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Insight | Can the UK’s infrastructure pipeline be delivered on a four-day working week?

engineers using apps

While many people like the idea of working a four-day week, will it ever be more than a pipedream for engineers working in a sector which suffers from low productivity and slow digital adoption?

The idea of a shorter working week has long been mooted, but recently it has been gaining traction. Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell has said that the party will ‘‘look at the working week’’ as it looks to draw up its manifesto ahead of the next election, possibly in 2022.

The TUC recently published a report saying that new technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will mean more workplace efficiencies, which could see the UK moving to a four-day week over the next few decades.

And founder of the Virgin empire Sir Richard Branson says a five-day working week is becoming outmoded and advocates a three or four-day working week in the future.

But how realistic is this prospect for the infrastructure sector, which has historically suffered from low productivity and alongside agriculture, is one of the least digitised industries?

The size of the sector’s job was put in context at the end of last year when the government laid out its £600bn National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline covering the next decade. The government hopes initiatives such as the Department for Transport’s (DfT) Transport and Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s (IPA) policy paper Transforming Infrastructure Performance will improve productivity.

Whether a four-day working week could help deliver this is a complex balance between the need to attract a more diverse workforce and future workforce, against adding risk to projects because of lower workforce consistency.

Arcadis director of strategic workplace planning James Bryce says there is recognition that in order to attract more people into the industry, it needs to modernise and be flexible, but the challenge comes on the pragmatic side in terms of creating a project controls cycle where that works, where four-day shifts are undertaken, rather than the whole project only being worked on four days a week.

As each project moves along its work pathway, the necessary skilled staff are assigned to an element. With a four-day week, more staff would be needed, thereby giving project managers added complexity in terms of managing people, skills and workflow. There is also an increased risk of delay as there are more staff to get up to speed on an element of work – a risk which clients, keen for deadlines to be met, might not like. The contra argument is that a four-day week could lead to a better engaged workforce benefitting from an improved work-life balance.

“You get to the stage of whether you’re a glass half full or empty person. Does having more productive and engaged people actually cancel out all those risks? Or are you a pragmatist?” says Bryce.

The need for a high-hour working week is particularly prevalent in sectors such as rail, where programmes need to be delivered within tight timeframes around rail operations.

Bryce says there is appetite and ambition within the sector for a better work-life balance and the sector will need this incentive to attract the workforce of the future. For example, will someone want to work a 60-hour week on a complex infrastructure programme when there are other sectors which have more flexible working models, including working from home?

But will digitisation change this? Ten years down the line, where there is full automation, such as use of autonomous vehicles, it could lead to fewer hours

“You’re going to have to be much more efficient up front in design and that will buy back time for people in real terms because the design will be so tested and rigorous that programme and design delays will become rare,” he says.  

Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) chief executive Alasdair Reisner agrees about the difficulty of a four-day week in terms of project delivery. He says: “Of course we need to look to be more efficient as an industry, but as it stands a four day week would risk putting even further pressure on staff to deliver in an already resource-constrained environment.

“CECA believes industry, the workforce, and government at all levels, should work together to drive productivity, freeing up people to add value and deliver the best possible results for customers.”

However, that doesn’t mean to say the industry should not strive for a better work and life balance.

“At the same time, industry must ensure that measures such as flexible working are introduced so that people are able to spend time with their families outside work.” 

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