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Contractor pilot schemes confirm benefits and feasibility of flexible working

23 Jun 21 Construction’s first industry-wide flexible working study has found that it leads to soaring wellbeing and could help crack recruitment difficulties.

Flexible working has been shown to work even on site
Flexible working has been shown to work even on site

Construction companies are being encouraged to adopt flexible working polices after the success of pilot schemes at four leading contractors.

An 18-month study trialling different models of flexible working at BAM Construct, BAM Nuttall, Skanska and Willmott Dixon showed no negative impacts on deadlines or budgets and a significant upturn in employee job satisfaction.

The study, led by flexible working consultant Timewise with industry organisation Build UK, began in October 2019, before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic that compelled companies to embrace certain flexible working patterns – particularly remote working and variable shifts.

The Construction Industry Training Board contributed £30,000 to the project.

That many companies have experienced new working patterns during the pandemic has made what seemed radical, if not impossible, 18 months ago, now looks set to become standard best practice human resources management.

As Timewise says in its report: “Construction firms have begun to dramatically shift their thinking as a result of the pandemic, and the expectation is that they may be much more willing to adapt to flexible working. But for this to happen, it is critical for leaders to embrace flexible working and set the vision and culture for their firms. To highlight the need for sector-wide action on flexible working, Timewise is seeking a commitment from the Construction Leadership Council to advise that increasing flexibility is critical for the future workforce, to address concerns around wellbeing, diversity, fairness, inclusion and respect; and in turn to attract and retain talent.”

The Timewise Construction Pioneers programme re-designed shift patterns in onsite roles, to enable more flexible working, enhanced wellbeing and a better work-life balance.

The pilots

The actual pilots ran between June 2020 and February 2021, through the pandemic. Timewise tested whether it is possible to improve the wellbeing of those working on site through changing the hours and times of working, as well as considering home-based working, where possible.

The goal was to identify if this was possible to achieve without budgets or deadlines being affected, across a range of sites and projects. The pilot took place in a range of locations, from an HS2 site in London through to a substation build near Weston Super Mare, among teams employing between 14 and 120 workers.

Timewise tested different types of flexible working across the different sites:

1.            BAM Construct: tested a team-based approach to flexible working. Tested a consultative method of setting shifts that takes workers’ personal preferences into account. This is similar to work Timewise has conducted with nurses in the NHS.

2.            BAM Nuttall: tested a flexi-day approach in which workers could accumulate additional hours in exchange for one day off each month.  A large portion of workers were living away and preferred to tag a flexi-day onto a weekend, to enjoy extended time at home.

3.            Skanska UK: earlier starts and finishes – Skanska UK trialled two different approaches with two different teams within the Skanska Costain Strabag (SCS) joint venture on HS2, both revolving around earlier start and finish times:

  • Output based: The foreperson works with a planner to develop a more detailed version of the schedule of work, broken down into weekly and daily objectives. Working hours are set, based on the outputs to be achieved each day.
  • Staggered: the foreman alternates start times between the teams each week,  so that all workers get the pattern they want every other week. In addition to this, workers are given a choice of break times.

4.            Willmott Dixon: used the expertise of Timewise to support commitments it had already made to staff (to limit hours worked to 45 per week including breaks, and to ensure that an agile working plan is in place for all teams and on all new projects). Some of the ways that managers embraced flexibility were introducing a flexible rota and operating two teams, with one on site and one working from home, and swapping every other week.

The pilots started just as the pandemic hit. This meant pausing the programme while the firms reengineered processes and policies to enable sites to re-open safely. Additional challenges arose in the shape of furlough, redeployment and redundancies across all of the businesses. Some of the agreed actions were fast tracked due to the need for sites to create Covid-safe environments. Increasing home-working was one of the goals of the pilots, and the directive to ‘work at home where you can’ gave managers the opportunity to ‘go for it’ in a bigger way, the report says. The pandemic gave added impetus to the need for change.

The results

Timewise says that it found “a broad positive shift in wellbeing”. Some participants said they would now consider the ability to work flexibly as a key criteria when applying for jobs. Managers reported “a greater sense of trust, ownership and a better team dynamic”.

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All four firms reported no negative impact on budgets or timeframes. Some data suggest adjustments to working patterns could drive savings on labour costs due to enhanced productivity.

Participants who felt their working hours gave them enough time to look after their own health and wellbeing rose from 48% to 84%. Participants agreeing that they regularly work beyond their contracted hours decreased from 51% to 34%.

At the start of the project, 47% of participants said that they felt guilty if they started later or finished earlier than others onsite. By the end on 33% felt that way.

At the start of the project 48% felt that colleagues working from home were probably not working as hard as they would be on site. By the end, that figure was 33%.

Emma Stewart, director of development at Timewise, said: “This programme has proved, beyond doubt, that flexible working can work even in complex site-based industries such as construction. In a sector that is all about overcoming challenge with innovation, perhaps that should be no surprise. Our trailblazing Pioneers: BAM Construct, BAM Nuttall, Skanska UK and Willmott Dixon have shown that wellbeing and balance should be possible to achieve for the whole workforce – not just those in office roles. And in doing so have provided a blueprint that we hope will drive wider industry change. Working practices no longer need to be a block to attracting the best and most diverse possible talent.”

Build UK chief executive Suzannah Nichol said:  “We have demonstrated that not only is flexible working possible for frontline operational roles in construction, but that it is positively beneficial.”

Skanska UK executive vice president Harvey Francis said: “Skanska UK is committed to improving access to flexible working for our site-based workers, and outcomes from Timewise have assisted in the development of our own flexible working programme, Flex-it.”

BAM Construct HR director Andrea Singh said: “Our new approach to flexible working is giving people a better work-life balance and is making construction an attractive career choice. Thanks to this pioneering work, our managers are thinking differently and that’s making a real improvement to people’s lives. We now ask, ‘how can we make flexibility work?’ and not, ‘can we make it work?’. Managers are finding flexible approaches that work for their team and clients.”

BAM Nuttall chief executive Adrian Savory said: “The results of the pilots have demonstrated flexibility for operational roles is possible, and has been a win, win, win – for the business, teams and improving individual’s wellbeing. We have started implementing the approach across the whole of our business.”

Rick Lee, chief people officer at Willmott Dixon, said:  “Across our business we have a deep-rooted philosophy that our people make the difference and that our culture is critical to providing an environment where all our people can thrive and enjoy the career of a lifetime.  Being able to embed a successful approach to agile working at our sites is critical for achieving a diverse business and realising our aim to achieve gender parity across our workforce by 2030.”

Timewise advice: what construction firms can do

• Determine a clear vision that starts at the top, with senior leaders advocating the benefits of flexibility and taking a proactive approach

• Consider options for flexibility in every role (frontline workers as well as knowledge workers), taking guidance from HR teams to ensure fairness and inclusivity

• Equip managers with skills and capabilities to design flexible jobs that are suitable for different site circumstances, and to manage flexible teams

• Trial new approaches at a team level, before embedding and scaling out successful learnings through guidance and further training

• Measure the return on investment of flexible working in terms of project performance and productivity, at minimum ensuring it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on budget and timeline.

• Share insights with clients, to improve their understanding of the positive benefits of flexible working and unlock barriers to its implementation through the contracting process.

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