Piling Canada

The Benefits of Being Flexible

A recent pilot program proved there is a place for flexible work in construction – and it may be the key to solving the industry’s persistent labour shortage
Written by Lisa Gordon
April 2024

While everyone agrees that attracting more women to the construction industry is a good idea and a number of related initiatives have been launched over the last two decades to do just that, the truth is that none of them have been hugely successful.

According to the National Association of Women in Construction, women make up just 9.9 per cent of the U.S. construction industry. In the U.K., just three of every 20 workers are women. It’s a global concern, with construction industries around the world reporting similar numbers.

Meanwhile, construction as a whole continues to grapple with the effects of a pronounced labour shortage. Everyone agrees it’s critical to attract not only women, but also other underrepresented groups, to construction’s ranks. The problem is that the people the industry is trying to attract don’t necessarily see it as a place where they want to work.

A recent U.K. pilot program took a new approach to addressing the sector’s labour woes, aiming to make construction more appealing to as many people as possible through the implementation of flexible work.

Traditionally, the industry has been confined by complex supply chains, location-based work, tight deadlines and inter-dependent team roles that seem to dictate long hours and traditional work schedules. However, the results of the new study – designed by Timewise in association with Build UK – are encouraging.

“We need to stop shouting louder at women, and other under-represented groups, to join us; and instead make construction a viable career choice for as many people as possible, recognizing that a lack of flexibility and agility in the way we work actively prevents many from either joining our industry or staying with us.”

Suzannah Nichol, Build UK

After running flexible work pilot programs at four different construction companies, it was determined that not only is flex work in the frontline construction industry possible, but it can be beneficial.

“It takes planning, time and effort, but the rewards for everyone are well worth it,” wrote Suzannah Nichol, CEO of Build UK, in the foreword of “Making Construction a Great Place to Work: Can Flexible Working Help?

Pioneering a four-phased approach

Construction has long been plagued by a lack of gender diversity and a pervasive culture of long hours and demanding work patterns. Timewise and Build UK set out to test whether improved access to flexible work schedules could mitigate some of these issues for site-based construction teams.

Four leading U.K. construction firms signed on for the study. In each case, leadership was committed to exploring more flexible working arrangements.

The Timewise approach involved four phases.

In Phase 1, researchers took time to understand current perceptions surrounding flex work. They found that much of the resistance came from frontline workers who were paid hourly – their objections stemmed from the fact that more hours worked equated to more pay. As well, construction line managers traditionally believe that stretching resources across long workdays is the key to keeping a project on track – a common perception was that being committed to the job meant a necessary commitment to long hours as well. Of course, all of these thought patterns were at odds with industry’s recent efforts to focus on employee well-being and mental health.

Timewise identified some legitimate constraints to implementing flexible work on a construction site. Among them were the interdependency of roles, constraints on site operating times, workers’ long travel times to reach the site, output for hourly employees, client expectations, and differing circumstances and conflicting priorities between directly employed, self-employed and subcontracted workers.

In Phase 2, researchers resolved to find ways to “give site workers a greater sense of control and input into their working lives, to improve their work-life balance and sense of well-being.” Four key elements were addressed: changing cultural attitudes and behaviours, improving workers’ input into their work patterns, improving managers’ capability to implement flexible work and increasing work-from-home opportunities for desk-based roles.

In this case, “flexible work” meant making adjustments to when people worked as well as where they worked. For example, some of the methods introduced were the introduction of staggered start and finish times, allowing workers to have input into their preferred schedules and an output-based approach that allowed workers to leave once their day’s work was complete. In addition, employees who performed desk-based roles were permitted to work from home.

In Phase 3, Timewise obtained the buy-in of site managers across all four pilot programs. Training was provided to equip supervisors with an understanding of how to design flexible work schedules. As well, employees attended briefing meetings that emphasized the new flex policies while also stressing the need to meet business deliverables. Then, the programs were rolled out by the pioneer firms.

In Phase 4 of the study, Timewise measured success by comparing post-pilot survey data to information gathered before the programs began. In all cases, the results showed that implementing more flexible working arrangements had positively impacted both workers and employers.

Overall, workers felt they had put in a fair amount of hours while still having time to look after themselves. They were less likely to feel guilty about starting later or finishing earlier than their counterparts and demonstrated more acceptance for work-from-home arrangements. Many spoke of improvements to their family life and overall sense of well-being. Interestingly, some respondents even said they would consider flexible work as a key criteria when applying for future jobs.

From the business side, managers saw their teams gel more effectively as they took ownership of projects and adjusted their work patterns. Importantly, the four participating companies said the flex work trials had no negative impact on project budgets or timeframes. For some, there was evidence of increased productivity.

Timewise concluded that the most effective approach was for companies to provide an acceptable framework for flexible working, and then let managers and their teams figure out how best to implement it.

Across all industries, flexible work has been shown to improve employee retention, attract top talent, boost productivity, improve worker engagement and save money. Traditionally, the construction industry has been driven by demanding schedules and tight turnarounds. The standard response has been to put in long, physically demanding hours on the job, but the Timewise pilot projects prove there is another way.

Construction leaders have the ability to inspire a dramatic industry shift when they empower their managers and employees to design a more flexible work environment. When frontline workers have more input and control over how they work, their productivity and job satisfaction increase dramatically.

For employers, flex work is a factor in attracting and retaining top talent, which helps to address the critical industry labour shortage. Piling Canada

For information and inspiration, read the Timewise report “Making Construction a Great Place to Work: Can Flexible Working Help?”.

Category: Business

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

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