Ten years ago, UK construction companies resembled the French foreign legion in their treatment of workers. But the harder they’ve fought to recruit staff, the more they’ve developed their soft skills.

Imagine you’d fallen asleep at your desk in 1997 and only just woken up. Once you’d finished cutting your three-foot fingernails and shaving your tongue, a great many facts about your new world would come as a shock. One of the greatest would be the company you found yourself working for.

Gone would be the gruff-but-effective boss, the stiff-upper-lip-and-lower-back long-hours culture and the fear of asking for time off to pick the kids up from school. In their place would be a manager to whom staff were as important as projects, a flexible working policy and, if the shock of recovering from your coma was too much, a company-sponsored counsellor to pour your heart out to. Or why not have a lie down on that comfy sofa in the break-out area where that row of dusty filing cabinets used to be?

As the 50 employers in this guide demonstrate, the construction industry now has some of the UK’s most progressive employers. Over the past 10 years, the 2 million people it employs have enjoyed dramatic improvements to their working lives, as companies struggle to lure staff away from other industries and stop competitors poaching them.

Construction has always offered a solid career to anyone wanting to make a mark on the landscape, and have fun doing it, but it lagged behind other sectors in the way it managed and rewarded its human resources.

Now, with the industry booming and even the sexiest firms turning away work because they can’t find enough people to do it, chief executives bandy around their low staff churn rates in conversation as proudly as they do their turnovers and share prices. They can’t keep increasing wages, so they’ve found better ways to keep people happy through benefits packages. In many ways, the employees now call the shots.

“People have become more demanding. They want more choice, and with the skills shortage there’s an intense war for talent,” says Julia Tyson, group HR director at contractor Wates. “They need to have an emotional engagement with an employer now and feel they have a good reason for staying, because they’re much more able to pick up their bags and leave if they don’t.”

Tyson joined Wates from the investment banking sector and she thinks construction’s HR practices have tended to lag behind other industries. Chrissie Chadney, HR director at contractor Willmott Dixon, agrees: “When I joined the company 10 years ago, we didn’t have what I would call a fully professional human resources division.” Her company employs about 700 people across 10 offices. “We had somebody who dealt with personnel and we had health and safety training, which was required. We did have a management trainee scheme, but now training and development is much more thought-through. We believe getting people to realise their potential is a key requirement.

“The industry had quite a hire-and-fire reputation,” she adds. “We now offer as good job security as companies in any other sector, and better than most.”

Staff need to have an emotional engagement with an employer and feel they have a good reason for staying, because
they’re much more able to pick up their bags and leave if they don’t.

It’s not only that firms must try harder to hang on to their staff the profile of their workforce has also changed and, with it, their expectations. “It used to be common for people to come up through the tools into construction management, but that’s rare now,” says Chadney. “The members of our workforce nowadays almost all have degrees and are members of the Chartered Institute of Building or the RICS,” says Chadney.

Davis Langdon has always employed surveying graduates, but in the past couple of years it has been taking on increasing numbers of “non-cognates” with degrees in other disciplines, which means it’s competing to offer the rewards that potential employees could receive in other sectors, such as finance or law. “I don’t think construction was regarded as a prestigious career, but increasingly it is,” says Jill Pett, and HR partner in Davis Langdon. “A lot of graduates come to us because they’re interested in big ticket issues such as global warming and sustainability. They want to make a difference – you can’t do that if you’re doing mergers and acquisitions in a law firm but you can if you’re designing the Olympic park.”

One of firms’ greatest plays for differentiation is training. This no longer involves a few isolated technical sessions to meet the requirements of government or professional institutions. Staff at the best employers, from raw recruits to the directors, are shepherded through cradle-to-grave development programmes. Regular feedback, mentoring and new-fangled concepts such as leadership coaching now come as standard.

Gaining the government’s Investors in People (IiP) accreditation now helps firms win contracts, but the touchy-feely language of HR still sits oddly with the traditional image of the industry. Chrissie Chadney speaks of Willmott Dixon’s “empowerment culture”. Would anyone have said that 10 years ago? “Oh God no! It would have been seen as a bit fluffy.”

Another ultra-modern concept that has become common currency across the industry is “work–life balance”. “Everybody wants work–life balance now,” says Tyson. “The traditional industry model of being onsite at 7am and not getting home until late after a two-hour drive has gone. People want to work to live and not live to work.”

“Working from home” is no longer seen as a euphemism for skiving, and advances in IT have allowed employees to shed the shackles of the office. Now, any employer worth the paper their IiP certificate is written on has a flexible working policy that accommodates the family commitments of staff.

Construction has also made great leaps in maternity and paternity benefits over the past couple of years. A number of firms now offer between three and six months at full pay for mothers.

The final frontier of flexible working is the building site. Tyson is running a pilot scheme on a couple of sites where employees discuss from the start what hours they want to work and how they can best accommodate the client within that. “We have all the policies – part-time working, job sharing, sabbaticals but uptake isn’t that great,” she says. “But we have found we have a lot of informal flexible working onsite. We want to formalise that.”

Staff surveys have assumed a much greater significance chief executives pore over the findings and execute
demands to the letter

Cath Knight, HR director at Mace, says her company is much more conscious of employees’ lives outside work, whether they’re taking care of elderly parents, children or even dogs. She’s also very aware of employees changing priorities and scrutinises staff surveys to offer tailored benefits packages. “People’s expectations of their salaries and benefits package are much higher and they want more choice,” she says.

Knight has noticed employees are now much more conscious of their pensions unsurprising, given the government’s encouragement and public awareness of the fragility of long-term income. That’s perhaps the one area our 1997 worker would be disappointed by now those generous final salary schemes are almost all closed, and new recruits must, one way or another, take their chances on the stock market.

Mace, as a relatively young company, never offered a final salary scheme, but it does have an array of other perks to make people feel looked after. These include childcare vouchers, family BUPA cover, a counselling service and an annual medical check-up for all staff all part of what Knight calls a “wellness strategy”.

Health-related benefits are a big trend, and it’s not just because firms want to make sure people are fit enough to come to work. Mace carries out annual surveys of what kind of benefits employees want and adheres strictly to the findings. “It’s interesting how much our staff appreciate the wellness strategy,” she says. “It has highlighted what issues employees need to deal with, like high blood pressure and the early signs of diabetes.”

Staff surveys have assumed much greater significance HR directors and chief executives now pore over the findings and execute staff’s demands to the letter. “We would be crazy not to have as much flexibility in packages as employees require,” says Francis Ives, chair of Cyril Sweett. “Everybody is worth a certain amount of money, whether they take that as a fast car or health and wellbeing benefits.”

Cyril Sweett’s staff surveys also revealed the importance of an employer’s impact on society. “Everybody wants to be part of a company that is putting something back into the community,” says Ives. “A couple of months ago I was out with a team repainting a primary school in east London. That’s a good thing for building a sense of team spirit.”

Ives says the increasing internationalisation of his staff also presents employers with challenges. “Here in London, we’ve got 30 nationalities, who speak about 35 languages. They come from France, Germany, the Far East and India. Diversity has really come to the fore over the past 10 years. We have people who require prayer rooms. These days you’ve got to be a tolerant employer, but it’s more than just tolerance it’s respectfulness. It’s about being an employer of choice and to be that, you have to be communicative, considerate, respectful and responsive to staff and their needs.”

One of the most powerful methods of staff retention is the equity stake. A number of QSs are adopting this model, but architect Jestico + Whiles has been run as an employee benefit trust for about five years. This means the directors decide on an annual profit and divide it up between all staff who have been there longer than a year.

Architects, often small, creative, family-run enterprises, have probably always been construction’s most progressive employers. Heinz Richardson, a director at Jestico + Whiles, says his practice has always strived to make the workplace a pleasant place to be. “It’s about whether people can cycle to work, enjoy lunch in or out of the office and continue their professional development. Most of us spend a third of our lives working – and probably more in architecture. It’s important for people to get out of bed and go somewhere they enjoy being, rather than just earn money and come home.”