An Exploration Of The Innovative Practices And Challenges Of Freelancers In The UK Construction Sector

Osei-Nimo, Samuel and Millman, Cindy and Aboagye-Nimo, Emmanuel (2021) An Exploration Of The Innovative Practices And Challenges Of Freelancers In The UK Construction Sector. In: ISBE 43rd Annual Conference, 28th-29th October 2021, Cardiff, UK.

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Abstract

There is broad consensus on the value of entrepreneurship as a driver of enhancing productivity, social equality and mobility in society. Likewise, there is growing importance placed upon measuring and communicating social value in the United Kingdom (UK) construction industry (Raiden et al., 2019). Burke (2015) stated that in this industry, freelance workers increasingly using entrepreneurial and innovative practices to circumvent Government policies that would eliminate their crucial economic contribution. In light of the current skills shortage burdening the construction industry, this research engages with the concept of enhancing social and public value by promoting effective, innovative entrepreneurial practices that can help improve the employment horizon by offering valuable skills to aspects of society that would have otherwise remained under-utilised. This also supports the current Social Mobility Commission’s agenda of promoting nationwide equity through meaningful employment and encompasses the ‘levelling up’ agenda presented in the 2021 Queen’s Speech.
The construction industry has received constant criticism regarding innovation and productivity for decades; for example, The Famer Report (2016) ‘Modernise or Die’ criticised the industry for its lack of innovative practices in improving productivity and the sector as a whole. Moreover, inefficiencies of this sector were also highlighted in both Latham Report (1994) and the Egan (1998) report, indicating poor communication, lack of collaboration amongst project teams, and an absence of safe and decent working conditions. However, such reports have yet spurned the intended improvements for the industry. With an increased level of complexity, the industry has become more fragmented. For tax purposes, the industry evolved to create self-employment techniques whereby small and micro construction firms were presented as independent contractors while working for the same principal contractors from project to project. This was labelled as bogus or false self-employment. Thus, the responsibility of a small or micro firm surviving lies on the owner-managers as they try to survive in the gig economy, i.e., every project, as a result, becomes a ‘solo gig’ they must execute while looking for their next project. Specifically, Burke (2012) considers freelancers remain under-studied and under-appreciated economic actors in the current British economy despite their critical economic roles, due to their pivotal role has just emerged in the past three decades in the knowledge and innovation-driven economy.
Although freelancers share certain characteristics with project managers and site managers, their entire economic function is not adequately represented when examined as subsets of either group. Burke (2011) argued that freelancers are distinct economic actors who perform economic tasks which neither project managers nor site managers perform. Hence, this paper aims to explore innovation and innovative practices adopted by freelancers (small and micro firms) in the UK construction sector. It also uncovers challenges faced by the industry and the freelancers in the ‘gig economy’.
As self-employed teams, the small and micro firms operate hypothetically as freelancers, but most seek to establish long-term working relationships with main contractors who can offer the sustainable work needed to stay afloat and thrive as a business. We explore the complex relationships that exist in the industry between small working teams and, more importantly, the relationships among the actors in this ecosystem (e.g. professionals, architects, project managers, quantity surveyors and skilled trades: bricklayers, joiners, electricians). Some of the subtle nuances in such relationships are the recruitment strategies implemented, performance review processes, trust and support amongst teams and ensuring longevity. While previous research have overlooked the innovative approaches adopted by a small or micro firm to thrive in such a competitive industry, this research endeavours to theorise such strategies. Furthermore, practices of small and micro construction firms are often classified as informal and, as such, tend to be discounted as innovative and effective.
Using a qualitative research approach, multiple ethnographic case studies were conducted on seven different construction projects. Data collection instruments included semi-structured interviews, non-participant observations and focus group discussions. Thematic analysis was conducted using QSR NVivo in generating codes for the in-depth data analysis, including themes reviewed from the literature and emerging themes identified through the data collection process and initial data analysis.
Initial findings on innovative practices adopted by small and micro firms include experienced workers utilising tacit knowledge in delivering experiential learning to newer workers on less complex tasks. Hence, circumventing the traditional formal training systems and processes, which are often bureaucratic and less efficient, while ensuring productivity is not significantly affected. Safety practices on site are designed to be reflective of emerging situations, thereby allowing pragmatic solutions to be implemented immediately. In contrast, atypical safety issues on larger projects and their potential solutions require authorisation from managers who are often removed from the situations and lack the familiarity of the ongoing issues. This creates a two-fold issue, i.e., firstly, the time lost in gaining approval for the solution and secondly, a solution that may not address the problem appropriately. Moreover, unorthodox recruitment methods prior to the formal contractual processes were used to ensure that the ‘right’ workers who are already vetted through techniques were recruited. ‘Word of mouth’ is crucial in the recruitment phase, and a worker can fail based on the recommendation (or lack of) from other workers. In addition, the owner-mangers of these small firms build informal alliances with project managers and site managers in order to ensure a long-term relationship can sustain further project awards. As subcontractors, they have to submit tenders to be included in bids; however, their established relationships with the principal contractors often result that they can be offered a lenient review on the bureaucratic aspects as they are known to be able to execute the jobs successfully even though their ‘paperwork’ may have gaps.
Furthermore, the small and micro firms form working bonds with other teams on site and support each other to move from project to project collaboratively and ensure the continuity of the established familiarity and networks. The key challenges to innovative practices adopted by the small and micro firms are the lack of recognition by principal contractors and policymakers. This thus suppresses their ‘good’ practices from being included in best practice conversations. Large principal contractors have often argued that the inability to capture the informal practices used by small and micro firms gives way to liabilities as there is less scrutiny on their work practices. This includes the accountability that comes with formalised work procedures.
This paper offers a much-needed contribution to the construction industry by exploring the critical insight of innovative practices adopted, which may benefit other fields with relatable characteristics. It uncovers the employment challenges, especially the aspects of skills shortage faced by the industry and have often been overlooked despite it accounts for more than 90% of the workforce and employs 7% of the national labour force. It also has implications for policymakers seeking to improve employment in general and in the construction sector, in particular. It also offers theoretical contributions to the academic understanding of innovative practices adopted by freelancers in small and micro firms as they endeavour to thrive in the construction sector.
The findings contribute to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, which seeks to improve employment records and enhance social mobility, significantly being adversely impacted by BREXIT and coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, such an understanding may be applicable to other sectors that rely heavily on freelancers, e.g., the events industry.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Dates:
DateEvent
28 September 2021Accepted
5 November 2021Published Online
Uncontrolled Keywords: Freelancers; Shared Economy; Innovation; UK Construction Industry; Skills and Employment
Subjects: CAH17 - business and management > CAH17-01 - business and management > CAH17-01-02 - business studies
Divisions: Faculty of Business, Law and Social Sciences > Birmingham City Business School > Department of Strategy, Management and Marketing
Depositing User: Cindy Millman
Date Deposited: 05 Nov 2021 14:59
Last Modified: 05 Nov 2021 14:59
URI: http://www.open-access.bcu.ac.uk/id/eprint/12390

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