Cementing progress on equality, diversity and inclusion

Next steps for embedding an inclusive and welcoming culture across the sector were explored at a Construction News roundtable, sponsored by Copper Consultancy. Steve Dale reports

On the panel

  1. Emilia Hardern, diversity and inclusion project manager, Network Rail
  2. Jenny Hinde, executive director, The Clear Company
  3. Faye Jenkins, head of social impact and inclusion, Bam Nuttall
  4. Amanda Long, chief executive, Considerate Constructors Scheme
  5. Dawn Moore, group people and communications director, J Murphy & Sons
  6. Natalie Penrose, head of legacy, HS2 Ltd
  7. Becca Snook, inclusion manager, Kier Highways
  8. Sima Thobhani, supplier relationship management analyst, Heathrow
  9. Emma Ward, head of sustainability and inclusion, VolkerWessels UK
  10. Mike Walter, event chair, from CN content delivery partner Barrett Byrd Associates

Roundtable sponsor: Copper Consultancy

Efforts to improve equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are starting to make a difference across the construction industry, with increasing numbers of organisations taking positive action to improve matters. But many challenges remain to be addressed. Overcoming these persistent barriers is the focus of a Construction News roundtable, hosted in partnership with Copper Consultancy, a specialist in creating advocacy through communications and engagement for complex infrastructure and development projects.

Experts contributing to the discussion note that construction continues to be dominated by a narrow demographic – particularly at site level – which tends to perpetuate divisive behaviours and attitudes that stand in the way of an inclusive environment where everyone, regardless of their background, feels able to fit in and thrive. If the sector is to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic and prosper in the face of current challenges, the panel agrees that it must attract and retain a wider variety of talented people.

Building back better?

Natalie Penrose, head of legacy, HS2 Ltd

Major shifts towards remote and flexible working in response to the pandemic have created new opportunities to improve EDI across the sector, but have also raised fresh issues, such as increased risks to mental health when more people work alone. “People have lived and worked differently for the past two years, and will want to continue to retain some of the benefits that working from home has given them,” observes HS2’s head of legacy, Natalie Penrose.

The company behind the rail megaproject is currently testing a hybrid model for its office-based staff, where they come into work for about half of the working week. “They use that office time to collaborate with colleagues, but then have the opportunity to do work that is suited to home at home,” Penrose explains.

Emilia Hardern, diversity and inclusion project manager, Network Rail

But this kind of flexibility does not come without issues, notes Network Rail diversity and inclusion project manager Emilia Hardern. She says those in frontline construction or maintenance roles generally cannot work from home at all and may feel “disconnected” as a result of such initiatives. “We want to look at what we can do to ensure those people can still access some flexibility,” she adds.

Hardern also raises the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ risk: that those who work more often from home – potentially including employees with disabilities or caring obligations – might be overlooked for career progression opportunities.

Jenny Hinde, a director at diversity and inclusion consultancy The Clear Company, agrees that flexible working is typically helpful in promoting diversity and equality, but also has the potential to “widen the divide that is already there” between back-office staff and their colleagues on site.

Amanda Long, chief executive, Considerate Constructors Scheme

Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) chief executive Amanda Long makes a similar point. “We have seen some great best-practice examples from many of our contractor partners, who have found excellent ways of making the online world work well for those who could take advantage of it,” she notes.

But she adds that such efforts create divisions between those who can and those who cannot work remotely. “Unless we really balance that up, we will correct one problem and cause another,” Long explains, noting that a sense of unfairness could even come with a mental health toll for onsite workers.

“It is a bit of a cliché to say responsibility sits throughout the whole organisation, but for us it does”

Emma Ward, VolkerWessels UK

Dawn Moore, group people and communications director at contractor J Murphy & Sons, says: “All of our good pieces of work [on EDI across the sector] will only have longevity, and hence encourage better inclusivity, if they are continually worked on in all of our organisations – to try to create an environment where all team members feel they are treated respectfully and fairly.” She suggests that outcome requires strong and inclusive leadership to ensure the positive initiatives introduced over the past two years become embedded in the sector.

Emma Ward, head of sustainability and inclusion, VolkerWessels UK

Other panellists pick up on the issue of who should be driving EDI within an organisation. “It is a bit of a cliché to say responsibility sits throughout the whole organisation, but for us it does,” says VolkerWessels UK head of sustainability and inclusion Emma Ward. But, she adds: “It has to be led from the top.”

She says the contractor has created an EDI steering committee, with board-level representation, to provide the leadership necessary to drive improvements at every level.

Sima Thobhani, supplier relationship management analyst at aviation client Heathrow, observes that “the responsibility sits with everyone, not just in HR”, and that every hiring manager in the sector can make a contribution. “When you go to hire someone, don’t look at their gender or their background, look at what capabilities they have and what they can bring to your organisation,” she adds.

Routes to better EDI

Becca Snook, inclusion manager, Kier Highways

Kier Highways inclusion manager Becca Snook says her company has brought its EDI actions together with related priorities, such as creating measurable social value and boosting recruitment, resulting in a more consistent, team-based approach. This, she says, “is allowing us to have a greater impact in terms of bringing people from different backgrounds into the business”.

The need to form a clear picture of ‘what good looks like’ in terms of workplace inclusion, plus the importance of engaging and listening to staff, are brought to the fore by Bam Nuttall head of social impact and inclusion Faye Jenkins.

“We often hold ‘culture conversations’,” she says. “We listen to our people and what we’ve realised is that people want a culture of psychological safety, where they feel that they can contribute in their own way.”

“We listen to our people and what we’ve realised is that people want a culture of psychological safety, where they feel that they can contribute in their own way”

Faye Jenkins, Bam Nuttall 

Moore notes that at contractor Murphy, an important step has been to acknowledge the direct impact of diversity and inclusion on the firm’s commercial prospects, bringing the issue into the core of its published business strategy. She outlines an initiative called the One Murphy Big Inclusion programme. It focuses on the lived experiences of employees from all backgrounds, which helps to continually develop an inclusive culture and shape corporate decisions.

The CCS offers a leadership and culture module, providing guidance for organisations that want to understand the hidden EDI challenges that exist within their business.

The CCS’s Long says: “You can have the best and most robust policies and procedures around EDI, but it is often the unwritten rules that people live by that drive their behaviours and affect how much those policies actually get adopted.”

Faye Jenkins, head of social impact and inclusion, Bam Nuttall

HS2 runs a ‘courageous conversations’ scheme, where staff networks bring people together to talk about negative experiences, and Network Rail holds similar listening sessions to gather insights from black and Asian staff, as well as people from other under-represented groups. Feedback is passed on anonymously to senior leadership.

The Clear Company’s Hinde also highlights work done by various employers in the sector to amend how job roles are defined and vacancies filled. “We still see a huge amount of barriers being put up because we are wedded to [seeking] ‘this many years of experience’ and ‘this particular background’,” she notes. “We can be so much more creative around the roles that we are recruiting to.”

EDI in procurement and legislation

Dawn Moore, group people and communications director, J Murphy & Sons

Large infrastructure projects such as HS2 have been setting the tempo for EDI efforts by building diversity requirements into procurement processes. “This is important to HS2 – and we want to change the industry,” says Penrose.

Murphy’s Moore says contractors are increasingly being asked to make such commitments, and she welcomes the development, but suggests closer scrutiny of bids may be needed: “It is very easy to make statements about how committed you are, [but] if you are really leading the way on this, it will be something you can show evidence of having delivered previously. I would like to see tenders drawing that out more from contractors.”

“We have the legislation, but I think it needs to do more… Everyone needs to change their thinking about this, and one way is to have legislation do more”

Sima Thobhani, Heathrow

Snook from Kier Highways suggests a more consistent approach across different client organisations would help to drive improvement, as would more “openness and honesty” among contractors. She also draws attention to the way EDI requirements have become integrated into the broader social value requirements for projects in the public sector. This follows the September 2020 issuance of the government’s Procurement Policy Note (PPN) 06/20, which instructed contracting authorities to apply a minimum weighting of 10 per cent to social value when scoring tenders.

PPN 06/20 has been a “game changer”, according to Bam Nuttall’s Jenkins, who adds: “We are seeing it in every tender now, which is great.”

VolkerWessels UK’s Ward says the policy note has “enabled us to focus very directed attention to those areas that are making a difference to employees and communities”, and she makes the connection between that attention and success in recruiting people from different communities.

Sima Thobhani, supplier relationship management analyst, Heathrow

Despite the Equality Act, and other rules and regulations, more could be done by government to foster better EDI outcomes, according to several roundtable panellists. “We have the legislation, but I think it needs to do more,” says Heathrow’s Thobhani. “Some people are still not understanding the importance of diversity and inclusion. Everyone needs to change their thinking about this, and one way is to have legislation do more.”

The Clear Company’s Hinde adds: “The way we look at it is that legislation is there to provide protection for people. I see it very much as a minimum standard.” Employers who are content to simply abide by the letter of the law are “way off the mark of where they need to be”, she suggests.

Hinde adds that improvements in EDI must be “about a journey and long-term cultural change”, rather than ticking boxes or seeking quick wins.

HS2’s Penrose agrees: “EDI needs to be embedded in the DNA of what you do, and people should think of it as being part and parcel of their job.” She adds: “You have to have an organisation where you can challenge and speak up. If you don’t have that, you won’t progress.”

Jenny Hinde, executive director, The Clear Company

But Bam Nuttall’s Jenkins warns of the spectre of current trading conditions, particularly for those organisations where EDI is not yet embedded as a core requirement. “We have to make the case for the cost benefit of EDI, because it is at risk of falling out of favour when the going gets tough,” she observes. “We know companies with above-average diversity have higher revenue margins.” Measuring the success of systems, policies and processes introduced to improve diversity and inclusion is therefore critical, Jenkins argues.

Any corporate policy is at risk of “falling off the radar” after initial determination wanes, notes Ward. She says: “We need to keep diversifying our approach, keep listening and learning, and being open to broadening our minds.”

CCS’s Long adds: “We’re all making progress, but […] this industry still has a long way to go and has a massive skills gap issue. If we don’t manage to deliver on the opportunity to improve diversity and inclusion, then that skills gap is only going to widen.”

But, for improvements to really take hold, clients, contractors and subcontractors must all pull in the same direction, urges Network Rail’s Hardern. “Continue to share best practice [and] pull the industry together, to work as a collective to make more of an impact,” she concludes.

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