Weekend warrior: Maverick boss pioneers five-day week in Australian construction

It’s been calculated that Australia needs around 114,000 new workers by 2024 just to deliver infrastructure projects already in the pipeline, but the industry’s harsh working environment – characterised by long hours, high pressure and adversarial behaviour – puts people off joining, pushes them out of it early, and takes a heavy toll on those who stay.

The industry is fixated on a six-day week because that’s the way we’ve always done it. It’s so stupid, it hurts– Roberts Co CEO, Alison Mirams

The suicide rate among construction workers there is more than double the national average, with construction workers six times more likely to die of suicide than workplace accidents. Women leave the industry six times faster than men, and the human cost of industry dysfunctions is estimated to be some A$6bn a year.

Prompted by this state of affairs, the state governments of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria have teamed up with the Australian Constructors Association to convene the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT). It’s job is to come up with new industry standards protecting mental health and family wellbeing. Working hours will come under the microscope. The taskforce hopes that compliance with the standards will become a condition for winning public sector work.

CICT will trial new ways of working that make the industry more humane, accompanied by research quantifying the impact on wellbeing and productivity, in hopes of building a moral and business case for radical change.

Let’s give them weekends

Currently, the CICT’s flagship pilot is the A$341m first stage of the Concord Hospital Redevelopment in Sydney, involving the design and construction of a 44,000-sq-m clinical services building.

Unheard of in Australian construction, where a six- or even seven-day week is the traditional norm, contractor Roberts Co is delivering the project with a strict, five-day working week, giving workers what most of us take for granted: a weekend to rest, recover and spend time with the family.

The five-day pilot is the brainchild of Roberts Co chief executive Alison Mirams (pictured), who rose up through the ranks at Multiplex before taking the helm of Roberts Co in 2017 with a mandate to change the way it does business. She knows the sharp end of construction as well as anyone, having risen from contracts administrator to commercial manager to regional director at Multiplex.

"I was given a blank sheet of paper when I joined," Mirams said in an interview with GCR. "And when you look at the industry in Australia – high suicide, high divorce rates, women leaving in droves – I just thought we’ve got to be a catalyst for change. If we didn’t do something different when we had a blank sheet of paper, it would have been the most enormous waste."

She added: "The struggle to change is really hard. The industry has a skills shortage because we’re not attracting enough people into the industry. It’s fixated on a six-day week because that’s the way we’ve always done it. It’s so stupid, it hurts."

Challenging the client

Mirams strategy has been to grow the company, carefully choosing clients who want the same business and human outcomes it wants. In 2019, she tendered for the Concord job with an explicit challenge to the client, NSW Health Infrastructure.

"We said you of all people can’t allow someone to die by suicide caused by workplace stress when we’re building a hospital to make people better," she said. "It’s not right. We said here’s a five-day programme and here’s a six-day programme, but understand that under the six-day programme, there might be a suicide from stress. And to their credit, they said okay, what’s the cost?"

The time implication was 10 extra weeks, which carried an estimated cost of A$2.5m, which the client agreed to absorb. Mirams describes the project, which is due to complete this August, as an "overwhelming success".

"The feedback from the workers is, I’m happier, I’m less stressed and depressed, I’m excited to go to work on a Monday, I’m taking my kids to Saturday sport. Foremen are saying it’s the most productive, efficient, safest site they have."

When CICT convened, it adopted the Concord project as a pilot and CICT and Roberts Co engaged a researcher from the University of New South Wales to study the impact of a five-day week on the mental health and wellbeing of workers and families. A report is due in the fourth quarter of this year, but Mirams said interim findings are encouraging.

"As we expected, the next-of-kin said, My husband is happier, healthier and has a better relationship with me and my kids. They also sadly said the six-day working week perpetuates the gender stereotype that mum is the carer and dad’s the breadwinner. One of them said, I don’t want my son to see that."

Humane and productive

Mirams believes that retooling the construction business model to make it more humane can also make it more productive. "The reality is, we won’t use the whole 10 extra weeks," she said. "We’ll use some of that time, and if it wasn’t for Covid I doubt we’d have used any of it."

She credits Roberts Co’s focus on design management for making a five-day week possible. She believes the industry neglects design management now, and so she makes sure senior, talented people are in that role.

"My theory is that if you don’t get the design right when it’s needed and decisions get pushed back as a result, that’s what causes trouble later," she said. "The root cause is you haven’t done design properly at the front end, and if you don’t complete design, you can’t procure, and if you can’t procure you can’t build, so we waste time at the front and get slammed at the back."

Another piece of the puzzle is removing valueless bureaucratic process – forms and procedures – from the supply chain. "Quite frankly, supply chains are burdened with all the crap builders have put into them over time and haven’t taken out," she said. "It doesn’t make us cheaper, faster, safer, with better quality, but everyone seems to take comfort from the fact that they’re busy with process. In Sydney, ‘busy’ is worn as a badge of honour, and it shouldn’t be."

Mirams said Roberts Co’s heftiest contract is just 24 pages in length, compared to the 100-plus-page tomes used by competitors. "Our contract is signed very quickly, usually within two weeks, largely unamended, so my team can start working out construction problems and the job starts out on a good footing. I still sign every contract, and if it’s too big I send it back and say, make it shorter, you’ve got too much in there."

Cost to society

The business benefits of the pilot are already manifesting. As news of it has spread, job applications from women have flooded in.

"People are saying, can I come and work for you? This is awesome! Especially women. We see women leaving the industry in their 20s because they can’t have a child and work on site. In Australia, there is no childcare on a Saturday, it’s only Monday to Friday. So they leave to start a second career in which they can have a child. I’m asking our women to have children so we can prove that you can be on site and have a child."

Other clients are catching on. The company starts a hotel project in September that will run on a five-day week and recently tendered for another contract on the same basis.

But for her, the human impacts are just as compelling. On the day of the interview, Mirams said a foreman at the Concord site whose partner had recently given birth volunteered that they couldn’t have had a baby if he had to work six days a week. A crane driver told her he’d calculated that if he worked for eight years on a five-day-a-week schedule, he’d gain a year to spend with his family. Over a 40-year career, that would be five extra years of family time.

She believes a five-day week in construction will help Australian society in general, as well. Construction is the third-largest industry there, employing over a million people, mostly men. Their wives and partners will struggle to work because they have to be the carer.

"Wives of construction workers are single parents Monday to Saturday because dad’s up and gone before the kids wake up and gets home after they’ve gone to bed," Mirams said. "That means our six-day week is stopping women participating in the economy, full stop. It’s curtailing their lives, so we have to fix it. If we fix this for men, women will benefit."

‘I want my life’

The five-day pilot is generating fierce debate in Australia, but Mirams believes she’s on the right side of history.

"The resistance comes from the top of companies," she said. "It’s not the people on the ground. The people on the ground are saying, I don’t want to work Saturdays. I don’t care if you worked 80 hours a week when you were a kid, I want my life.

"And so the industry will change when Gen Zs are running organisations. But why wait 10 or 15 years for that? Why not do it now so we can enjoy it? That’s my theory. It’s so basic. We’re operating in the dark ages."

Image: Alison Mirams, chief executive of Roberts Co (Courtesy of Roberts Co)

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