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ALISON MIRAMS

Chief Executive Officer, Roberts Pizarotti

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Alison Mirams, CEO of Roberts Pizzarotti.

What sort of flexible work practices have you adopted throughout your career?
On reflection, for the first 20 years of my career I worked in organisations where flexible working was not provided. I failed my first job interview at Multiplex when I said I wouldn’t work Saturdays because I water skied with my family. For many years I thought flexible working was going home to have dinner with my husband and then sitting on the lounge next to him but working on my laptop all night.

It wasn’t until my son was born 7 years ago that I needed and more importantly wanted flexibility that I worked out how to do it.

We have embedded flexibility in the DNA of Roberts Pizzarotti, and I lead it from the front. I drop my son to school; I pick him up and I attend the extra-curricular events like sports carnivals without guilt. And I encourage our staff to do the same. I encourage them to attend special and fun events like first day of school, Halloween ‘trick or treating’, parent teacher interviews and more. Work needs to fit in with life. And what we have learnt from COVID-19, is that health and wellbeing is so critically important!

What do you love most about your role?
I love working in the construction industry. There is no doubt it’s a tough industry, but it has positively changed and evolved so much over the past 25 years. I love the fact that at the end of a project you can stand back and see the joy on the faces of the people who occupy the new buildings.

Nearly four years ago, I was given the incredible opportunity to lead Roberts Pizzarotti. It is rare to get a blank sheet of paper to create a business and its amazing to be given the opportunity 25 years into my career where I have a whole lot of lessons learnt.

We have decided to make the most of that blank sheet of paper and to try and fix the deep-seated issues that exist in the industry. The industry sadly suffers from high presenteeism, high divorce rates and high suicide rates. There is no silver bullet that fixes the issues, so we are attacking a whole lot of low hanging fruit all at the same time.

And we are determined to bring the fun back into the construction industry!

How have your teams adapted to working more flexibly in 2020 and do you feel it has changed the way you do business now going forward ?
When we established Roberts Pizzarotti, we made flexibility part of our DNA.

Every employee has an iphone, ipad and laptop computer that is a tablet. All our data is stored in the cloud so work can be undertaken from anywhere.
When COVID-19 hit, and our employees had to work remotely, we didn’t need to change anything within the company. We were set up for flexible working.
In addition, we have employees who are part-time and also employees who work from both the office and working from home in regional locations.
I am also working from home one day per week to ensure I continue to lead flexible working post COVID-19.

I think one of the positives of COVID-19 is that men have seen the advantages of flexible working and its not longer looked at as a ‘women’s issue’ - it is now seen as a ‘people issue’.

What are the biggest barriers or challenges you have overcome in advancing your career so far ?
Early in my career there is no doubt it was difficult to prove myself in a what was a man’s world. But over time, my technical ability shone through and I was accepted and treated equally.

I was fortunate to have an internal sponsor within Multiplex who pulled me through my career. Every time he was promoted, he pulled me with him, and he gave me the opportunities to grow and develop. I am very fortunate for his leadership and guidance and I highly recommend that everyone find an internal sponsor who is looking out for their career.

You have had an exceptional career so far and been heralded for your leadership and vision in what has been always a male dominated industry. For young women entering the building and construction industry, what would you tell your 21 year old self with the wisdom and career experience you now have ?

I would say that your career will be the most amazing journey through life.

You will be exposed to opportunities that you could only ever dream of. So make the most of every opportunity. If you believe in something, pursue it until you achieve it. And most importantly, be kind to everyone — relationships matter, savour the memories and always act with decency and respect.

The three things that I have always done and recommend to every other young aspiring woman are:
1. Take every opportunity given to you and work hard to make each one a success.
2. Don’t question why you are being given an opportunity — have confidence that the organisation believes in you.
3. Choose your attitude. Always look for the positive in situations.

What are the most successful things you have implemented in your business to increase flexible work and access the best talent ?

Lead on flexibility. At Roberts Pizzarotti flexibility is led from the top. My view is that if the CEO and leadership team don’t lead flexibility that staff don’t feel like they can have flex.

We reward flexibility - face time and presenteeism in not rewarded.

Could your share your top 2 or 3 predictions for what the new future may hold in your sector?

Below is a piece I wrote recently and published on linked in. It sets out my hopes for the construction industry post COVID-19.

My hopes for the construction industry post COVID.

Three weeks into the COVID lock down, I was working from home, I’d had three sleepless nights wondering if construction would be stopped, we were modelling 7 different scenarios and I remember having the very distinct thought — ‘I didn’t sign up for this as a CEO’. There was no play book that I could look to. There was no other event in history that I could learn from. This was a true black swan event that no one saw coming.

But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining and COVID-19 has put the construction industry (along with other industries) into the biggest and fastest experiment on flexible working.

For the past 20 years, I have heard many dinosaurs in the industry say, “you can’t work flexibly or be part-time on a construction site”. This attitude has perpetuated the gender imbalance as women leave the industry 39 times faster than men, mostly during their childbearing years, thinking they can’t have a family and be based on site.

COVID-19 has allowed us to test those outdated theories and pleasingly it has been a resounding success. We have developed new ways of working that I sincerely hope become the new normal for the construction industry.
It would be such a waste of a bad situation if we didn’t sit back and analyse what we’ve learnt and set some new benchmarks. I am sharing my hopes for the construction industry moving out of the global pandemic known as COVID-19.

1. I hope that the construction industry will actually embrace flexibility. Companies need to stop talking and pretending they are working flexibly — they need to truly embrace flexibility for all. We have seen over the past three months that you can work remotely and still build. From the start of March, we asked our engineers, contracts administrators, design managers and project managers to alternate days between the site office and working from home. Sure, it’s had its challenges.

We had to introduce virtual meetings and we turned on face time so engineers could see the issues on sites; but our jobs kept moving, we increased the numbers of workers on site and we kept everyone safe. People had time with their loved ones. And people experienced the joy of eating dinner together as a family at least a couple of nights a week.

We have proven flexibility is possible and we have demonstrated it’s not a women’s issue, it’s a people issue. If we genuinely embrace flexibility, it will help to attract more women and keep them in the industry, and we can break the gender imbalance.

2. I hope that people now understand the isolation that an expectant mother experiences. That feeling that everyone felt when we entered COVID and were forced into our homes is exactly how an expectant mother feels. You are about to give birth, you’ve stopped work to rest, but the days are long.

You can’t go shopping as you are not your normal size and god forbid your waters break whilst you are out and there is only so much Netflix and books you can read because you are terribly uncomfortable. Everyone else’s life continues as normal and you are alone at home.

It is lonely and it is isolating. I hope people now realise why it’s so important for those women that want to return to work, to return to the job they left. It’s a small piece of a mothers’ former life that is so important for them to return to. I have seen many women lose their roles returning from maternity leave and the pain and devastation it causes is wrong. Perhaps this period when give people a different perspective on maternity leave.

3. I hope that Clients continue to focus on the health and well-being of construction workers. This pandemic has been a health pandemic. Everyone has been very focused on staying safe and healthy. Let’s not lose those caring attitudes. I’d love clients to consider, that as the cost of time is so low, that there is no need to push programmes.

There was a time imperative when interest rates were at 17%, but there is not now. To be honest — speed is the opposite of what we need now — as we try to keep people employed. We are seeing people hesitating to return to the office five days a week, but construction workers are working six or seven days a week. People need time to rest and recover. Working five days a week, gives construction workers an additional six weeks of leave per annum. Granted it’s not in one block, but it is still the equivalent of an additional six weeks of rest per annum — that’s a massive increase in rest time that must be good for you.

It can’t be solely up to Contractors to push this change; I’d love to see Clients asking for five-day programmes in tenders and accepting the responsibility of their actions when they want projects delivered in ridiculously tight timeframes. Please don’t lose the focus we have had on people’s health.

4. I hope Clients don’t take advantage of cheap prices. With the forward pipeline vanishing before our eyes, builders will be keen to fill their workbooks and to keep their good people together.

Over many years, construction margins have been squeezed and the risk profile has increased exponentially. Pre-COVID it was not unusual to see Contractors making a nett 2–3% return. Let’s be honest — with labour prices fixed and supply prices known, any discounting will come from margin and contingency. With margins squeezed so tightly, Contractors don’t have capacity to deal with significant bumps in the road, but more importantly, they don’t have financial capacity to invest in research and development and we are perpetuating an unsustainable industry.

We need to take a long-term view on the industry, and not feast on ridiculously cheap pricing.

5. I hope that the industry collaboration continues as the new normal. The collaboration between Contractors, industry bodies, the MBA and the Unions has been simply magnificent.

Let’s stop tearing each other down, let’s raise each other up, and work together so that the industry improves for every single person in it. After all, we want the same thing — a truly sustainable industry, where we are all valued and one that we can be proud of.

Everyone is saying the world has changed. This is our new normal. Let’s maintain the focus on people’s health, smash the gender imbalance, and openly and honestly embrace flexible working for all. And finally, let’s treat Contractors and the entire supply chain with respect and fairness so that together we can develop a sustainable industry for everyone.

Alison shared her insights with Puffling’s Lija Wilson.

If you’re interested in more on Puffling or being featured in a future interview profile, connect with Lija here.

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