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Building flexible working into construction – the story so far

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.

Exploring innovative approaches to making construction more flexible

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 NuttallBAM ConstructSkanska 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:

  • The site-based culture revolves around the number of hours that people put in, with teams of sub-contractors paid hourly, and rewarded by hours spent rather than outputs delivered.
  • Directly employed team members (such as managers) also end up working long hours due to needing to be on site with the sub-contractors.
  • Workers have little or no control over their working day, required to clock in and out, and even take breaks at set times due to teams needing to work together.
  • The lack of flexible opportunities is made worse by there being little or no capability in flexible job design and managing flexible employees, and an unwillingness to change. Even relatively common concepts such as staggering start and finish times are seen as problematic.
  • The gap between pitching for a project and starting the work exacerbates all these issues.

Our plan of action – and the impact of the pandemic

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:

  • Understanding people’s different preferences
  • Training site supervisors to collect these preferences, allocate shifts and manage teams with different working patterns
  • Briefing and discussing the concept with managers and board members so they are on board and clear on the benefits
  • Supporting internal communication processes to encourage teams to take part – and feel permitted to do so

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.

We’re continuing the project and will report back in Spring 2021

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.

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