If construction is really to change for the better, then our industry leaders need to engage the gamechangers, says Ann Bentley
Like a lot of people, I have predominantly been working from home for many months now and my daily walks have given me new insights into my neighbourhood. I have taken to observing the progress on domestic building projects in my area – extensions to existing properties and new-build single dwellings.
I have watched with interest as the construction work progresses and the impact (both good and bad) as the designs emerge. With my professional hat on, I have realised that, for most of my neighbours, this is their day-to-day experience of the construction sector.
So, what do they see? Probably the two most noticeable features are delivery lorries blocking the road and cars and vans parked anywhere they can. If they look a little more closely they will see an entirely male, predominantly white workforce, mainly in the 30-60 age bracket, with dismal welfare facilities making apparently ad-hoc progress – days with lots of labour on site and other days with none. And, while safety boots and ear defenders do now seem to be pretty standard, there is often little more than a cursory nod to the health, safety and wellbeing good practice that we see on large sites.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, I read with interest the results of Build UK and Timewise’s Construction Pioneers study into the realities of flexible working for onsite employees, involving alongside other contractors Willmott Dixon, Skanska, Bam Construct and Bam Nuttall. Concluding that flexible working can be successful both for the respective workforce and employers, this example of best practice for the industry is a signal that change can happen within the construction sector. A change that should drive the diversity and inclusion agenda, support work/life balance and encourage workforce wellbeing initiatives.
Levelling up is so much more than trying to reduce the gap between rich and poor and the North and the South. It should be about raising the game in working practices across all industries
In the prime minister’s very first speech back in July 2019, he talked about the levelling up agenda. He said that it was his government’s intention to boost economic performance outside of London and the South-east to “level up” the country.
While he was talking about economics and government investment, taking this tenet into a wider context, levelling up is so much more than trying to reduce the gap between rich and poor and the North and the South. It should be about raising the game in working practices across all industries, lessening the gender pay gap, reducing the difference in opportunities for those that have and those that have not – and broadening the diversity and inclusion of our workforces? And shouldn’t our aim as an industry be to level up too?
Yet, as my neighbours’ projects show versus the recent Construction Pioneers research, as an industry we are operating at two different speeds. There is no doubt that we have made great progress in understanding what we need to do as an industry – whether this is to work towards a carbon zero target, to become more inclusive and diverse in the recruitment of our talent or to improve conditions and standards of health, safety and wellbeing. And I know with absolute certainty that, in some parts of our industry, the raising of these bars is happening here and now.
But are we guilty of playing to a friendly audience? Are our leaders – be they government ministers, industry bodies, the CEOs of contractors, consultants and other industry stakeholders who hold the platforms to preach (people like me) – really having an impact on the rest of our construction nation? And what responsibility do we have to amplify and encourage this best practice beyond our direct spheres of influence?
It is the Marcuses and the Gretas who will really change our world, who will really drive the levelling up agenda out of Parliament and the boardrooms to the construction sites and the watercoolers of our offices
The past few years have seen the rise of the influencer. Young, diverse, energetic and listened to – from 23-year-old Marcus Rashford, who has used his platform as a Manchester United and England footballer to change the way we see and act against food poverty, to 18-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist who is rallying the world’s youth to have their voice heard about climate change. So, who are the Marcuses and Gretas of the construction industry?
We know that we need to attract more talent. We also know that it is the Marcuses and the Gretas who will really change our world, who will really drive the levelling up agenda out of Parliament and the boardrooms to the construction sites and the watercoolers of our offices.
Maybe the role of leaders now needs to be about ensuring that we are attracting these gamechangers to our industry. Now we know what we need to do, our industry needs advocates to help us to map that pathway to seamless execution and delivery – not only on every project but on our carbon zero journey, on our route to real diversity and inclusion and with our ambition for a truly safe and healthy construction industry.
Surely, if leadership can get this right, isn’t that the true meaning of collaboration at its best and the best way to really level out the playing field?
Ann Bentley is a global board director of Rider Levett Bucknall, a member of the Construction Leadership Council and a collaborator on the Value Toolkit