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Breaking the Taboo: Flexible working in Engineering Services

Construction and engineering services, like other front-line sectors, have been slow to integrate working arrangements that give a degree of flexibility on how long, where, when and at what times employees work.

There are several barriers to this slow take-up of flexible working, from the interdependency of roles to the fragmentation of the workforce between different tiers. These mean that flexible working has been considered almost a taboo subject. However, a recent pilot study provides much needed insight into how to look beyond these barriers to realise the rewards of flexible working.

The reasons for industry to begin to progress a more flexible approach are persuasive, including addressing the skills shortage through attracting and retaining a more diverse workforce.  The report identifies the under-representation of women and the attractiveness of flexible working to women given that they are more likely to have caring responsibilities.  

The study also highlights broader concerns – applicable to everyone, regardless of gender – about work-life balance, the long hours culture and the need to address wellbeing and worrying suicide rates. Whilst flexible working is not presented as the panacea to all industry woes, it offers the opportunity, as part of a workforce strategy, to begin to address these concerns. 

The pilot study, which was commissioned by Build UK, involved four large main contractors: BAM Construct; BAM Nuttall; Skanska UK; and, Willmott Dixon. Each introduced tailored flexible working practices onto different project sites, ranging in size between 14 and 120 employees. 

The specific practices trialled in this way included:

  • A team-based consultative approach, allowing workers to submit preferences for working patterns that met planned and defined business needs 
  • A flexi-day in which workers could accumulate additional hours in exchange for one day off each month 
  • An output-based approach which meant that workers could leave once their work for the day was completed rather than remain on site to complete their contracted hours  
  • Staggered start and finish times whereby the foreman alternated start times between two teams coupled with a choice of break time. 

The reported results were encouraging. 

Feedback from participants showed a significant increase in wellbeing from 43% to 84%. Qualitative feedback from managers highlighted a greater sense of trust and empowerment. All four firms reported no impact on budgets or timeframes.

The report – entitled Timewise, Making Construction a great place to work: Can flexible working help? – provides useful guidance on the need for a controlled and measured approach to the implementation of flexible working. This starts with a vision and buy-in at the top. The report also recommends a trial run before any wider roll-out, plus clear criteria for measuring outcomes. 

Finally, the report highlights the need to review management capability and address any training needs this identifies.  

Timewise have compiled a 10-step plan to incorporate these learning points which can be found here.

The Timewise pilots attempted to break the taboo of flexible working for site-based staff. In carefully selected, small-scale projects this now looks practicable. This is a small step for industry to begin to embrace the flexible working challenge and to expand provision for inclusive flexible working practices for all staff.

If you have any questions on introducing flexible working, please contact the ECA Employee Relations Advisory Service at employeerelations@eca.co.uk or 020 7313 4800.