10 CSR ideas to retool the design and construction industry

Corporate Social Responsibility not only encompasses what a firm does externally, but internally as well. Designers specify, and construction companies build, hundreds, thousands or even several thousand miles from their corporate headquarters. This provides many challenges as well as opportunities for firms to demonstrate their level of corporate responsibility.

The areas where design and construction firms can have the biggest CSR impacts are in specifying responsible products, selecting responsible supply chains (suppliers and subcontractors), minimizing environmental damage, using energy efficient designs, reducing waste during construction and most importantly, maintaining the health, safety and welfare of their (and their supply chain's) employees.

Firms tend to pursue CSR efforts via philanthropy and employee volunteering. A more effective approach is to pursue CSR with a strategic focus by finding and focusing on issues that the business brings specialized knowledge or competency to. Philanthropic and volunteer achievements tend to be shorter term. In order for CSR efforts to be durable, they must align well with the overall business and not seem like flavor-of-the-month efforts, or be diluted by scattershot efforts.

The European Union's research shows that the design and construction industry should focus primarily on internal CSR issues because the industry lags others in getting its own houses in order. Therefore, this list is focused on internal CSR opportunities that can improve operations, attract and retain employees, raise productivity and improve the industry's image. (For more information on this issue, check out Corporate Social Responsibility for Engineers, Contractors, and Architects.) 

1. Flextime: Some employees might need to drop children at school and others might have aged parents that need looking in on during the day. Workers who have some flexibility around their work schedule tend to perform better due to reduced stress and worry.

2. Work-from-home plans and subsidized public transit: While working from home was trendy a few years ago, since the financial crisis it seems as if firms have tightened the reins and prefer to have everyone in the office again. Work from home might not be for everyone, but many more people could work from home instead of adding to traffic and spending one to three hours commuting. At the very least, for those who must commute to the office, providing subsidized public transit or incentives to use alternative means of commuting are encouraged.

3. Improved hiring practices: This comes down to hiring both the young and aged, coupled with apprenticing and on-the-job-skills-training. Every week or two, headlines declare a shortage of skilled workers — then the very next headline proclaims that unemployment and underemployment remain stubbornly high. How can that be? Does a receptionist really need a BA in English? Following the principles of the automotive industry's "lean manufacturing" system, most jobs can be broken down into a few particular skills, which can be learned so long as an individual has the appropriate aptitude, attitude and willingness to learn. Instead of looking for five-legged speckled sheep, firms should ask what can be taught on the job to the abundant average sheep.

4. Career management and mentoring: Many women and some men find that starting or having a family is a liability to their career — especially in the construction industry, where long stays away from home, frequent moves and an unstable economic environment are prevalent. These conditions make family life difficult and often cause lasting damage to families through divorce, missed childhoods and the like.

Construction careerists seem to be forced into choosing stable family lives or their careers. Instead, firms could work with employees to help create the stability and continuity that would keep individuals on a satisfactory career trajectory while balancing family needs. This could be in the form of reduced working hours, job sharing, more flexible hours, childcare facilities, minimizing time away from home and many other solutions. The key is to communicate that balanced employees perform better and that a career managed actively with both the firm and individual is a much better approach than either one trying to find a solution unilaterally.

5. Paying living wages to all employees: Simply ensuring that employees in the company have the possibility to make ends meet and are not having to depend upon social services for health care or food supplementation, thus being a drain on the social safety net, are all key performance indicators in determining whether a firm is a socially responsible company. Construction trades used to pay well enough for people to work on construction projects, then be laid off for a few weeks or months until another project came along. Unfortunately, trade wages and benefits have declined significantly over the last 30 years in both real and nominal terms for most. Ensuring that your entire supply chain pays its employees properly is neccessary.

6. Purchasing responsibly: Growing, harvesting, mining and manufacturing construction products and shipping them around the world is costly and wasteful. However, wage and tax arbitrage continues to be profitable for the foreseeable future, at least until firms are required to internalize more external costs. Over the past decade, the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program has included provisions for buying local, which was a good start, but many things simply cannot be procured locally. Having purchasing processes and procedures for the procurement of things such as goods, services and subcontracts, with a balanced focus on durability and localness, can have a positive impact in both social and environmental terms.

7. Minimizing waste: Mandatory recycling on projects has been growing, albeit slowly, on jobsites everywhere. Other strategies, including the better use of materials, reduction in piping leftovers and prefabrication, also save money while reducing landfill waste.

8. Helping to enforce better energy efficiency requirements: It's important that professionals spend more effort influencing owners and building code officials to adopt the most practical and stringent energy efficiency requirements. Indeed, many design and construction firms have employees on professional association committees that have direct influence on building codes. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions either loosely enforce codes or are a decade behind the latest code adoptions. By encouraging owners to look at total cost of ownership, including operations and maintenance — and not simply the initial cost of a project or the minimum that will pass codes — owners can better reap the full benefit of the latest energy efficiency requirements. This means owners will be fully informed in terms of energy efficiency and durability of finishes and equipment. While many owners already take a long view, design and construction professionals could take a more active, leading role in educating those that are still only looking at initial build costs.

9. Mentoring and sharing training with subcontractors and other firms: Many smaller firms and subcontractors would welcome the opportunity to share best practices and learn from other firms. Smaller firms might not have the ability to provide continuing education to their employees. By sharing educational opportunities, such as bringing in outside trainers, the smaller firms could learn alongside others, sharing the costs while improving knowledge and, in turn, the industry.

10. Establishing ethics help lines: Some firms have established ethics help lines to answer questions regarding the ethical concerns of employees. For some firms working across continents and cultures, the lines between cultural norms and ethics can be blurry if not completely overlapping. Having a third party outside the chain of command of operations can be very helpful in advising and, when necessary, investigating dealings that are ethically or legally questionable.

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