Flexible working has not been readily accommodated by construction companies in the past. That’s changing, with more working mothers now able to balance the demands of site and family. Neil Gerrard explains.
The construction industry doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to employing women. Gender pay gap data published earlier this year was worse than in any other industry, while working hours that are often not compatible with childcare, combined with a culture of presenteeism, can make the industry seem inhospitable for female employees.
But some firms are trying to change that. Several big contractors are now promoting flexible working to encourage working mums to stay in – or return to – the industry and boost the diversity of their workforces.
Dawn Moore is HR director of contractor Morgan Sindall and winner of the Working Mums Champion Award at the 2017 Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Awards.
Flexible working and the law
To be eligible to apply to work flexibly, an applicant must:
- Be an employee with 26 weeks’ continuous service on the date the application is made;
- Not have made another application to work flexibly under this right during the past 12 months;
- The application must be made in writing, by email or letter.
The application must include:
- Details of how the employee wants to work flexibly and when they want to start;
- An explanation of how they think flexible working might affect the business and how this could be dealt with – for instance, if they’re not at work on certain days.
The employer has three months to consider the request and make a decision, or longer if agreed with the employee. If the employer agrees to the request, they must change the terms and conditions in the employee’s contract no less than 28 days after the request was approved.
If the employer disagrees, they must write to the employee giving the business reasons for the refusal. An employee may be able to complain to an employment tribunal.
More on flexible working for mothers: workingmums.co.uk.
“If we get the right mix of people with a traditional construction background, who at the moment are often men, and combine them with a more diverse group of people, including more females and working parents, I think we will have something more innovative than our competitors and see greater business success,” she says.
In its staff surveys, Moore claims, salary now comes third to flexible working and personal development, regardless of age or gender. That has led to the business being more willing to accommodate flexible working, she adds.
Meanwhile, Lucy Homer, head of design at Lendlease Construction, explains that all employees have the opportunity to work flexibly, whether compressed hours, part-time, or simply arranging their time so that it fits in with the school holidays.
“We want people to be able to manage the demands of family life with their careers – there’s no reason why you can’t be a mother (or a father) and a successful PM, engineer or any of the other careers you’ll find in construction,” she says. “Ultimately, if people are able to fulfil their responsibilities then we’re happy for them to work flexibly.”
While Homer concedes that working on site carries “additional complications”, they are not insurmountable, she argues. “It’s all a question of organisation and education. Organisation in terms of scheduling your work and how that impacts others and the project, and education in terms of communicating to colleagues and suppliers that you work to a particular set of hours,” she says.
All managers and new workers are trained in how to handle and encourage conversations around flexible working, parental leave and returning to work. Unconscious bias training is mandatory for staff and is discussed with new starters at induction.
The company is currently running pilot schemes on sites in Stratford, east London, and Manchester to get a fuller picture of how it can encourage and enable more people to work flexibly.
Meanwhile at Willmott Dixon, there is a distinction between flexible working and agile working, as chief HR officer Rick Lee explains.
“Agile working is an informal ad hoc arrangement which allows people to be flexible around working hours and the location they work from, whereas flexible working covers a range of formal permanent arrangements, such as part-time working, which are set out in an individual’s terms and conditions of employment,” he says.
“Through our annual people survey we know that the ability to work in an agile way is important to our people.”
‘The company is very supportive in my career development’
Vasoula Nicolaidou, quality engineer, Morgan Sindall
Vasoula Nicolaidou has worked at Morgan Sindall since July 2013 when she joined the business as a technical coordinator at one of its London sites.
After a year, she was promoted to senior technical coordinator and subsequently shortlisted in the category of Best Woman Contractor in the 2015 European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards, before going on maternity leave with her first child in February 2016.
Returning to work in March 2017, Nicolaidou resumed her previous role but with a part-time flexible working arrangement of 9am to 1.30pm every day.
She describes her colleagues as very understanding – even when an unforeseen issue with childcare arrangements arose.
“The company’s flexible stance meant that a stressful situation was diffused and I was able to work from home until the problem was resolved,” she adds.
Later, Nicolaidou secured a new role as a quality engineer based at Morgan Sindall’s Euston office and working at various construction sites around the capital.
This change in job role has been a learning curve for Nicolaidou, but again she says the company continues to be “very supportive in my ongoing career development”. She has also signed up to be a mentor in the company’s new “buddy scheme” which sees new parents teamed up with existing parents in the company as part of an extended support network.
‘I don’t take the job any less seriously’
Katie Lyle, design coordinator, Willmott Dixon
Katie Lyle, who has worked for Willmott Dixon for around five years, has just come back from maternity leave to her role as a design coordinator.
She returned to work on three days a week for 16 weeks, using up her annual leave to phase herself back in. After that she will work longer hours for four days and then half a day from home one day a week. She currently works in Willmott Dixon’s Farringdon office, but has been site-based in the past and will be again in the future.
Lyle explains that Willmott Dixon Interiors is moving towards agile working. “It’s aimed at everyone,” she says. “There is no need for individual formal agreements and it recognises that people do not have to be tied to a particular desk to be productive, that it is about getting your work done.
“There is still a huge misconception in construction generally – particularly for those based on site – that you have to be physically present to show commitment, yet the construction industry is less productive than others.”
However, she says there are particular pressures in construction because everyone is working to strict deadlines. This can colour attitudes towards those who are not working full time, who, she says, may be seen as less committed. “That is not the case. We just have a second job. We don’t take the first one any less seriously, but we cannot stay late anymore,” says Lyle.
She would like to see more men working flexibly so that they don’t miss out on family time, a reduction in working hours generally, which she thinks would make workers more efficient, and an end to assumptions that women will be the primary carer.
Lyle would also like to see more part-time professional roles in construction advertised. Not advertising such roles suggests that companies are not really interested in part-time workers, she says.
‘People accept my flexi-time as they see me getting the job done’
Jenny Sawyer, development manager, Lendlease
Sawyer has worked at Lendlease for 23 years since she joined its undergraduate scheme as a quantity surveyor.
Over the years she has worked in risk, project management, commercial management, client relationship management and run a non-profit body linked to the firm. When she had her first child just over five years ago she returned on the pattern she works now – full time with flexible hours.
However, eight months later the family moved to Singapore so Sawyer could work on an office tower project. They moved back when she was 36 weeks pregnant with her second child.
Sawyer says flexible working has become more established. With her first child, she felt guilty about her work pattern and had to keep it secret and arrange childcare if a meeting was booked in the late afternoon. Now she is able to be much more open.
“Being open about it makes it easier for other people to get on board with it. Everyone knows I won’t be in the office after 4pm, but that I will be there at 7.30am. People are more accepting of my flexitime as they see me getting the job done,” she says.
She expects industry changes to deliver the biggest wins for gender diversity. “Pre-fabrication will open up more opportunities to women, as employees can mostly travel to the same place every day and work in a nicer physical environment,” she says.
For now, she feels there is a need for more flexible working and also to change the image of construction among children.