Building on a college building in London that has shown work-life balance really works

We all know that the construction industry is notoriously stressful and competitive, and you might be forgiven for thinking that having to build abstract designs such as the one above just add to the stress. However, this scheme - a new-build project at Goldsmiths College, south-east London - was the pilot for an initiative in work-life balance. Goldsmiths was a £6.4m, 50-week design-and-build project by Alsop Architects, a firm renowned for creating complex designs. It was a seven-storey, 2800 m2, state-of-the-art building with tight site access and with some particularly tricky design features.

Berkshire Consultancy conducted an analysis of the project with contractor ISG InteriorExterior, and uncovered typical obstacles that needed to be overcome: long working hours, too much time spent travelling to too many meetings and the continual cancellation of holidays and training. Breaks weren't being taken and there was the usual low level of trust on site.

Berkshire worked with ISG and its professional partners to raise awareness about the factors that contribute to stress at work and the impact that this can have. They were shocked to discover, among other things, that 16% of all suicides occur in the construction community.

As a result of the work, significant changes were made to working processes. For example:

  • Forward planning Greater emphasis was placed on planning, which included establishing meeting objectives, agendas and time limits.
  • Flexible working This was encouraged, with a staggered hours system enhancing productivity and efficiency while reducing working hours.
  • Lunch hours A strict, minimum half-hour lunch break was introduced, which had to be taken away from the desk. Staff were encouraged to take lunch as a group to help build relationships and camaraderie. The team was even provided with advice about nutrition.
  • Five-day week A five-and-a-half-day working week is standard in the industry, but the practice is outdated and inefficient. Reducing the week to five days was proved feasible at Goldsmiths.
  • Restricted email and mobile phone usage
  • This was restricted to the hours of 7am-6pm.
  • Administration A large chunk of time on site is spent recording everything, mainly to cover backs. An open relationship can reduce time spent on unnecessary administrative tasks.
  • Dress code A more casual style of dress for managers was introduced, which helped erode the "us vs them" culture.
  • Holiday cover A buddy system was set up to ensure that if someone was away then their work would always be covered. As a result all holidays and training were taken within the project period without additional cover.
Despite all the changes made to processes and hours worked, the project was completed on time, within cost and to exemplary high standards; it was profitable and hailed as a great success. The site has won awards for safety, was one of four sites to achieve an accolade on its ISO 9001 inspection and has invoked positive responses from all that visited it.

So given the right approach, it is possible to improve the working lives of people involved in construction. Granted, the prevailing scepticism that has dogged attempts to implement better working practices in the past is unlikely to subside overnight, but the evidence is now there to prove that well-being can be achieved without compromising competitiveness.

Goldsmiths college
Goldsmiths college