workers three times more likely to take their own lives than the average male.
It’s a shocking statistic, and one which is largely due to the long-hours culture that dominates the industry. With 20 hour days commonplace, and only 10 % of roles advertised with any kind of flexibility, it’s no surprise that construction workers suffer from mental health problems, struggle to balance work with their families, and end up burnt out.
Equally unsurprisingly, women don’t want to work in the industry; female participation currently stands at 15%, mainly in office-based roles. And although efforts have been made to try and attract more women, little has been done to address the workload and work-life barriers that are keeping them away.
With such deep-rooted problems to overcome, a deep-dive approach is required; and that’s what we’ve been doing. In 2019, we began a Timewise Innovation Unit project with four construction companies; BAM Nuttall, BAM Construct, Skanska and Willmott Dixon, supported by Build UK and the Construction and Industry Training Board. The project aims to explore the options for making construction more flexible; to identify key barriers, design and pilot solutions, and share what we’ve learned across the industry.
So, what have we learned so far? Well, our initial diagnostic phase put meat on the bones of what we had suspected; that the structure and culture within construction are not just unsupportive of flexible working, but bordering on incompatible:
Having identified and fleshed out these core issues, we then planned to run a series of pilots, starting in Spring 2020. These set out to assess the potential of allowing teams to have some input into their shifts and working patterns, and pilot the best way to deliver it. The work included:
The project was put on hold during the first lockdown – but on the flip side, once companies were allowed back on site, it helped accelerate some of the plans. The need for social distancing, for example, meant that site managers were forced to explore staggered start times and virtual team briefings, with positive results.
For now, the work continues. We’re supporting sites who have fast-tracked their plans, skilling up managers to implement the changes and make sure they’re fair, inclusive and sustainable. For those who were unable to do so, we’ve now started work. And of course, we’re capturing insights from this pilot phase to support a consistent approach to scaling up at a later date.
It’s worth noting that, with inflexibility as entrenched as it is within this industry, it can feel like an impossible challenge. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, when we started, the response from some was that nothing could or would change. There was a widespread belief that the issues were too deep and that current working practices would always stand in the way of culture change.
We don’t doubt that changing this industry is a complex job – but we also firmly believe that it’s a critical one. People are leaving and there’s little incentive for others to replace them; the rest of the world is becoming more flexible, and construction mustn’t get left behind. Additionally, given the pivotal role that construction plays in our country’s infrastructure, there’s a real opportunity to reskill and redeploy workers who have been adversely hit by Covid-19 as we build back up.
The pandemic has opened the door a crack and our project aims to wedge it open; we’ll keep you posted.