Diversity and inclusion is a work in progress when it comes to the building sector. The workforce is still overwhelmingly male, white, and middle-aged, and that’s a problem for an industry that’s tasked with building the net-zero societies of the future.

Leaders need to make it a strategic business priority to proactively encourage people from all walks of life to enter our industry,  bringing with them their life experiences, their ideas, their transferable skills, and their passion for building a more sustainable society.

Changing perceptions of flexible working

One of the ways we might be able to change the perception of this industry – and reports show that its very homogeneity is a barrier to women and people of colour – is by being a little more creative, intentional, and forward-thinking about how we arrange our workforce. One of the ways I’ve been surprised since joining the industry myself, is how few people have come forward to explore flexible working options, compared to other industries I’ve experienced.

The fact is that any employee with more than 26 weeks of continuous service is entitled to make a flexible working request and yet it seems relatively rare in our industry, whereas it’s become routine in sectors such as technology and banking. In part, that’s a legacy of a male-dominated industry, where few of the workforce have the caring responsibilities that women do; I also think it reflects the hands-on site-based nature of tradespeople, which seems to set the tone for company working practices overall.

Bold and creative leadership

However, I believe that rethinking our attitude to flexible working is one of the ways in which we can be bolder, and more creative.

Why bold? Because it takes courage to open up a conversation about flexible working, if you suspect that it might impact your reputation as a loyal, ambitious team player. But it shouldn’t be like that, and I’d encourage everyone to think more progressively on this issue. The past few years have shown leaders that good people will stick with fair employers even under the most difficult of circumstances, so leaders should play fair with those they trust, and try not to equate ‘flexible’ with ‘not as much’ when it’s often not the case.

Flexible working doesn’t have to mean working less or, as is often expected these days, working remotely – it might mean working around caring responsibilities, or around studying for new qualifications, for example. Or it could be that you have an employee who wants to cross skill, so is asking for a part-time secondment to another department. It might even be that an employee spots a gap in your customer service and wants to work different hours to provide a more comprehensive service. Those are all situations in which flexible working is beneficial to both parties.

Flexibility increases diversity

I’d encourage employers across building services to think more creatively about what they are offering employees. Let’s put aside the traditional if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it attitude, and instead try to look right across your workforce with fresh eyes. What small changes could you offer to your workers that might boost their morale, or adapt their hours to suit their family responsibilities or personal circumstances? What it might cost you in maintaining the status quo, in time will come back to you in a more diverse workforce, with huge loyalty to your business.

The most forward-thinking companies in our industry need to be quick on their feet, adapting to the latest employer trends in order to compete with other sectors for the brightest and best talent. By adopting fresh ideas from other sectors, we can begin to attract a more diverse range of people, taking advantage of their fresh ideas and transferable skills.