While all companies have faced significant operational difficulties over the past year, contractors, especially ones with large workforces across the globe, have encountered challenges that have required innovative approaches to employee engagement and support. Given construction’s heavy reliance on on-site and in person work, COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures have placed a heavy strain on employees within the industry.
In particular, the pandemic has put tremendous pressure on the HR departments at large construction companies. Beyond having to support employees in managing the stresses that COVID-19 fears and lockdowns have wrought, mobility restrictions — combined with stringent sanitary requirements at work sites — have created a new layer of complexity for firms.
HR departments have revised their practices to provide support to employees, which ultimately will lead to a positive impact on the bottom line by minimizing absenteeism and reducing the risk of accidents on site.
One step has been to significantly increase the use of telemedicine for diagnoses and checkups, supported by the postal delivery of prescribed medicines. This has reduced employees’ physical exposure to the virus while shortening appointment wait times, allowing for earlier consultation and treatment. A further use of online medical capabilities can be seen in the example of HTB Group in Brazil, which hired a variety of medical practitioners to deliver webinars for employees to share facts about COVID-19 and best practices that employees could undertake to protect themselves.
Another important development has been the increased focus on employee mental health and well-being more broadly. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) predate COVID-19, but they have received renewed attention in the past year as a means of addressing the stress faced by workers. EAPs are a helpline service that businesses contract out to specialist companies — either at a per-employee fixed rate or as a pay-per-use program — such that their employees may enjoy free and unlimited access to confidential advice and counseling on any issue that may be causing them concern or distress.
Exhibit 1: Some examples of core services provided by Employee Assistance Programs
Source: Mercer analysis
EAPs tend to offer both a standard global component as well as specific services that are tailored for individual locations, making them a viable solution for globalized industries like construction.
Ana Benita Aramendia is Global HR Director for FCC in Spain and is responsible for its 59,000-strong workforce. FCC intends to add new functions and services to support employee engagement and well-being. Specifically, Aramendia explains, FCC is considering running workshops on building skills related to remote working, resilience, or stress management, as well as providing additional benefits in the form of gym memberships and access to activities such as yoga, Pilates, or mindfulness classes.
Susana Fernandez, Corporate Compensation and Benefits Manager at Sacyr, states that the company has similarly launched new activities and EAP measures in support of employees. One effort resulted in the hiring of a team of psychologists to develop initiatives to help employees deal with increases in anxiety and stress, which many have experienced over the past year.
Aside from ramping up EAP offerings, another critical challenge for HR departments has been in helping project leads around the world meet local sanitary requirements in order to proceed with construction activities. FCC hired a new team to support project leads and facilitate the sharing of best practices across sites. Globally, their testing regimes have identified over 13,000 infections, albeit thankfully with no fatalities. This support has helped keep key projects on track, especially work with a high potential for reputational risks were they to be delayed — such as the upgrades to Real Madrid’s stadium in Spain.
As these examples suggest, many contractors have been successful in adapting their HR and workforce practices to deliver projects on time and on budget across the globe. Yet it is likely that these new initiatives and programs will also help shape the new normal for work as the world begins to move past the pandemic. By continuing to offer these services and resources going forward, HR departments can help improve their firm’s employee value proposition and boost its ability to both attract and retain top talent —two key challenges with which the construction industry is currently struggling as a whole. Continued efforts to bolster the resilience and adaptability of local work teams will also help fortify workstreams, ultimately protecting firms’ profit margins.