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The big debate! Is flexible working the future for construction?

One of the biggest lifestyle changes wrought by the pandemic has been a considerable change in working practices and patterns, with a huge increase in remote working (particularly during the height of the first and second Covid waves) and a push for more flexible working and adaptable employers.

The debate has extended to construction and housebuilding, too, with previous stories of mental health crises and inflexible working in the development sector.

Now Wates Group, the UK’s leading family-owned construction, residential development and property services business, has announced the adoption of company-wide flexible working. It has taken this step, it says, to enhance the Group’s ‘high standards of customer service by improving staff wellbeing and productivity’. 


The firm, which employs nearly 4,000 people across the UK, is encouraging colleagues across the business to experiment with different working patterns that improve their working life, while all new positions will be advertised as flexible. What’s more, teams are being encouraged to develop working patterns that take into account individual preferences, enabling everyone to perform at their best.

The decision makes Wates one of the first construction firms to support flexible working across its entire business, including employees who work on site. The new approach, the company says, will make the business more inclusive, ‘helping it to attract and develop a more diverse workforce’.

The approach has already been piloted by construction teams at Wates, with individuals changing their shift start or end times to accommodate caring responsibilities or other family needs, as well as to allow time for activities such as studying or team sports that promote health and wellbeing.

Meanwhile, some colleagues have asked to take longer lunch breaks or to perform more of their work from home.

Wates’ approach is summarised in a set of Flexible Working Principles, which it says clarify that flexible working should be for everyone, regardless of where they work. They add that it should be achieved in a way that maintains or improves service delivery for customers, as well as being sensitive to the needs and preferences of the wider team.


“As a family business, we are committed to doing everything we can to help colleagues achieve a better work-life balance,” David Allen, chief executive at Wates Group, explained. “The pandemic challenged us to work in different ways and to adapt. We learned a lot about how to work flexibly, and about how doing so can improve productivity, performance, health and happiness.

He added: “We have listened to feedback from colleagues from across the Group and, as part of launching our Flexible Working Principles, are encouraging them to use the next few months to experiment with their working patterns: to find what works for them; to show us what they want their working life to be like in the future; and to use these new flexibilities to support our goal of becoming the most trusted, sustainable and progressive business in the sector.”

Jane van Zyl, chief executive of national work-life balance charity Working Families, said Wates’ Flexible Working Principles, and the culture change the company is ushering in, is an ‘extremely positive and inspiring thing to see’.

“We know that for too long flexible working has been seen as the preserve of office workers, but this shows that flex is possible in roles whether you’re sat at a desk or working on site,” she commented.

“It’s why we were so pleased to partner with Wates on our recent #FlexTheUK campaign: we want to show that whether it’s flexing hours, working pattern or location, flexible, family-friendly working practices don’t just bring huge benefits for employees – they make sound business sense too.”

Mark Tant, managing director of Wates Construction, acknowledged that for some, getting used to the idea of flexible working would require a ‘mind-shift’.

“The pandemic has shown that we are able to work more flexibly, and more intelligently, to accommodate our colleagues’ needs and to encourage better results for our customers,” he argued. 

“However, if our industry is to become more inclusive, it is fundamental that we continue to break down ingrained cultures and adopt new approaches that allow us to appeal to a more diverse workforce. As one of the first companies in the sector to open up flexible working to our whole business, we hope to lead the change to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to thrive, by adopting the working patterns that best suit them.”

The company’s Flexible Working Principles were introduced in response to feedback from staff, which highlighted that almost 90% of colleagues would prefer a mix of home working and office working in the future.

Elsewhere, a separate survey of just over 1,000 parents, launched as part of Working Families’ #FlexTheUK campaign, supported by Wates Group, showed that parents overwhelmingly want employers to create more flexible jobs (84%), and would consider jobs advertised as flexible more attractive when looking for work in the future (69%).

In addition to launching flexible working, Wates has revealed that all its non-site offices will operate on a flexible basis, with employees able to book workstations via an online system. 

The Group’s fit-out business, Wates Smartspace, has redesigned the main working area within Wates’ Leatherhead headquarters in Surrey to promote these new ways of working. It has created a ‘colourful and contemporary set of configurable spaces’ that have been designed specifically to encourage collaboration – acting as a template for post-pandemic offices.

The move towards flexible working follows on from Wates’ announcement last year of a complete overhaul of its family-friendly policies to enable both men and women to manage personal and professional commitments as part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Its ‘industry-leading’ benefits package includes enhanced paternity/partner leave, increased maternity leave, carers’ leave and improved bereavement leave.

It will be interesting to see, as restrictions continue to ease and the debate continues to rage about the future of work, whether other companies in the property industry follow Wates’ lead.  

Poll: Should more companies in the property industry follow the lead of Wates Group when it comes to flexible working?



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