Hold on, a four day week on construction projects?

Going back a bit to the early 20th Century, there was not even such a thing as a weekend. However in 1914, Henry Ford redesigned how his cars were put together in what would be called 'the production line' and cut a standard shift from 9 hours to 8 hours a day to introduce the 40 hour week.

  • Hold on, a four day week on construction projects?
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Better planning of production and refocusing the work to be carried out in less time, actually saw output (and profits) increase and made the workforce much better off too. It was a significant improvement on working conditions that people had previously endured, as it gave them a 'weekend' - a break to recuperate and have some personal time, coming back to the factory refreshed. So the need for a greater work, life, recuperate balance has been recognised since even before the industrial revolution.

Today, with the increasing trend of flexible working hours and the recognition of the high value of time spent outside of work to people, forward thinking businesses and industries are beginning to adapt to these type of cultures and demands in order to attract the best - and it works. Not only does this seem to achieve greater productivity at work for some, it also promotes healthy lifestyles and better well being for people in general. This is all great, but this in itself is not the real answer for every role in construction. So what can we do? Could a shorter, more focused, week or day on construction projects, make the industry more productive, healthy and attractive?

Flogging a Dead Horse

A lot of construction projects are open 7 days a week, with people working longer and longer hours and to say we don't often achieve fantastic results is a bit of an understatement. The nature of the work means people travel long distances to sites and will generally burn out because they have no time to wind down after a long day or week - no time for themselves or their friends and family. This is evidently not healthy and means people can't then be at their best when they are in work. So why do we work longer consecutive hours in a day to achieve a net reduction for our effort? There are studies available that show that output per hour actually drops the more consecutive hours a person works which logically, does stand to reason. The longer a person works, the less energy they have to perform the tasks they need to do. Consider this:

"Those doing a 70 hour week, actually produce no more than those working a 56 hour week. The extra 14 hours is wasted..."

OK, maybe not completely wasted; you're getting stuff done, but at nowhere near the same rate that you would if you were fresh and with a much higher likelihood of making mistakes. From my own personal experience working 14+ hour days at times to meet deadlines, I know that in those days, I was probably most productive for half of the time and then just chipping away at the rest of it and reworking. Simplistically, that output could be represented like this:

We plan programme activities as standard to be carried out in an 8 hour day, 40 hour week. So if something should've taken a week, it should be completed within 40 hours. Assuming the time provision was reasonably allocated, why was I working 70 hours in the first place?

Perhaps the real issue is not focusing enough in the time we have available and getting easily distracted, by ourselves or others. It's not a case of work less - but set yourself and your team up to be more focused to be able to achieve more in less time. An exercise regime of High Intensity Impact Training (HIIT), allows people to realise greater levels of fitness more effectively in short bursts of 20-30 mins a day, than they can with long hours spent running on a treadmill. Tenuous to the this topic maybe, but it does suggest that concentrated effort, focusing fully on your tasks in manageable timescales can achieve greater results if planned and organised well.

The key point here is planned and organised well. We can achieve more in less duration if we take the time to regularly map out our tasks and goals in detail before we do them and then keep adjusting the plan as we carry them out. Obviously, this is far easier said than put into practice. Time Management. It takes a lot of discipline to keep this up in detail - literally, ongoing practice to become a habit you can't do without. However, this task in itself is made even harder on construction projects because there are so many disjointed facets, poor working environments and seemingly, actively disengaged teams. It only really works if it is a habit driven from the top and you bring your entire team along with the philosophy. In turn, there needs to be ownership and people taking responsibility, the team need to embrace the right ideas and be motivated to deliver like this. If this can happen, big improvements in productivity can be realised, translating into time and cost savings for projects and lifestyle improvements for the workforce.

In a report produced over a decade ago, "HSE estimates that 2,000,000 people within the UK currently suffer from an illness caused by, or made worse by the working environment. Ill-health can have a significant impact on the productivity of a business..." So, could a shorter, more focused week or day on construction projects, make the industry more productive, healthy and attractive?

Obviously not on its own! I don't have all the answers to this question, but I do have a gut feel that it does in certain situations and for certain people (it won't be for everyone). It takes a lot of Planning and Trust which is something the Construction Industry is generally not great at and we need to really be honest about why so many projects fail and map out those processes first, to see where the holes are to improve. It's not a case of work less - but set yourself and your team up to be more focused to be able to achieve more in less time.

Regardless, as we shift to more digital ways of working and the use of robotic workers and AI in Design, Procurement and Construction, the roles people perform and the way we work to deliver projects will fundamentally change very soon anyway.