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Four of the UK’s largest construction companies have pioneered an 18-month pilot project, that found flexible working practices for tradespeople on construction sites can work.

Flexible working consultants Timewise have today published the results of their ground-breaking Timewise Construction Pioneers programme – an 18-month project that has re-designed shift patterns in onsite roles, to enable more flexible working, enhanced wellbeing and improved work-life balance.

Construction giants BAM Construct, BAM Nuttall, Skanska UK and Willmott Dixon took part in the pilot that ran between June 2020 and February 2021.

Build UK partnered with Timewise on the programme, and the CITB and Barclays LifeSkills supported its rollout.

Pilot managers 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 pilots took place in a range of locations, from an HS2 site in London through to a substation build near Weston Super Mare, amongst teams employing between 14 and 120 workers.

Case for action

Over 3m people work in the UK construction sector contributing 9% of the economy. It is hoped that flexible working can help address a range of issues within the sector:

  • Better wellbeing: 1 in 4 construction workers are thought to have considered suicide. This has been tied to the long hours culture in Construction, as well as a range of other factors.3
  • Decreased rates of absence: £160m per year is lost in sickness absence.4
  • Diversity and gender equality: just 3 in 20 construction workers are women5
  • Only 10% of job vacancies offer flexible working falling to 2% for keyworker roles. 6

Outline of pilots

Timewise used a system it has developed for location-based roles which need to cover a long working day – which it calls the ‘shift-life balance’ model. It tested different types of flexible working7 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, both revolving around earlier start and finish times:
  4. 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.
  5. Staggered : The foreperson 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.
  6. Willmott Dixon: Willmott Dixon used the expertise of Timewise to support commitments they had already made to staff (to limit hours worked to 45 per week inclusive of breaks, and to ensure that an agile working plan is in place for all teams and on all new projects).

Results

There was a broad positive shift in wellbeing, with many workers speaking of improvements to their family life and sense of wellbeing.

Some stated that they would consider the ability to work flexibly as a key criteria when applying for future jobs. Managers reported a greater sense of trust, ownership and a better team dynamic.

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

Furthermore, the project achieved the following:

  • 75% INCREASE in a sense of wellbeing – participants who felt their working hours gave them enough time to look after their own health and wellbeing rose from 48% to 84%.
  • Overwork DECREASED – participants agreeing that they regularly work beyond their contracted hours decreased from more than half, to just over a third (51% to 34%).
  • Guilt DECREASED – at the start of the project, nearly half of all participants felt guilty of they started later or finished earlier than others onsite. This portion decreased to a third (47% to 33%).
  • Trust in colleagues working remotely INCREASED – respondents agreeing with the following phrase: “if someone works from home, I am not sure they are working as hard as they would be on site” decreased from 48% to 33%.

Emma Stewart MBE, 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 challenges 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  Our thanks also go to Build UK for its vision and foresight in catalysing this unique project.”

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Suzannah Nichol MBE, chief executive of Build UK, says:  “Flexible working has enabled me to continue my career in construction for over 30 years, and this report will help others to do the same. Our industry offers a fantastic range of opportunities, and Timewise and our pioneers have proved that flexible working is possible, even for site-based teams.

By sharing what works, we can help companies across the sector create a working environment that will attract and retain a diverse workforce, making construction a positive career choice for everyone. It’s a win-win, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

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