One of the most lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to be changing patterns of commuting and home work. A recent article in the New York Times argued that up to a third of U.S. workers could work from home, showing how morning and evening traffic jams on roads and public transit had significantly flattened even as total travel volume returned was close to pre-pandemic levels. This reflects the far more people who choose to travel at the time that is right for them rather than meeting the expectation of being in a job from 9 to 5.

Obviously, most people offer more flexibility. Personal autonomy contributes significantly to wellbeing. But until recently, there were three main barriers to giving individuals in teams more flexibility in the way they work.

One was the lack of technology to make remote working effective. The second and more important was cultural. It was widely expected that you should be in your workplace when you were paid to do it, and there was often suspicion that people working from home would make the same amount of effort. Third, it was felt that flexibility in operational functions at the frontline was simply not possible. As a result, until the pandemic, only more progressive and trustworthy employers offered their employees a high degree of flexible working hours.

Most urgently, a change in attitude was required so that flexible working was not taboo

Construction is one of the industries that has historically struggled most with flexible working hours – in fact, it was widely believed to be incompatible with efficient construction site operations. But the pandemic forced such assumptions to be reconsidered. We have seen that locations can be operated very differently, without compromising on output and, with better planning, perhaps even more efficiently than before. The question now is how can we withstand this, and can we really think further about how best to implement construction projects?

The Timewise Improving Flexible Working in Construction report and Ten Point Action Plan released today are the first serious attempt to examine what can be done to bring flexible working into the UK construction environment. The initiative was conceived by Suzannah Nichol, CEO of Build UK, before the pandemic, but the pilots got off to a good start. The results are extremely encouraging and suggest that flexible working is not a compromise between the needs of the project and the needs of the individual, but rather a win-win situation.

Take for example the experience of Skanska UK’s pilot project on the Skanska Costain Strabag HS2 site, where the focus has changed to delivering results rather than time. A widespread concern in the industry is that concentration on production will undermine safety as a job is rushed. However, the pilot did not have any security incidents, near misses or non-compliance reports, which was achieved by working more closely with the team to plan the work based on the results to be achieved on a daily basis. In addition, productivity was felt to be improved.

While the study highlighted certain factors that make flexible working in a construction environment particularly difficult, such as: For example, the disparity in incentives between hourly and fixed salaries, it also showed that very simple changes for workers at no cost could make a big difference to site productivity. Most urgently, there was a need to change attitudes so that flexible working was not taboo, and open communication within the team to reconcile individual preferences with the demands of the workplace. Since the most flexible work decisions are made on site, the support and training of the site managers is also required.

The task now is to translate these clear, positive messages into broad acceptance of the change. The 10-point plan provides a blueprint that can be used by all organizations, large and small, in the industry.

So why should you make the change? For me there are three main reasons why flexible working is a “must-have” for the British construction industry:

  • Combating the shortage of skilled workers in the industry by improving the attractiveness of work in the construction industry. Once a company has adopted flexible working, it is an easy asset to make this clear in job advertisements. One requirement of the Construction Leadership Council is to measure the percentage of positions advertised in the Talent Retention Scheme as flexible;
  • To improve the diversity of the industry, recognizing that the lack of flexible working arrangements can be a particular barrier for women to hinder both entry and advancement in the sector; and
  • To improve the wellbeing of all workers in the industry, including reducing the shocking statistic of the number of construction workers who commit suicide – more than one per day.

It would be a strong argument to get these results even if there was a cost to the efficiency of the site. The evidence from the Timewise pilots that the efficiency could even be improved makes the case a blast.

Richard Threlfall is Partner and Global Head of Infrastructure at KPMG IMPACT