April 5, 2020

Coronavirus, construction, and flexible working

Darren Hockley, Managing Director at DeltaNet International, which specialises in creating engaging compliance and health and safety e-learning for businesses around the globe, looks at how management in the construction sector can alter flexible working policies for unexpected events.


With the early storms and the coronavirus outbreak, it’s safe to say the 2020s have gotten off to a difficult start. ‘Business as usual’ doesn’t seem as if it will apply for much longer – at least for a while.

In many sectors, people are preparing to work from home: an enforced, temporary flexible working pattern. But in the construction industry – one of the worst for flexible working – things aren’t quite so simple. Should the disruption continue, many construction workers stand to lose much-needed income as they are forced to take unpaid leave. For those between short-term contracts, the financial squeeze could be even more difficult.

Businesses that are wedded to the traditional working arrangements of the industry might find it harder to adapt to the situation and stay open.

While many industries are embracing the 21st century ideal of flexible working, construction risks lagging behind – to the detriment of individual workers and construction businesses themselves.

Flexible construction

There’s no reason why flexible working shouldn’t be far more widespread in the construction industry than it is.

Of course, there will be difficulties; there are more things to consider when switching to a flexible model for a building company than a cloud-based technology firm. For those who try to navigate these choppy waters, the rewards could be huge, resulting in greater staff retention, better job fulfilment and even a lift in productivity.

Perhaps most importantly, flexible work could help to solve one of the most pressing crises in the industry: the mental health of workers. Sadly, the rates of work-related mental ill health are a problem in construction and suicide rates are particularly alarming. No single measure can solve this problem entirely but improving working conditions, including offering flexible alternatives, could be part of the solution.

Clearly, what works for one construction company might cause chaos for another. Drawing up arrangements that work for employees whilst also ensuring businesses complete their projects on time requires creativity and give and take on both sides. The answer will be different for everyone. But companies who pull together with their staff to find something that works reap the benefits of a happier, more productive workforce who are more likely to stick around.

Communication is key. Employees will appreciate it when their employers make it clear from the outset what is possible and what might not be. When working arrangements are changing due to unexpected events such as the coronavirus outbreak, the need to share information early is even more important – whether they’re currently working flexibly or not.

Making it Work

With the long hours culture of construction, creating a successful flexible working schedule can seem like a big step. It requires a change in mindset as much as anything. But it can also have the effect of allowing work to continue on projects when they would usually stop, especially in times like the coronavirus outbreak. These tips can help you make it work:

Measure Output Not Input – In all industries shifting to flexible working, there needs to be a change in mindset from measuring input (i.e. time spent at work, resources spent on a specific job) to measuring output. It makes sense since people work in different ways – some prefer to work in short bursts, others to put in the hours in irregular ways. Communicate to staff a reasonable target for when the work needs to be complete and let them work towards it in a way that suits them.

This doesn’t mean there should be no managerial oversight. In fact, the role of the manager or supervisor is as vital as ever, as they are responsible for making sure their teams have everything they need to complete the job well.

For administration jobs or other functions that can be performed remotely, this can be quite a straightforward change to make.

Trust Your Staff – All flexible working arrangements are built on trust. It takes trust for an employee to request flexibility – they need to feel that their requests will be considered seriously and only turned down if there is a good reason. On the other hand, managers need to shift away from the idea of monitoring their staff’s every move to helping a team of trusted adults achieve their best results.

Enjoy the Benefits – Allowing flexible working opens up access to many talented workers who you wouldn’t be able to employ otherwise. People with family commitments will be drawn to your company. With the long-term recruitment effects of Brexit still not entirely clear, anything that gives you an edge over competitors for attracting and retaining talent is to be welcomed.

Although it’s important not to scaremonger, coronavirus has brought the issue of flexible working to the forefront of public discussion and made the gap between those who have the option and those who don’t much starker. There has never been a better time for the construction industry to re-assess its working practices.

Darren Hockley, Managing Director at DeltaNet International