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CAREERS - Flexibility in the workplace may sound impractical but can be an effective way of recruiting and retaining staff, as well as getting the best out of them.

Arecent article in the magazine Personnel Today suggests government's push towards a more flexible working nation is paying off, as 90% of the UK's leading businesses now see flexible working as both 'established and accepted' Research by human resources firm Citrix Systems on employee and board director attitudes towards flexible working and mobile technologies, found that a positive attitude is now filtering down to staff from the boardroom.

Talk to individuals working in civil engineering and geotechnics, however, and the picture is a very different one: 'My company claims to offer a flexible workplace, with flexitime and afternoons off for 'family events', but when a report needs to be finished, I have to be in the office to do it, whatever else I've got planned, ' complains a geotechnical engineer at a medium-sized consultancy, who does not want to be named.

Another unnamed geotechnical engineer, 10 years older and working for a major contracting firm, bemoans the inflexibility of his employer toward its staff, but describes it as 'going with the territory' All too often, it seems, employers play lip service to the flexible workplace, without implementing the organisational strategies that would make flexibility practicable.

There is no such thing as a 'one size fits all' pattern of work-life practices, admits Rebecca Clake, an organisation and resourcing adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD).

But the kind of practices that employers might consider adopting, perhaps as part of a flexible 'menu' of benefits, may include annualised hours. This defines the number of hours to be worked in relation to a full year. 'This commonly means compressing the working week into four or four-and-a-half days rather than five, producing a long weekend, ' Clake explains.

'Flexible working practices can be advantageous to both organisations and employees, ' she adds.'They allow employees to gain more control over their work-life balance and they act as an important tool in the organisation's recruitment and retention process.

Flexible working is one device that the civil engineering industry can use to attract a more diverse workforce, allowing them to compete in the war for talent.' She advises employers to work with staff to develop a flexible working strategy that 'meets the needs of civil engineering business' They should soon find, she adds, that benefits far outweigh the perceived costs.

Thankfully, a growing number of employers in the geotechnical sector are now waking up to the need for a flexible workplace.

It is certainly on Soil Mechanics' agenda, says the company's business development manager Mike Newton, but the current lack of 'flexible features' such as hot desking and home working, does not seem to be hindering recruitment.

'We have, however, for a long time recognised changing working patterns, in that the workforce is becoming less inclined, in general, to be mobile, ' he adds.

'Soil Mechanics' 16 regional locations enables us to recruit locally and deliver work that is local to more people, so they spend less time away from home. Local work is a plus when recruiting some grades, and we also have some flexibility to retain people if they wish to move to another area.' Steve Branch, managing director of Geotechnical & Environmental Associates (GEA), feels workforces have become increasingly sophisticated in their expectations. To attract and retain staff an employer needs to offer as flexible an environment as possible, 'within of course some obvious broad guidelines' The main type of flexibility Branch's staff want is to be able to manage and organise their own workloads and structure their working days accordingly.'Our staff know what deadlines apply to their projects but it is their responsibility to determine how they meet these; essentially we don't mind how they do their work, as long as it gets done, ' he says.

Branch adds that some engineers prefer to come in early and leave earlier, others start late and work late, and some work one or two days a week at home. 'We are networked across our three offices, so engineers can log in from home.' He warns, however, that employers should not get too carried away with flexitime and home working, as it does not suit all employees; some staff prefer to have some structure to their working day and there is a lot to be said for the interactive and social benefits of the office environment.

'If we want to retain quality staff we need to be able to adapt the working environment and conditions to their needs, rather than expecting every member of staff to fit in with some ideal company working structure.' From an employer's viewpoint, he says, it is important to provide flexibility 'partly because of the competitive nature of recruitment and the edge that it may give us in attracting staff. It shows we have confidence in their ability to structure their time and that we respect their judgment' 'Flexibility does however go both ways, ' he stresses. 'We expect our staff to put in extra hours to meet deadlines when required, but find this is not an issue where they can see it balanced with flexibility on the part of their employer.'

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