Let's Get Flexible

Unprecedented change

For the first time in Britain’s history, those aged over 65 outnumber 16-year-olds. In just over 15 years in 2032, the number of over 65’s is predicted to increase by 61%. This will mean for all sectors there will be a proportionally smaller number of new entrants and increased competition for emerging talent.

For the construction sector, which has traditionally relied on new entrants from the youngest cohort, huge changes will be required to attract, retain and manage the current and future talent.

With the UK facing unprecedented changes to the demographics of its workforce and attitudes to work isn’t time for us all to get flexible?  

"Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up."
James Belasco and Ralph Stayer

Despite the variety of options available, flexible working is yet to become ‘business as usual’ in construction and recruitment. I checked the UK’s two largest online jobs boards for “construction” roles and was delighted to find that both had over 2,000 jobs in the London area, the overwhelming majority were advertised as permanent/ full-time. Out of curiosity, I filtered the results to show only “part-time options” and found that the options reduced to around 40 roles (2% of all roles shown).

We are managing time, not people

If you have management responsibility on a construction project right now, you may have read the first few paragraphs of this piece with a growing sense of dread. “How would we make this work?!” “We have a deadline!” “It’s not possible to build [fill in the project name here] with a part-time workforce!”, “I’d welcome more flexibility, but our clients expect us to be available 24/7”... 

And while I do understand I believe with an innovative approach we can begin to change this the construction sector has a huge amount of expertise in problem-solving.

The nature of designing and constructing new places, spaces and buildings create a huge demand for expertise and as a way of managing this, construction for many years has depended on “project management” techniques. Project management has tended to rely solely on focusing on the pockets of time needed to complete each task. Almost to the complete exclusion of the needs of the people involved. In construction, I believe that as managers we have become experts in managing time not people. 

Take a look at the last project management tool you created or received, it may be a Gantt chart which is great for setting out tasks, time and order in a clear way. But rarely do they reflect the needs or potential for change that will impact the people needed to plan, design and construct a building. Many projects and companies, therefore, plan projects around the expectation of a  traditional, full-time work (with overtime).

“Women are working more, men are understanding their value as caregivers, women are primary breadwinners—I mean, we could go on and on and on. Things are different. So we can’t keep operating like everything is the same, and that’s what many of us have done. And I think it’s up to us to change the conversation.”
Michelle Obama

Flexible employment is not just about an ageing population or having caring responsibilities. In a report by Millennial Branding, 45% of those aged between 18 and 34 in 2015, would choose flexibility over pay. The question then becomes how can employers and particularly those in the construction sector create employment which reflect the needs of a diverse workforce.

So how might we achieve this?

It is time for a re-brand

Flexible working has often been associated with working fewer hours and child care, and as a sector which often measures commitment in time spent this can be an issue. However being flexible doesn’t just mean part-time in fact this is just one of many ways to work flexibly, here are three examples which are equivalent to working full-time and would allow some degree of autonomy:

  • Compressed hours working a full working week over fewer days
  • Flexitime where an individual has a different start, finish and break times from other workers, but may cover core hours
  • Annualised hours the employee works a certain number of hours over a year but has some flexibility on when they do them

We need to move towards offering the potential of flexibility as a standard. While all UK workers now have the right to request flexible working in order to shift the perception that it is an anathema to construction, the industry needs to be more vocal about offering these opportunities. 

We have the technology

Most companies are keen for their workforce to have access to the company cloud, phones, tablets and laptops etc. The availability of this tech has tended to result in more flexibility for employers rather than for employees, which can be driven by an ever developing project brief. Smarter software platforms and apps offer great opportunities to manage workflow, communicate and collaborate wherever we happen to be, we need to be able and willing to harness this to facilitate change.

Get creative

As we move to an ageing and more diverse workforce flexible job design makes strategic sense. That doesn’t have to mean, random absence, confusion, being under-resourced, or other team members being over stretched. This will mean that as leaders and team member we have to get creative and effective particularly around inter-team communication and time management.

For those whose roles are mainly dependent on location or a particular stage in the process the development of different job types, become even more important. The industry needs to look more closely at new and existing methods with a mindset which adds flexibility to the discussion on how a project or task can be completed.

As David Coplin of Microsoft UK notes:

“We need to take a more flexible approach to both the workplace and the work we do; one that provides us both the physical and cognitive space to harness the incredible power, insight and experience we offer, but focused not on the individual processes but instead on the overall outcomes our organisations are seeking to achieve.”