Property Australia

Why Roberts Co. is turning construction upside down

PROPERTY AUSTRALIA March 23, 2022

Diversity is not “an initiative” at Roberts Co. It is a “core business strategy”, says chief executive officer Alison Mirams. And that strategy is delivering dividends, with women making up 33% of the tier one builder’s construction site teams. 

When Mirams stood before large crowd at the Property Council of Australia/RLB Innovation & Excellence Awards late last year, she noted that the percentage of women in the construction industry had remained stubbornly low – at 12.5 per cent – for more than 35 years.

“Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We cannot keep doing the same things and thinking our diversity will change. We need to turn the industry upside down, break it and try new things.”

That’s what’s Roberts Co is doing.

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Established in January 2017, Roberts Co has grown rapidly and now boast a workbook of more than $1 billion. 

The Rork Projects Award for Diversity and Inclusion last year recognised a series of industry-leading moves, including a landmark enterprise bargain agreement with the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union

Rather than adopt fixed rostered days off, “which would effectively mean a nine-day fortnight”, Mirams explains, Roberts Co pushed for a five-day week. This not only supports more women to thrive in site-based roles, but increases safety, wellbeing and work life balance for all workers.

“We became passionate about this because we’d had so much success experimenting on Concord Hospital. We couldn’t go back to the way we’d always done things.”

A weekend for every worker

Roberts Co first piloted the five-day working week on the $341 million redevelopment of Concord Hospital. A research project, dubbed A weekend for every worker and led by Dr Natalie Galea at the University of New South Wales, is measuring how the compressed work week, together with other workplace interventions, influences the wellbeing of construction workers and their families. 

The research – which will be officially launched in May – has already confirmed that Concord Hospital was a more “harmonious” site than business-as-usual, Mirams notes. “We saw relationships on site improve when people were rested. Every big construction company has a position on fatigue, gender and modern slavery – but they don’t tick those boxes with six-day work sites.”

Stephen Surjan, Roberts Co’s head of operations, spent a proportion of 2020 in negotiations with the CFMEU. He says the five-day week “gives every worker – not just our staff – the flexibility to spend weekends with their families”. The EBA also outlines a start time of between 6:00am and 8.30am, which gives everyone, especially parents, more flexibility in their morning. 

The feedback has been very positive has “resonated through the industry,” Mirams says. One sign of success is the number of sub-contractor workers who now refuse to work Saturdays, Surjan adds.

Talent hunter

Surjan took home the ADCO Champion of Change award at the NAWIC Awards for Excellence in February. NAWIC’s judges applauded Surjan’s “unrelenting hunt” for talented women. With responsibility for meeting Roberts Co’s 50:50 gender diversity target, Surjan champions flexible working across all roles, has removed recruitment entry barriers and set new standards for safe sites. Surjan interviews every potential employee and has hired women across roles from project managers to cadets. 

Women now make up 40 per cent of Roberts Co’s staff. An impressive 33 per cent of staff and construction workers are women, as are 70 per cent of cadets and graduates. 

“You get plenty of opportunities to fix a company, but only one opportunity to build a company from scratch,” Surjan says. “We have targeted women for particular roles, but I’ve always stood my ground by picking the best candidate. We don't employ someone to hit a target. But by providing flexibility you get there.”

Finding female site managers is “still like finding a needle in a haystack,” Mirams adds. “We have a long-term plan but in roles where there are more women – contracts managers or site engineers for example – we have really hunted for them.”

Mirams says Surjan “could write a book about how badly women have been treated in the construction industry”. One woman received a $50,000 pay correction when she joined Roberts Co, for example. Surjan says the working conditions that women have endured make him “shake his head” on a regular basis – as do the pay discrepancies. 

“We haven’t had to correct one man’s salary but about 25 per cent of the women we’ve employed have got a pay rise immediately because we offer them the right salary for their role,” Mirams says.

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Champions of change

While receiving the NAWIC award was an honour, Surjan also says he felt “a bit embarrassed for getting an award for doing what everyone should be doing”. 

Mirams, meanwhile, was recently appointed vice president of the Property Council in New South Wales and looks forward to bringing a builder’s voice to the table. Her focus will be to champion the “return to life as normal”.

“The last two years has been incredibly hard on the construction industry,” she says. “During the shutdown from July to September last year in New South Wales, the government changed the rules 18 times.” She can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and notes with enthusiasm that “traffic was bad on the way to work for the first time today”.

“We need people to come back to the CBD, to not sit at home working remotely, but to get back to the office for a portion of the week. That will help restart retail, bring back life to our cities, and get the pipeline of projects back on track.”