Building workforces for the future

Implementing effective HR strategies is an ongoing challenge in construction, where short-term contracts and ever-changing workforces are the norm. How can firms effectively manage an army of contractors and permanent staff across different sites, while ensuring full legal compliance and commercial viability? Tony Gale explains

Few would deny that the employment landscape has become more complex over the past decade, as companies in almost every sector recognise the benefits of flexible workforces with skills tailored to the goals of a project. Today, it’s not uncommon for teams to be made up of permanent employees, agency staff and those seconded from other areas of the business – all of which can make cohesion difficult, even if they are based under the same roof.

Of course, this situation is nothing new for the construction and civil engineering sector where demand for labour fluctuates dramatically. Project deadlines are notoriously tight and personnel may be deployed at a moment’s notice, with agency and contingent workers typically plugging skills gaps. One of the biggest issues facing HR departments is how they can manage this hybrid workforce and streamline processes, particularly when hundreds of miles away at the company headquarters.

Compared to office environments, which have obvious entry and exit points, building and civil engineering projects can be vast, so even something as straightforward as knowing who is on site is tricky to manage.

The paper-based sign-in systems of old often leave too much margin for error and, for the person overseeing operations, it becomes incumbent on their already-stretched resource to ensure people are paid correctly for the shifts completed. Compounding this further is the fact that operations do not always run to plan, meaning that workers need remuneration for the additional hours they put in to maintain traction on the project.

Migrant labour is integral to the UK construction industry and figures from the CITB show that as many as one-in-three firms recruit people from overseas. Providing much-needed skills, these workers may be employed on a casual basis and could move between locations, however this requires careful management. HR departments, along with project managers, are responsible for ensuring employees have the correct documentation to work in the UK and understand their rights, particularly around training and safety, even if there is a language barrier.

It goes without saying that people management must be considered against a backdrop of commercial value. In an industry where services are bought in on a cost basis, and where margins are tight, there is pressure to create frameworks that simplify everyday processes, while achieving the gold standard for compliance. These systems must also support decision-making within the company by providing rapid access to transparent data.

Like every other area of life, technology is paving the way for more efficient HR systems, and in a sector as fast-moving as construction and civil engineering, cloud-based software is particularly valuable.

Software has traditionally been geared towards office environments, where people can access resources and services via a desktop. However, when out on a project, IT infrastructure and internet connections, can be limited – leaving managers with no other choice than to log hours, absences, breaks and overtime on spreadsheets and paper documents. As a result, fieldbased employees are left with no easy way to proactively engage with HR matters.

Cloud-based software, on the other hand, empowers employees to manage their own time using the device they feel most comfortable with – which is often their mobile phone. Rather than having to sign in each time they arrive on site, new systems are now geared towards allowing workers to log and confirm their attendance on shift and note when they are on a break. If there is work available, they can also pick additional shifts from their phone without giving the manager the headache of having to work it out.

Linked to this are payroll systems that can be integrated into HR platforms to make sure people receive the right payment, no matter how complex their working pattern. With the capacity to create branded payslips, all stored electronically and confidentially, it’s a far cry from the cash-in-hand practices of old and adds a standard of professionalism, transparency and process in line with what clients and businesses now expect.

Ensuring legal compliance in construction and civil engineering is essential, but offline systems can make it difficult to maintain accurate records. The advantage of cloud software is that it allows the user, manager and HR department to access everything from employment contracts to training materials whenever they want to and wherever they are based. It also means that senior staff can see if an employee has signed off a document or if there are any gaps in training that need to be addressed. Since this can all be done on a mobile device, everyone can access what they need without having to be officebased.

This real-time access is known as self-service and is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, mimicking the actions that people are familiar with. Even those with limited IT experience can engage with them, since they are as easy to use as social media channels.

While self-service software plays an important role in managing a flexible workforce, it’s worth noting that it does not equate to self-management. Although systems are developed to make it easier for workers to book holidays and explain why they might be arriving late or leaving early, there is strict governance around them. As has always been the case, managers can still control whether time off is approved, but the online platform makes it easier to keep track of who is where and maintain accurate records.

The variation in the scale and volume of projects in the UK highlights a pressing need for people practices that meet the needs of a diverse workforce. Whether a company is delivering a large-scale housing estate, a major transport infrastructure scheme or a bespoke one-off build, there must be clear and consistent structures in place for payroll, time and attendance, training and safety.

Software offers opportunities to scale up depending on the size of the team or complexity of requirement, with managers able to choose what is relevant for each employee depending on their contract. Once processes are in place, companies are in a stronger position to deploy teams, sometimes at short notice, and ensure projects are commercially successful and legally sound, even from a distance.

Tony Gale and his team at Access Group work alongside over 10,000 UK businesses and notfor- profit organisations to deliver HR and talent management software solutions that maximise employee engagement, improve performance and drive growth. Access Group’s client portfolio includes the likes of Barratt Developments, Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains and Renewable Energy Systems.

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