Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why diversity matters

Rob Driscoll, BESA Director of Legal and Commercial

Is diversity a purely moral and social issue that we have a duty to address – or is it actually the key to our sector’s future prosperity?

BESA’s legal and commercial director Rob Driscoll explains.

For BESA and our members, it stands to reason that in order to have the best possible sector; we must attract new entrants from a diverse talent pool. Businesses perform better when they reflect the society that they serve. It is therefore essential for us, as a wider industry, to actively seek a greater diversity of new recruits and to monitor and measure diversity.

Not because it is just the right thing to do, but because it is good for business.

Evidence from McKinsey, KPMG etc. suggest that there is a direct correlation between a diverse workforce and  greater creativity, improved problem solving, better decision making and a better bottom line.

Having a diverse workforce culturally and socially broadens an organisation’s ability to find the right solutions, whatever the project. This fundamentally improves the service to customers and exposes employees to a variety of working styles, personalities and approaches.

A legislative imperative already exists to establish the base line for what is considered unacceptable behaviour within the professional environment, but what about  re-designing the built-environment for the purposes of social inclusion.

We are legally bound to create places and spaces that work for all

Did you know?

  • Around a third of disabled people experience difficulties related to their impairment in accessing public, commercial and leisure goods and services 12.
  • Disabled people remain significantly less likely to participate in cultural, leisure and sporting activities than non-disabled people.
  • Around a fifth of disabled people report having difficulties related to their impairment or disability in accessing transport 16.
  • Disabled people are significantly more likely to be victims of crime than non-disabled people.
  • 1 in 5 disabled people requiring adaptations to their home believe that their accommodation is not suitable 22.

If the UK embraces the issue of social diversity and adapts the shape of industry and infrastructure to be inclusive, it will undoubtedly unlock the innovative solutions and social economic contributions to be made by social groups who often feel marginalised, but equally have an undeniable contribution to make and could be the solution to many of industry’s current problems.

The business case is easy for adaptation for inclusion: There are over 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability 1  and 16% of working age adults are disabled.

According to the Labour Force Survey, disabled people are now more likely to be employed than they were in 2002, but disabled people remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people. In 2012, 46.3% of working-age disabled people were in employment compared to 76.4% of working-age non-disabled people.

There is, therefore, a 30.1 percentage point gap between disabled and non-disabled people, representing over 2 million people. The gap has reduced by 10 percentage points over the last 14 years and has remained stable over the last two years despite the economic climate 5.

The Department of Work & Pensions calculates that for each pound spent the government receives £1.70 back in National Insurance, taxation and reduced demand on state benefits – the economic driver for inclusion couldn’t be clearer!

Re-designing the built-environment for inclusion

It is easy to forget, amidst the daily cut and thrust of contracting, that the building engineering services industry is actually crucial to equality, diversity and inclusivity.

Our technical solutions; our designs; and our ability to predict how a building or public space will work are the difference between having a built environment that functions and one that goes so much further and defines a civilised society by being open and accessible to everyone.

This influences crime rates, health and well-being, social interaction etc.

At BESA we work with Future Cities Catapult to understand how building engineering services can influence the design of civilisation in UK urban, metropolitan and rural areas. We signpost how our engineering solutions can help – in particular our use of digital systems and how the growth in ‘smart’ technology is especially liberating for people living with a disability.

The use of connected systems to improve the day-to-day life of a disabled person is now also more widely reflected in the building engineering services installed within the built-environment making infrastructure, entrance systems; lighting; lifts; comfort controls; and security systems intelligent, accessible and easier to use. How else do we create a reality within which driverless low carbon transport, intelligent homes, integrated smart domestic appliances and wearable technology enables quality of life, access and well-being.

Our industry is also integrating digital methods into its working practices making it more accessible for a disabled person to be seen as a viable employment prospect as a building engineering professional.

The growth of Building Information Modelling (BIM) and other design techniques means accessible project/professional roles and data, which someone with a physical or mental impairment may have found previously inaccessible, is now much more open and suited to someone who may require flexible/adaptive working.

The right to flexible/adaptive working has been around for over two decades, although rarely used due to the threat of professional suicide. Yet flexible/adaptive working is a great way of encouraging diversity because it means the work can be structured around the person – and not the other way around – aka inclusion.

Things have definitely improved and accessibility is now regularly part of our industry’s project planning, but a recent report from the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee signaled that we still have a long way to go.

The Committee’s Disability and the Built Environment demanded action from the government to reform public procurement, put fiscal initiatives in place and champion best practice in a “coherent and transparent strategy” to ensure buildings and public spaces are more accessible for people living with disabilities.

It put the challenge squarely in the lap of the Department for Communities and Local Government, but we – as an industry – must acknowledge that much of this comes back to us.

The report pointed out the difficulties current built environment design creates for disabled people: Many workplaces are difficult to access and the housing choices available to someone with a disability are extremely limited.  The fact that many public spaces are completely inaccessible to many people has a huge impact on the quality of life of many UK citizens and puts us, as a country, in breach of our own Equality Act (2010), which was supposed to address many of these issues.

The government already has powers at its disposal to improve accessibility in the built environment but it doesn’t use them well, according to the Committee, who called for better political leadership through:

  • Making it clear that inclusive design is a statutory requirement, not just a 'nice to do';
  • Revising and clarifying national planning policy so that it complies with the Equality Act;
  • Future proofing housing standards and raising the mandatory minimum to Category 2, the equivalent of the former Lifetime Homes standard for all new homes;
  • Incentivising employers to improve existing workplaces with accessibility in mind;
  • Amending the Licensing Act 2003 so that public spaces and facilities are properly accessible.

Disabled people have the legal right to fully participate in society – this was enshrined in the Disability Discrimination Act more than 20 years ago.

However, if the built environment effectively locks them out then their rights are being infringed – and we need to change the commercial culture of our industry to put that right because this issue will only get bigger.

“Increases in life expectancy will mean that over time, an ever greater proportion of us will be living with disability,” said Committee Chair Maria Miller MP. “Yet the burden of ensuring that an accessible environment is achieved falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people – an approach which is neither morally nor practically sustainable.

“Instead, we need a proactive, concerted effort by 'mainstream' systems and structures – including national and local government and built environment professionals – to take on the challenge of creating an inclusive environment.”

No-one is suggesting this is easy for engineering companies to address –with or without greater government incentives. It is a hugely complex issue that goes much further than people with physical disabilities to include the impact our buildings have on people living with mental health and neurological conditions.

However, we can do better – we need to be more ambitious and to stretch ourselves both technically and morally. Digital technology is a major enabler and we must make best use of it.

The key to putting an effective strategy in place is to properly engage with representatives of the disabled community i.e. ask the people it affects the most what they actually want and need.

Putting policy into practice is often where we hit problems and reluctance often stems from a fear of making mistakes. If you are not confident about how to address a problem you will try to ignore it – it is easier to do nothing.

This can be addressed by leadership – within individual companies and across the sector as a whole. If trade bodies and senior management drive culture change it will stick – especially if they can demonstrate why it is important. There is no shame in putting it in the context of business improvement. Diversity is now widely flagged as a route to better profitability and, without a more user-friendly building or space; you cannot attract a properly diverse workforce.

Both the technology and the construction industries are suffering from skills crises. There is therefore an undisputed business need to tap into the widest possible talent pool to ensure that the UK is adequately resourced with appropriate talent for future industrial needs and remains a key participant in a rapidly changing global market.

People are our biggest asset
Simply put, people are the most important asset of any company. For companies to succeed in the global marketplace, they must make the most of the full range of their people. Companies must attract and retain the right skills, the best minds, all the required resources – and that means diversity.  Maximising the potential of a workforce through diversity is, therefore, not only a social imperative, but provides a competitive advantage.

From a business vantage point, to best serve the market one must “employ the market.”

Collecting data about an issue is a good way of driving change. Again this is sound commercial practice. How do you justify change if you can’t measure it? Assess the size of the problem and match that to potential technical solutions to make spaces and places that are more accessible and, therefore, more profitable.

And make your supply chain partners follow suit. If they want to continue working for or with you ensure they too are building comprehensive diversity strategies into their working practices. That is the key to creating culture change across a whole industry.

As an industry, if we won’t embed diversity and inclusion within our consciousness, we may find that the question is not: ‘Does construction/engineering discriminate?’ But, rather:  ‘Does the next generation of talent discriminate against construction/engineering’.

We keep telling people that diversity matters. Now let’s prove it.

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