The age of the nine-to-five work culture has taken a serious backseat. Since the government shacked up all but the most essential of us to our bedrooms and home offices in a nationwide attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19, one thing that has been left blatantly clear is that workplace flexibility is vital to a vast majority of employees.

Over a year later, this reaction to the pandemic has been seen as one of the shining lights of its legacy, one that forced employers to look inward at how people work best.

Office workers especially found that the place they’d spent most of their time was suddenly not as indispensable as it was once made out to be – the software on company computers worked equally on personal laptops, and weekly meetings just as easily found a home on virtual spaces like Zoom and Slack.

Month-long stretches of quarantining notwithstanding, many have found that the familiarity and calm of home working to be highly preferable when stacked against the daily commute and forced social interactions that played out five days a week.

But the office is home to just a proportion of the UK’s workforce, one whose work is tied to the indoor realm of emails, invoices, and water-cooler chatter. For sectors like construction that don’t entirely match this interior workstyle, how have flexible working standards been implemented, and how will they affect the sector and the economy as a whole?

Site-based construction is difficult to stretch. Location-based work, team-based roles and strict deadlines limit many opportunities for flexibility compared to most sectors.

These demanding aspects of the job can also affect the mental health of its workers. Long, atypical hours, a demanding workload, and a competitive work culture can very quickly impact even the most committed construction worker.

Flexible working is almost seen as taboo within construction, with a longstanding belief that extensive hours are simply part and parcel, and anyone looking to work less than full-time is unlikely to be picked out for a promotion. Even where remote work is available, the culture of ‘getting on with it’ prevails in keeping workers onsite.

Additionally, onsite construction can be detrimental to those trying to nurture a family, especially for women whose parental commitments (like regular breastfeeding of a child) can at times be more intimate and time-consuming than that of a father figure.

So, what can construction firms do, then, to allow some modicum of flexibility for their workers, were they so inclined? If a report from Timewise in collaboration with major contractors like BAM and Skanska is to be believed, then there are a few steps that can be taken including determining a clear vision, taking guidance from HR teams to ensure fairness and inclusivity, equipping managers with skills suitable to different site circumstances, and more.

That last point is probably the most poignant when considering flexible work for onsite construction, in that there is likely not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, a whole host of approaches should be trialed and made accessible to fit individual employee needs as well as the requirements of the project.

Timewise’s report, titled “Making Construction a Great Place to Work: Can Flexible Working Help?”, explored this multi-faceted approach to flexibility with the different companies that they worked with.

“BAM Construct tested a team-based approach to flexible working. This involved changing from a top-down approach to a more consultative method of setting shifts that took workers’ personal preferences into account, alongside the need to deliver client and business outputs, work within the site’s operating hours, and meet contractor commitments”, explains the report.

Through this approach, the team at BAM Construct found that implementing a more flexible pattern was sometimes simply a matter of putting employee whereabouts on a calendar, providing contact details, and maintaining contact via digital means.

BAM Nuttall, on the other hand, experimented with a ‘flexi-day’ approach in which workers could exchange days off for additional hours accumulated over time. Many of the workers, in this case, were living away from home and so adding on one of their ‘flexi-days’ to a weekend meant they could enjoy extended time with loved ones.

So, what were the results of these alternative working approaches? In a pre and post-pilot survey with the participants of the trial, it was found that the number of workers who believed they had worked significantly over their contracted hours after the trial was reduced by 16%, from half to around a third.

Similarly, 84% of respondents believed that their revised working hours gave them enough time to look after their well-being and health, compared to a staggering 48% beforehand. Other factors such as guilt for starting later or finishing earlier, and not knowing whether someone is working as hard from home also saw similar changes, all of which pointing to the idea that for flexible onsite work it is simply a matter of balancing what is best for your employees, despite the limits of the project at hand.

Whilst the well-being of its workforce is essential to construction’s future success, how else does the sector benefit from flexible working?

A report from contractor Sir Robert McAlpine suggests that such policies could create more jobs and result in a net economic gain.

McAlpine boss Paul Hamer stressed that construction needs to investigate flexible working “as soon as possible” if their predictions of 50,000 new jobs and a £55bn boost to the economy hold any credence.

“Flexible working is a way of retaining talent as well as bringing talent in that might not have considered construction as a career”, Hamer says.

Matthew Wood – Assistant Editor, Design & Build UK

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