Construction is heading for a perfect storm, and it needs to make itself more attractive to new entrants or face some potentially difficult consequences. Flexible working has a leading role to play, according to Carol Massay, head of Construction at The Access Group. In this contributed article, Carol, who sits on the Bank of England’s Decisions Makers Panel (DMP) and has 30 years’ experience working within construction, outlines how the industry must adjust and transform deeply embedded cultural practices, operational modes and incentive structures to head off potential catastrophe.
In Q1 this year there were 2.1 million people employed or self-employed in construction according to ONS data. It won’t come as a great surprise, but 86% of those were male and research confirms the demographics to be disproportionately older, with the over sixty group growing fastest and under thirties reducing quickest.
Flexible working to reduce workforce crisis
Many businesses have experienced the introduction of new working models during the pandemic while others have been left behind in terms of providing more working flexibility. The way teams and individuals work is different. The construction sector involves location-based work and often a culture of long hours. The increasing challenges with the aging workforce, the lack of gender diversity and skills shortage have contributed to wellbeing issues among workers and forced the industry to search for long-term solutions.
In construction flexible and remote working seemed impossible back then, however, now it looks to become a standard demand from employees. Providing flexible options to construction teams means giving them greater control of their working pattern. I also believe it has a major role to play in making some positive changes and improving motivation for office staff. Introducing a new flexible policy in construction in site-based roles doesn’t come without significant challenges though, due to specific roles on site and fixed constraints – such as site opening times, interdependence between teams and trades, limited access and tight timescales.
A new approach for an appealing flexible working
Construction leaders can take this as an opportunity to introduce a new output-based model which means teams can schedule the work to suit them instead of turning up for a fixed number of hours each day.
This mentality can be adopted for site-based teams if projects are broken down into tasks or sections. An ideal solution would be to use the activities that were used to build up the price in the first place. In this way, site managers could provide the various teams involved in an activity with the fixed constraints (price, timescale, output) and let them decide how to arrange themselves best to get it done.
This doesn’t absolve the site manager of all responsibility, however, as the teams are now more focused on efficiency, there may be a natural focus on quality. Arguably, an hours based approach doesn’t focus on quality either so perhaps nothing changes from this perspective.
Once teams are empowered to arrange their own work based on outputs rather than time, they are more likely to embrace flexibility.
Little changes, big impact
Flexibility in itself is not homogenous, different people want different things. In my experience as head of construction, a small amount of flexibility makes a big impact on people’s lives – such as leaving early for appointments, being in for deliveries, having a few hours off for sports day.
Aside from the practical side, changes such as this can be difficult to swallow from a cultural standpoint too, especially within management, who often equate time spent on site to output. This culture of long hours should disappear and businesses should encourage on-site workers to dare to ask to work differently without the fear of being judged.
The question still remains over how this can be achieved without disruption to sites and projects. The motivation for hourly paid workers (employed or self-employed) is to work as many hours as possible, which can be at direct odds to getting the work done quickly.
Projects are priced by activity which build up to create an overall cost, that cost being somewhat fixed to save for variations. In the traditional setup there is actually a disconnect between project and worker which has been allowed to exist due to the belief that maximising worker hours means efficient project completion.
More construction companies might have to start saying that as long as the work gets done and core functions are provided, they allow workers to work based on their own schedule – meaning not everyone needs to be on-site all of the time.
An attractive construction industry to new entrants
Planning and communication underpin the approach above. When people take time off for last minute emergencies or sickness, these occurrences become easier to handle if an empowered and well-motivated team is on hand. This could be a significant factor in dealing with some of the issues mentioned above and it requires serious culture shifts.
The construction industry needs to make changes. Implementing flexible working for site-based workers, as well as office staff is achievable, and in my view if managed sensibly would make construction more appealing and welcoming to the workforce, including women who tend to opt out of non-flexible patterns due to caring responsibilities.
Permanent flexible working frameworks, including staggered start and end times, flexible breaks, part-time work, job-sharing and phased retirement are beneficial to the whole industry.
If construction businesses start to take a different approach to create a new working scheme, flexibility will make a huge difference in productivity and work-life balance in a sector that hasn’t evolved much in a long time.
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