Could flexible working be the key to greater diversity in construction?

Posted on: 7 May, 2024

Flexible working could be the silver bullet that construction companies need to improve diversity and representation in the sector. Here’s how.

Flexible working has been steadily growing in popularity over the last decade, but there’s no denying that the move towards hybrid models and remote work was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

With many forced to work remotely or adapt their working style, professionals quickly adjusted to this new flexible way of working. As a result, 51% of companies now allow hybrid and remote arrangements to meet the needs of their workforce, according to a survey by Flex Index. The survey found that the majority (80%) of tech companies are ‘highly’ flexible, followed by 60% of professional services, 59% of media companies and 47% of financial services. 

However, there are still 49% of businesses that don’t offer as much flexibility, and these tend to be in frontline like construction. While it’s good to see that recently, 17% of construction roles being advertised online offered flexible working options, there’s still a lot of work to be done in this space.  

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There are several barriers to flexible working in construction, but this is something that businesses in the industry need to consider for a number of reasons – two of the biggest being the ongoing skills gap and the huge diversity challenges the built environment is facing.  

So, could flexible working future-proof the construction industry and offer greater diversity across the workforce? 

The barriers to flexible working in construction 

Construction in particular has been seen as a location-based industry that relies on rigid working hours and deadlines. As a result, the options for flexible working have been limited. Some of the key challenges facing those in the industry include: 

  • A lack of understanding of how flexible models would work 
  • A fear of change and a lack of trust from employers  
  • The reluctance to let go of traditional workplace controls  
  • Rules and regulations and whether it will be more expensive to manage health and safety, competition, etc. 
  • Managing the schedules, wellbeing and stress of the workforce outside of traditional hours and working styles  

However, as flexible working becomes a key priority for many professionals, the construction industry can’t afford to be left behind.  

Not only can adopting flexible working styles attract more talent, but it could also improve the diversity of candidates and open up more opportunities for underrepresented groups in the industry. 

Why construction needs to consider flexible working  

As the construction industry and the needs of its workers continue to shift, leaders must give some serious consideration to flexible working and hybrid models. There are a number of key reasons for this: 

1. The existing workforce is ageing  

In 2022, there were 2.1 million people employed or self-employed in the construction industry and 86% of those were male.  

Of those, the research confirmed that the demographics were disproportionately older, with the over-60 group growing the fastest and the under-30s group reducing the quickest. 

With the existing workforce becoming older and fewer young professionals entering the industry, flexible working is vital for preserving the wellbeing of the existing workforce, as well as attracting new, younger candidates.  

2. There’s a shortage of workers and an ongoing skills gap  

Sociopolitical changes, a pandemic-related work shift and the aftermath of Brexit have all led to a significant loss in construction workers over the last decade or so. Plus, fewer people than ever are completing trade-related apprenticeships and education schemes – all of which has exacerbated the shortage of skilled workers in the industry.  

Offering flexibility in working arrangements can attract a wider talent pool. Many skilled workers may prefer or even require flexible schedules due to their personal circumstances, such as childcare, eldercare or health issues. By offering flexible working options, construction companies can tap into a much wider talent pool and start to bridge the gap. 

Learn more: How the built environment can bridge the green skills gap 

3. It can boost employer branding  

Companies that prioritise flexible working arrangements are often seen as more progressive and employee-friendly. This can help to enhance their reputation and employer branding, which in turn, can help to attract more talented candidates and differentiate the company from its competitors 

4. Increasing employee retention rates  

Construction has an above average turnover rate, at 21.4% compared to 15% for other industries. Workers who have more control over their schedules and can better balance their work with their personal lives are more likely to feel satisfied in their jobs and remain with the company for longer. 

5. Increasing productivity  

Flexible working can lead to increased productivity among workers, as it gives them more control over their schedules allows them to work during their most productive hours, whilst balancing their work with their personal commitments like families. This can result in higher job satisfaction and increased efficiency. 

6. Adapting to changing market demands  

The construction industry often experiences fluctuations in demand. This is due to factors like the weather and seasonality, economic conditions and project timelines.  

Flexible working arrangements can enable companies to adjust their workforce size and composition according to their project requirements, deadlines, the time of year and current demand. This better equips them to adapt to the ever-changing market conditions. 

7. Improving work-life balance  

The demanding nature of the construction industry, such as long hours, physical work and frequent travel, can lead to burnout and decreased job satisfaction. As a result, the industry has a very troubling record of mental health issues. In fact, one in four (25%) construction workers confess that they have considered suicide in the past.  

By offering flexible working arrangements, leaders can help their employees to achieve a better work-life balance, allowing them to schedule work around personal commitments and reduce their stress levels. 

8. Cutting costs and saving businesses money 

Considering flexible working options can help businesses in the industry to save money. Flexible arrangements allow some employees to work remotely or adjust their schedules, reducing overhead costs like office space and facilities. Similarly, these arrangements can lower turnover rates, thereby reducing recruitment and training expenses.  

Flexible working can also help to cut the amount of sick days taken as a result of poor mental and physical health. With sick days losing businesses £160 million a year, this can save construction organisations a significant amount of money. 

How flexible working can address construction’s diversity challenges 

Here are several ways flexible working can address diversity and inclusion challenges: 

Accommodating different physical needs  

Those with disabilities or health conditions may not even consider a career in the construction industry as they are worried about the rigid hours and physical demands on their mind and body.  

By introducing flexible working arrangements, businesses can accommodate the diverse needs of these employees, giving them options such as remote working, flexible hours or job sharing when required.  

This will help companies to create a more inclusive environment where employees feel valued and supported regardless of their individual circumstances. 

Improving work-life balance and attracting a more diverse talent pool  

Flexibility allows employees to better manage their work and personal responsibilities, making it easier for individuals with caregiving responsibilities or other commitments to join the workforce.  

It should come as no surprise that women only make up 15% of the construction workforce. With the rising costs of childcare, many have to ensure that their wages and working hours justify entering the workforce so they can still afford and balance out their parental or family responsibilities. 

By offering flexible arrangements, businesses can attract a more diverse pool of talent, including women and caregivers, who may have previously been discouraged from entering or staying in the industry due to its demanding schedule. 

Fostering a more inclusive and creative work culture  

Offering flexible arrangements can help to foster a more inclusive and supportive work culture. This is because employees who feel their needs are being met are likely to have higher levels of employee satisfaction and stay with their employers for longer.  

It can also introduce diverse perspectives and innovation to the company – by attracting a more diverse workforce through flexible working policies, employers can tap into a wider range of perspectives and ideas. This diversity of thought can lead to innovation and improved problem-solving, ultimately benefiting the company’s bottom line, as well as employees from different backgrounds.  

Learn more: Giving the construction industry a second chance – a Q&A with UCEM Apprentice Jodi-Ann Morgan 

Reducing biases and discrimination  

By using flexible arrangements to focus on outcomes rather than rigid schedules or who is putting in the face time, you can mitigate biases and discrimination in the workplace. This can create a more equitable environment and one where employees are evaluated based on their performance and contributions rather than trivial factors such as their gender, race or age. 

Supporting career progression and wellbeing  

Flexible working will enable employees to pursue career progression opportunities whilst also balancing their private lives and responsibilities, like childcare or their own health. By offering options such as part-time work, job sharing or remote work opportunities, construction companies can support their employees in achieving their career goals without compromising on the other aspects of their lives, happiness or wellbeing. 

Final thoughts  

It’s positive to see that some organisations in the construction industry are already offering more flexible working options, though it’s clear there is still a long way to go. It might take a period of adjustment, but getting these working models in place is something that the industry simply can’t afford to ignore if it hopes to bridge the skills gaps and promote diversity and inclusion.  

By adopting flexible working, employers can attract a wider talent pool and improve the diversity of candidates, opening up more opportunities for underrepresented groups. They can then foster an environment of inclusion and innovation and create a culture of equity and respect within an industry that is falling somewhat short on this front.  

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