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What is the best way to manage people on a building site?

The ‘Views’ articles represent the opinion of the authors rather than being the official stated position of OSP Group Ltd. They are published by OSP Group Ltd to stimulate debate around key issues and challenges facing the UK construction industry.

The most important issue on a site is safety. Tight management and discipline is needed to ensure zero accidents. For this reason there has to be quasi-military discipline and non-negotiable rules at least as far as safety procedures are concerned. But this does not mean that team management has to be entirely regimental.

On the contrary. The most comprehensive accident avoidance method involves encouraging every worker to assess every situation and identify those moments when an accident might occur. It is a case of looking for that ‘Eureka’ moment when the person realises that he/she needs to do something immediately to avoid risk of injury. He/she is walking along a deck of planks on some external scaffolding. He/she should be thinking ‘Are these planks secure?’, ‘What if they are not?’, ‘What should I hold onto?’, etc

This kind of continuous risk management is best achieved by training and empowering the person to be a free-thinking individual rather than a foot soldier. In other words, the more a worker is treated as a machine the less initiative he/she will show.

Above the base level of safety the other project objectives include, naturally, completing projects well, on time, within budget, to a high standard, and so on.

What is the best way to manage the work teams to achieve these things?

First we need to look at motivation. Aside from pay, people value being listened to and trusted; they value recognition, respect and reward (non-financial as well; they want be empowered and encouraged; and they enjoy a team ethos and camaraderie).

Command-and-control management is not necessarily the best way to give people these things. A collegiate approach whereby they are given direction rather than management is more likely to deliver the things they want. In return for this the worker is likely to work harder because he/she is happier. The exception to this is when management is too lax and liberal, when there is not enough direction, so cutting the worker adrift.

This is surely one of the biggest debates in management. The solution is probably to achieve the right balance and follow the middle path, providing enough structure and discipline as a framework and enough latitude within the system to allow a person to flourish.

Perhaps the most important element in this is allowing the worker to be a person and giving him or her a real, genuine sense of their own identity and personality in the workplace.

Guy Lane, Consultant
20th August 2018