Willmott Dixon: increasing diversity in the construction industry

Amie Esson Wilmott Dixon


How can the construction industry become more diverse at every level? Workingmums.co.uk has been talking to women in some of the more progressive companies to find out what they think and how they work. Today we are focusing on four women from Willmott Dixon.

Amie Esson [pictured] is a senior estimator at Willmott Dixon Interiors and has been with the firm for nine years. Her daughter Grace is nearly three. Before she was born she worked nine to 5.30pm and now works 7.30am to 4pm and tries to work from home two days a week. She is based at Willmott Dixon’s Farringdon office, which means a 1.5 hour commute, but that gives her some much needed time for herself.

Her job involves pricing construction jobs. Her partner also works in construction and is able to work flexibly which is important as the family have no relatives living nearby to help with childcare. They are fortunate, though, to have a very good childminder.

Amie considered going part time after her daughter was born, but says technology and a culture of trust and openness at Willmott Dixon has enabled her to work flexibly and stay full time. She admits that when she first returned to work she felt a little guilty about leaving at 4pm, but she knew she had put in a full day so she is very open about it now and says others in her office are starting to work similar patterns.

Amie thinks things are moving in the right direction and that different ways of working are becoming more accepted in construction. She also sees more recognition that parents who have taken several months off for parental leave need to be eased back in. She adds that there is also more in the way of peer support from other parents through parent networks.

Sarah Bastajian has been working for the construction firm Willmott Dixon for 13 years. She joined as an environmental manager and then moved to bid construction, becoming a bid manager and then senior bid manager before going on maternity leave. Within a year of her phased return to work after having twins she was promoted to pre-construction manager, and has recently been promoted to director at a newly opened regional office in Farnborough.

Sarah’s husband also works for Willmott Dixon and was keen to have time at home with the children. The couple decided to ask to have alternate Mondays off. “It works really well,” says Sarah. “The twins get the best of both of us and we get equal time with them. Willmott Dixon has been fantastic.”

She says her husband, who is a building manager, was a bit nervous about proposing dropping a day a fortnight. He put it to his boss that if he was off on holiday his construction manager would need to cover for him. He needn’t have worried, though. “He said it was the easiest conversation he ever had,” says Sarah. She knew her boss would say yes because she was already working four days a week. The arrangement would mean she was doing one day a fortnight more.

The couple are very open about how they work and Sarah says there has never been any stigma about it.

As Sarah’s job is office-based and her husband is on site she is more flexible during the week which means it is easier for her to do drop-offs and pick-ups of children as she can pick up work in the evenings if she needs to.

Both parents share time off for sick children, based on whose diary is the busiest at the time. Their daughters recently turned five and are in school which means adapting to the school day and holidays. The family don’t have relatives nearby. Sarah’s mother-in-law came to stay to help the girls with the shorter days when they started school.

She thinks part of the problem with getting girls into construction is the stereotypical image of the industry, but she says it is about convincing parents as much as children that construction is not just for men. Indeed her father, who was in construction, told her there was no way she could do brick laying when she was considering it while she was at school. “Construction has some really good career opportunities,” she says. “I came in without a construction background, but have moved through the business with the right mindset and behaviour because I bring a different viewpoint. I have always felt very included at Willmott Dixon.”

Chiazo Okey-Nzewuihe joined Willmott Dixon in January. She has always been a surveyor. Chiazo and her partner have three children, aged 11, nine and six. She has always worked full time, but with a degree of flexibility if, for instance, she needs to attend a school event. The office is open until late too, which means people can vary their start and finish times, she says. The focus is on getting the work done, not presenteeism, she adds.

Chiazo starts and finishes early, working from 8.30am to 4pm as she has a long commute to the construction site in Twickenham where she is currently based. She can then log in from home later in the evening, depending on her workload.

Although she is aware that her work location will be subject to change – she has been based in Twickenham for just under a year – she says she knows Willmott Dixon will take employees’ personal circumstances into account as much as possible when they move them around.

She says that what sets Willmott Dixon apart from other construction firms is its openness about different ways of working. “As long as managers know what is going on then they can try to deal with situations in everyone’s interests,” she says. “It is very motivating and makes for a happy workforce.”

Katie Dunn has just come back from maternity leave to her role as a design coordinator. She returned on three days a week for 16 weeks, using up her annual leave to phase herself back in. After that she will work longer hours for four days and then half a day from home one day a week. She currently works in Willmott Dixon’s Farringdon office, but has been sited based in the past and will be in the future.

She has worked for Willmott Dixon for around five years, having “fallen into” construction as a graduate trainee.

She mentions that Willmott Dixon Interiors, the part of Willmott Dixon she works for which specialises in fit out and refurbishment, is moving towards agile working and she thinks this is very positive. “It’s aimed at everyone. There is no need for individual formal agreements and it recognises that people do not have to be tied to a particular desk to be productive, that it is about getting your work done. There is still a huge misconception in construction generally – particularly for those based on site – that you have to be physically present to show commitment, yet the construction industry is less productive than others,” she says.

However, she says there are particular pressures in construction because everyone is working to strict deadlines. This can colour attitudes towards those who are not working full time, who, she says, may be seen as less committed. “That is not the case. We just have a second job. We don’t take the first one any less seriously, but we cannot stay late any more. We are not rushing home because we are lazy, but our priorities have changed,” says Katie.

She would like to see more men working flexibly so they don’t miss out on family time, a reduction in working hours generally which she thinks would make workers more efficient and an end to assumptions that women will be the primary carer. “There needs to be a rethink about who primary carers should be. It would benefit men and women to change our mindset. If two people have decided to have a child why should it be just the women who take the career hit?” she adds.

She would also like to see more part-time professional roles in construction advertised. Not advertising such roles suggests companies are not really interested in part time workers, she says. Agile working, including flexi hours, are all very well, she adds, but they often mean that workers cut out the social part of their job, “the part where they make friends and enjoy their work”.

Katie is a construction ambassador which means she goes around schools giving careers advice, mainly to girls. She says it is clear that many have never considered a career in construction. She feels a lot more needs to be done to change the stereotypes.

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