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Using flexible working to make construction a great place to work

We’ve been piloting flexible working with four construction companies – with positive results. Here’s what we did and how it’ll drive change for employees on and off the frontline.

By Emma Stewart, Co-Founder, Timewise

There are many reasons why increasing the opportunities for flexible working within construction is a good plan. For starters, there are very few women in the industry; just 14% of employees (and only 1% of those working in operational roles) are female. Work-life balance is negligible, and burnout is common, with a negative knock-on effect on mental health and family life.

The industry as a whole has invested a huge amount of work, effort and passion on various initiatives, with the aim of tackling skills shortages, attracting a more diverse talent pool and addressing wellbeing. But until relatively recently, far less attention has been given to flexible working, in particular for site-based roles. And that’s largely due to some sizeable operational and cultural barriers.

Construction has been known to have a long-hours culture; there’s a pervading view that ‘that’s what you sign up for’, and that anyone working less than full-time is less committed (and unlikely to climb the ladder). Additionally, the fact that frontline workers tend to be paid by the hour makes some wary of any changes to ways of working that might impact their pay.

And the commercial need to deliver ‘on time and on budget’ means that operational needs can restrict more innovative approaches to improving working practices and well-being from being trialled, however good leaders’ intentions may be.

So when we were approached by Build UK to develop a flexible working pilot for the industry, we knew we’d have our work cut out. But having worked with organisations in other, similarly hard-to-flex sectors (including retail and the NHS), we also knew it would be possible. And as the report shows, our efforts, and those of our four pioneer partners and Build UK themselves, have well and truly paid off.

How we approached the project

We began by setting two clear goals for the project. Firstly, to improve access to flexible working for frontline construction workers, and so enhance their work-life balance, health and well-being, by giving them more input and control over how they work. And secondly, to enable construction employers to improve working practices and job quality, in order to tackle talent shortages and attract a more diverse talent pool, including more women.

We then started working with our four pioneer partners – BAM Construct, BAM Nuttall, Skanska UK, and Willmott Dixon – to explore their specific challenges and identify which flexible working patterns would help solve them. And what we found was fascinating. In addition to the top-level barriers mentioned above, there were other constraints, such as the interdependency of roles, the varying attitudes of managers, site operating times, employee travel times and long-held beliefs such as the immoveable status of the whole site morning briefing.

Armed with this information, we then worked with each pioneer to develop a team-based approach to working patterns, with four clear goals:

• Changing cultural attitudes and behaviours

• Improving workers’ input into their working patterns

• Improving manager capability to implement flexible working

• Increasing homeworking for site workers

The pilots included a range of adjustments to working practices, including output-based scheduling, late starts and early finishes, and allowing staff to cover for each other and to take back unpaid overtime. Critically, we supported each partner to create their own model, to ensure that it worked within their individual operational constraints. We also provided managers and supervisors with training on how to design flexible roles, and manage the changes within their teams.

What we and our pioneers learned

Having surveyed our participating workers, managers and leaders before and after the pilots, we were able to note some specific attitude changes. For example, the number of people who agreed with the statement “My working hours give me enough time to look after my own health and well-being” jumped from 48% to 84%.

We also received hugely positive qualitative feedback, including from one employee who told us: “The real positive has been to be able to have more time at home and more involvement with the children and it would be fantastic to be able to keep some of this.” Similarly, a supervisor noted: “There has definitely been a positive impact on productivity. Morale is much better, and the guys are working harder.”

And from a purely commercial perspective, the pilot showed that flexible working doesn’t have to be a barrier to delivery. All of the pilot projects remained broadly on time and within budget; as one supervisor noted: “People are more energised and working faster. If you are being paid for a 10 hour shift you will make it last 10 hours but if there is an incentive to still get paid a full shift but finish quicker, you are focused to get the work done.

The way ahead for construction firms

It’s clear, then, that construction is not un-flexable. If leaders take a proactive approach, and create a clear vision and pro-flex culture; if managers are equipped in how to design and manage flexible roles and teams; if employees are encouraged to take a different perspective, and if new approaches are trialled carefully before being rolled out across an organisation, flexible working can be hugely positive for all concerned.

We’re talking to the Construction Leadership Council to see how our findings can be implemented more widely; and alongside our report we’ve produced a 10-point action plan, to support other construction firms to adopt them. In the meantime, if you would like to know more about making this kind of approach work for your organisation, and get some practical help from us, please get in touch.

Published June 2021

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