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Why frontline employees should be the driving force for industry innovation in the post-pandemic world

While technology has immense potential to change construction processes, as an industry it would be foolish to overlook one of the biggest, most important and innovative resources available: the workforce aka the people best-placed to spot opportunities to innovate and improve ways of working through their own creative ideas.

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The construction industry is facing an incredibly challenging time. The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic following hot on the heels of previous uncertainty around Brexit, a shortage of skilled workers and high levels of competition have all had a detrimental effect across the industry in the UK, with a continuation of falling sales, turnover and profit. As a result, while employment as whole across the sector stagnated, larger firms had already begun cutting back their employee numbers, adding extra strain to an already pressurised workforce.

There are other reasons this should perhaps come as no surprise. A brief look around at predictions for the industry reveals a pinning of hopes on the potential of technology, rather than people. The Internet of Things, AI and Machine Learning, Predictive Analysis, Virtual and Augmented Reality, Autonomous Equipment, 3D printing, robotics, exoskeletons… the list goes on. Investment in construction tech continues to build, too. In many ways this makes sense. Technological developments have disrupted and changed every facet of our lives, both at work and at home. Why should construction be any different?

The simple answer is it shouldn’t. However, while technology has immense potential to change how we work, as an industry it would be foolish to overlook one of the biggest, most important and innovative resources available: the workforce. Many of these employees are deskless workers disconnected from the head office but, significantly, they’re also the people with unique insight into a business and its processes. Oftentimes they’re the ones best-placed to spot opportunities to innovate and improve ways of working through their own creative ideas. 

Using employee ideas, also sometimes referred to as intrapreneurship, is not a new concept. The Cambridge Dictionary defines an intrapreneur as “an employee who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a new product or service. An intrapreneur brings entrepreneurial thinking and skills to build within the structure of an existing organisation.” Successful intrapreneurship utilises existing frameworks and resources in a bottom-up approach which usually leads to initiatives that advance the wider company. Engaging with intrapreneurship, employee ideas and listening to your workforce can have a huge influence on a company’s operations, too. You need not look too far afield to find plenty of examples from other sectors: The Apple Macintosh, the Post-It Note, Google’s 20% Time and even the Happy Meal are all examples of the immense impact employee ideas can have. 

Research also backs up the importance of employees – and their ideas – to business success. A 2019 survey of the FTSE100 Index found innovation and employee engagement were on the rise, and linked the companies making employee engagement a strategic priority with better financial performance. Given the well-publicised pressures on the construction industry’s workforce, attracting and retaining talent has arguably never been more important. It goes without saying that valuing staff and employee engagement is vital when it comes to attracting the best fish in the sea and keeping them engaged in the business. Yet despite all of the evidence, compared to other sectors like pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, the construction industry is lagging behind. If other industry leaders are waking up to the potential of their employees to drive innovation, construction should be no different.

This brings us to the ‘how?’. As you might expect, technology plays a crucial role in realising the potential of employee insight, experience and innovation. Crowdsourcing employee ideas at this sort of scale is no mean feat. It requires systems in place to capture the whole conversation, often comprising thousands of ideas, comments and responses, which is where enterprise social networks and collaboration tools come in to play. These apps, such as Slack, Teams, Workplace by Facebook and Yammer, are designed to facilitate communication and collaboration between employees regardless of their location. They’ve also been cited as key vehicles for company culture – something vitally important when a workforce is geographically dispersed as is so often the case in the industry.

This leveraging of enterprise social networks is an approach some have already implemented in the industry. Take Balfour Beatty’s ‘My Contribution’ campaign which has saved the business more than £6m since launching on a new platform, Yammer, last year. Combined with a growing emphasis on tech solutions for any and every problem, it can be easy to forget the inherent potential the industry possesses in the form of its workforce. Yet the coronavirus crisis has perfectly demonstrated how frontline workers are crucial to both companies and the fabric of society. Not only that, but as examples like Balfour Beatty’s have shown, it’s not a case of one or the other. Rather, tech used strategically can help unlock the power of employee ideas and innovation. It’s also likely that frontline staff will know where best to deploy the latest technology, saving time, money and resources trialling new solutions. As Balfour Beatty Group Chief Executive, Leo Quinn put it, “more often than not, the best ideas and innovations come from your employees.” Given they are industry leaders, it falls to the rest of the sector to follow, embrace employee ideas and put frontline workers at the forefront of innovation.

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