What does the workplace of the future look like in the construction industry? Is it everybody back in the office? Will everyone be remote? Will some staff work in a hybrid situation?
The Family Business Institute had an opportunity to crowdsource the question at a peer group meeting with around 15 construction executives. We asked, "What do you think about the construction office of the future?" What they told us was quite interesting.
We're all struggling with this issue, in the construction industry and in so many other sectors. We don't know what the right choices are in a post-pandemic world. Should we mandate our in-office policies, or should we leave it to individual choice? The answers are nebulous.
This group of progressive, dynamic contractors, made nine strong points on why hybrid and remote work are unlikely permanent solutions for our industry.
1. It's inequitable.
This point came directly from the diversity, equity and inclusion committee of one of the members. They used the word inequitable, which can be a loaded term, because so many contractors don’t manage their office staff to consistent standards. One cannot deny this is an issue.
2. It’s inconsistent.
Having office workers able to have either flexible, hybrid or completely remote schedules, for example, can be quite frustrating for the technicians, superintendents and foremen in the field. You cannot manage a construction project from your couch; it just doesn't work that way. People have to be on the jobsite.
3. It hurts less-experienced workers who are trying to learn.
It's much easier, better and more organic for people learning the construction business to do so in an environment where other construction experts are in the same space as them. That makes perfect sense. Think about remote employees; they can take online classes, have virtual contact with coworkers and can be doing assorted learning items, but, as a young person, I learned better from interacting with other people, and I bet you did, too.
4. Remote work is unfair to company leadership because it allows employees to “meter” access.
That was the word the construction executives we spoke with used: meter access to themselves. You've probably noticed this. Lunch periods stretch out, and maybe the employee takes a little refresher nap during the day. On analysis, metering is a real thing.
5. Productive hallway meetings are absent.
This is one of my pet peeves about hybrid and remote work. I know at our shop, when everybody's present, the office is so much more energized, enlivening and enriching when we have a full staff there. And if you need to call a quick hallway meeting or get the benefit of others’ thinking, it’s easy to do. You don't get that when your office is half or two-thirds empty.
6. Remote and hybrid work inhibits alignment.
The lack of hallway meetings and in-person training for young people and those new to the industry inhibits culture building. The lack of “soft” or informal interactions inhibits being able to align your people to your mission, vision and values.
7. Employees have threatened to quit but haven't followed through.
The executives said they've had employees say, "You know what? If we go back to an in-office environment, we'll just leave and go somewhere else." But this has not happened. According to this group of contractors, people are leaving, but upon exit interviews they're not moving on because of the lack of a hybrid work schedule.
8. Remote workers are less likely to volunteer to take on more responsibility or get involved in community projects and team activities.
If people aren't around, it makes it harder for leadership to loop them into assignments. If your people are absent, you can hardly say, "Hey, John, it just occurred to me that you would be great for this!"
9. The post-COVID rules are going to be temporary.
The “new normal” will revert to the old normal over time. We'd never heard it put that way before. And keep in mind these were not construction firms populated by unintelligent people. These were ENR 400 company executives, some of the leading thinkers in our industry!
In closing, one of the members said this, and I wrote his quote down precisely: "Contractors win by solving problems. And we can best do that together." If he is right, and I certainly think he is, that bodes poorly for the future of remote work in construction.
What are your thoughts? What do you see as the future of remote or hybrid work in construction?