In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, you’ll hear from construction industry game-changer, Alison Mirams, CEO of Roberts Co, on transforming an industry and leaving a legacy by putting workers and their families at the heart of your business.
Alison has more than twenty years’ experience in the construction sector. In 2017, after successfully operating in executive roles at both Brookfield Multiplex and Lendlease, Alison became the CEO of boutique tier one construction firm, Roberts Co.
Alison also sits on the Boards of TAFE NSW and AeroPM, and has an engineering degree from the University of Technology Sydney.
In this episode we talk about:
- Leading from the front and changing an entire industry through promotion of a 5-day working week;
- How this change impacts families, but also addresses huge gender equity issues well beyond the first-order set of consequences;
- The jaw-dropping results of the research she did in conjunction with UNSW that enabled a data-led approach to shifting attitudes; and
- What’s next for her and how she plans to leave a legacy for the next generation of construction workers.
Connecting with Alison Mirams
You can connect with Alison via LinkedIn.
Books and resources
“As an industry, we are stopping women from working in all levels of society by our six-day working week. And that's not okay.”
On her formative years in construction
- On my first day of university, I walked in and there were no girls in the room. I'm not sure what I thought I was walking into, but it was a bit of a rude awakening to what my career would look like. But what I love about construction is at the end of the day, you can stand back and say, I built that, and forever that is there.
- What happens in that building then is as a result of what we have built. So years ago, I worked on the Chris O'Brien Lifehouse Centre, and it is a building that is designed to hopefully cure people of cancer and also to research cancer cures. If they find the cure for cancer, in a really small way, I may have contributed to finding a cure for cancer, by building a building that enabled them to get the best researchers in the world to undertake world-class research.
- I thought, if I say, “Please” and “Thank you” I'm going to go a long way in this industry.
- The first site I was on, when I first started in the industry, I didn't have a toilet for 18 months. I had to leave the site and go down the road past two office towers to use a retail toilet. And when you are the odd one out as a girl in a man's world, you don't complain, you just suck it up, and I really didn't realise probably till 10 years ago that it was wrong.
On becoming CEO at Roberts Co
- When I started at Roberts Co I was given a whole lot of money and a mandate from the board to build the best construction company we can.
- When you look at the industry, we have very high divorce rates, we have very high suicide rates, we wear busy as a badge of honour. We suffer from presenteeism (turning up to work sick).
- If you look at the ABS data, we have 12.5% female participation. So with a blank sheet of paper and my experience of the last 25 years in construction, I had the chance to do something different. And that's what we've tried to do.
- There's a very good article that talks about IQ and EQ, your intelligence and your emotional intelligence, and that you can have very high emotional intelligence but still be nasty. Your emotional intelligence just makes you aware that you're nasty, but you don't care. However, if you have a decency quotient, your DQ, you won't be nasty.
- So everything we've done, we have IQ, EQ and DQ. And really, it's just about treating people with decency. And when you treat people with decency and respect, the ripple effect is incredible. We get a safer site, we get better quality. We get a more harmonious site, which is all wins for everything that we are trying to do in delivering a project. So it's just about treating people as you'd like to be treated yourself.
- When approaching change, I asked myself if I would be comfortable doing it, because if I'm not comfortable doing it, then I don't want someone else to do it. When we first brought in breastfeeding rooms, a couple of our own teams questioned why because there's no kids on site. My response was that you don't prepare your dinner sitting on the toilet, so why would I expect a mother who is expressing milk to do the same?
On the origins of the 5-day work week
- In the tender for Health Infrastructure, we said that you of all clients can't allow someone to die by suicide caused by workplace stress when we are building a hospital to make people better. And so I put in a five day programme and a six day programme.
- What we found through the study is 75.4% preferred working five days a week. And what we know now is workers have said to their bosses, “I'm not working Saturdays ever again.”
- Workers reported an increase in all areas of job satisfaction, including work hours, pay, job security, family and work relationships, compared to their previous jobs. We initially added 10 weeks of time to the project, but we established that we don't need any more time as we were more productive working five days a week than six.
On what the Concord survey data tells us
- I expected that we would get a better work-life balance. We studied it across nine elements from pay, job security, work, the hours, your team, your workers. Every single element went up and I wasn't expecting that. However, if I sit down and think about it logically, workers are more rested, they've got more mental capacity to deal with things.
- What the next of kin said is that the six day working week of the construction industry perpetuates the gender stereotype, that dad is a breadwinner, and mom is the carer. And because of the dad's long and inconsistent working hours, women have left full-time employment. Women have turned down job opportunities because they know all the caring falls to the women.
- Our crane driver did the maths for me. He said, “For every year I work on a five day site, I get an extra six weeks of leave with my family. Yes, it's not in one block, but it is six weeks of leave.” So then for every eight years you get an entire year with your family. And if you put that through a 40 year career, there's five years of time we can give you back face to face with your family, and there's no cost impost, and there's no time impost on the job. So to me, it is such a no-brainer to make the change and if we don't make the shift out of COVID that needs to happen, we have wasted the greatest opportunity of our lifetime.
- The conditions were that a worker could do 10 hours of overtime during the week if they wanted to. What I have found, though, when I offered a worker the opportunity to earn an extra $8,000 to $10,000 a year, but they had to work every Saturday from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM, nobody put their hand up for it. Suddenly, construction workers are just doing that analysis in reverse because they're now able to take their daughter to ballet or attend birthday parties. One of them said to me, “I can see my son scoring a try from the sideline, and I don't need to watch it on Facebook.” I mean, that is heartbreaking.
- In the research, of the 345 people surveyed, 30.6% said that they never spend time looking after their children. 17% said that they never spend time with their partner. So for eight grand a year, they've gotten their life back and it’s actually richer in so many other ways. But if they still want the same amount of money, they can earn it by just doing the overtime in different hours of the week.
On the challenges of such a bold move
- What I'm up against in the industry is, “That's the way we've always done it.” People would look at the industry and say it's really masculine and it’s hard to create change. And it is, but it is incredibly rewarding. I have had the most amazing career in construction. It's taken me all around the world.
- We are so low on the productivity scale. When you look at the McKinsey data, we're second-last only to agriculture and hunting, and you could probably argue that they're ahead of us by now. We don't embrace digitisation, we don't embrace that we could do something better and that's what's holding us back at the moment as that directly correlates to your productivity.
On how to create meaningful change
- You've got to lead it from the top. When we signed the contract, we took Saturdays out of the contract as a working day. You couldn't work. It wasn't there, it wasn't a choice, so we took it away. When we spoke to the subcontractors, we said to them that for this to work, you need to go and get a crew of people that will work five days a week and that are committed to working five days a week. I didn't want them to work five days on our site and then the sixth day somewhere else.
- You have to be solution-oriented. There are construction challenges with not working on a Saturday, but there's a solution to everything. We involved the supply chain to find all the solutions. So it was not us saying that this is what we are doing and you just have to do this; it was a very collaborative process with the supply chain to say, we want to make this change, so what are the issues that are going to come up?
- I personally rang half the subcontractors and my Head of Operations rang the other half. So the two people at the top of the organisation rang every subcontractor and said, “Look, this is what we want to do. Are you in?” They simply wanted assurance that there's no cost impost. And then they came on the journey with us, and then we surveyed all of their workers. To get the workers to participate in the survey, we actually found the most effective way was to hold bacon and egg barbecues and they'd complete the survey for us while they were getting a free feed.
- We also took the union on the journey with us and to their credit they said it was OK to try it. We encouraged them to listen and talk to the workers on the ground.
- Another trend was that workers said that they wanted to be at work less but work more productively. On the other hand, they want to know what the right amount of money is to be paid for their jobs. However, these ideas shouldn't be linked and we need to solve them independently like adults, as that is when you'll get systemic change.
On what’s next for Alison’s crusade
- Once we get the five day week bedded in, the next step is to look at the risk profile in the industry as I think it goes a long way to explain the suicide that exists in our industry. The limits of liability, the exposures that companies have are very, very large and so we need to change that risk profile.
- A lot of subcontractors have their house on the line as it is the collateral for the business. And so when a job goes broke, they lose their houses. So the next step really is looking at the risk profile to try and get it to be a much fairer place to work.
- I've seen the opposite as well where the husband has worked really, really hard, done all the hours, got the nest egg thinking they're providing for the family, they retire and then the wife leaves them. And they're like, “I did all this for my family,” but your family had a life separate from you.
- “If you don't know what to do, do something, and if it doesn't work, try something else. Just never stop trying.” And when you see people struggle, when you see how hard it is, but you can see a better way, no matter how hard it is for you at the top, you have to make the change. And if I don't make the change now, who will make the change?
- For me, it's not about me benefiting, I'm too old to benefit now. It's about the generations that are following my footsteps. And so that's what keeps me going. And the emails that I get from people saying, “I love what you're doing. It's having an impact. I'm seeing it. I can feel it.” That's the adrenaline injection I need. I get to keep going.
- I'm very much a person that if I know in my heart that it's the right thing to do, I will bash my head against a brick wall until I get through because I'm in the position to make the change. But it can't just be me; we need to do it as an industry and do it together.
On her learning experiences
- I did a negotiation course years ago at Mount Eliza, it was a three-day negotiation course, and I never appreciated how much negotiation you do in a day. I always thought negotiation was external to an organisation and I never really comprehended how much internal negotiation you do in an organisation. So, that course really opened my eyes up. The next one I recommend would be the AICD Directors’ course.
- I think the best advice I've had, recognising that I sit in a man's world was, “Choose your attitude.” I chose to take seemingly negative comments as compliments. Generally speaking, if you can choose to take the rosier side, your life will be a lot easier!
- We also have the no dickheads policy. So when someone hasn't been right for the business, I have removed them but it's all been very carefully done. It really makes sure that you've got that high performing culture. We don't have alpha males or alpha females in the company. We don't have people with an ego in the company, so that everyone can have a voice and be heard.
- So many businesses don't debrief along the way. If you look at sport, they debrief after a training session, they debrief after the game, they’re constantly debriefing with real talk. And in business we tend to leave it for so long. And then it's not a mountain, it's a volcano.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- I would just say be bold, be brave and really embrace change.