NMCN is a rapidly growing company that has increasingly put employee voice on the agenda. They face many sector-wide challenges around voice, especially the construction industry’s traditional, masculine, and command-and-control culture. They aim to make their culture more open, with increased two-way communication. To achieve this, they are taking some innovative steps – for example, using a psychologist to train line managers in new patterns of communication. However, challenges remain, as many employees reflect that it is difficult to change ingrained habits and behaviours that are industry-wide.
- rapidly growing company that is integrating difficult business units into one large organisation
- divide between office and site workers
- highly competitive market, working with tight margins and highperformance targets.
- cultural change
- communication channels
- suggestion-box scheme
- leadership briefings
- site visits
NMCN is a civil engineering, building and mechanical and electrical supply company. Major Terence Moyle co-founded the company in 1946 as North Midland Construction. He and his son, Robert Moyle, have both acted as chairman and CEO.
The Moyle family involvement gave NMCN long-established family values, enabling the organisation to maintain their family-run culture and ethos. While the legacy of the Moyle family continues, NMCN has grown rapidly, from around 400 employees in 2015 to almost 2,000 today. Between 2014 and 2016 the group was consolidated, bringing together the five divisions: building, highways, telecoms, power and industrial, and asset security. In 2018 the company was rebranded as NMCN, completing a transformation from a family-run firm to a PLC.
Like most of the civil engineering and construction industry, the NMCN workforce faces a series of organisational structure and cultural challenges. For example, the large geographical spread of construction sites, the safety-focused culture, and tight operating margins all contribute to a unique and challenging environment for employee voice. NMCN had some specific challenges, mainly due to its very rapid growth and merging of the different areas of the business.
Office, site and geographical divides
One of the key consequences of growth is the expansion across multiple divisions and geographical spread, making traditional forms of communication with employees, such as word of mouth or site meetings, more difficult. Additionally, onsite workers often have less access to computers and other technology and tend to have a lower digital literacy. Consequently, some employees feel isolated and unable to connect with the wider business.
Another critical challenge is insufficient communication between different parts of the organisation. NMCN is a complex organisation with different divisions undertaking different work. Many interviewees describe a silo mentality, and disconnection, but recognise that significant changes have occurred in recent years, as the company seeks to develop a collective brand, communication and engagement approach.
Tight financial margins
Another challenge that impacts the whole of the construction and civil engineering industry is tight margins. Low barriers to entry in the construction industry can mean high levels of competition and price being a key factor when winning a contract: ‘The aspirational target is 5%. I think a good contractor is doing 2%. The very good contractors are doing 3%.’ This means that construction companies have fewer resources to focus on long-term investment.
A key consequence of tight financial margins is that small issues can result in a loss, leading to a heightened control of work. The tight margins can also reduce opportunities for innovation, and opportunities for operational staff to speak up due to the lack of time and resources.
A highly macho, command-and-control style of culture is prevalent across the construction industry, particularly when working in highly pressurised or high-risk situations. ‘People get killed on construction sites… and people fall from heights, and all that sort of stuff is dangerous. So there has to be an element of command-andcontrol.’
This command-and-control approach is said to be reinforced by the foreman and other site workers who regularly move between firms, meaning that it is harder to get organisation-specific culture. This might include the way language is used or long hours, and a tight deadline culture:
[Some construction line managers] still conform to the old school… obviously they swear a lot and they say it as it is, but they’re angry and you know about it… there’s no filter… there’s no consideration for how the other person may be feeling in that moment.
Shifting such an ingrained culture is proving difficult. Lack of diversity, and high levels of mental health issues and suicide across the industry, also make culture change a slow process. ‘Within construction… people are committing suicide because of mental health issues and it is because of it being this traditional industry of male behaviours that don’t incorporate being supportive and emotional.’
A commonly cited barrier for voice was middle managers and the lack of skills or training to support the management of individuals, as opposed to just having the technical skills for their role. Middle managers were said to be a barrier for voice, blocking top-down and bottom-up communication. Employees also felt unable to approach their managers with their personal issues, because they believed managers wouldn’t be receptive and/or don’t have the time:
I’ve always found middle management is a barrier because they don’t like some of the things from on-site to filter up because they think then that they’re almost… ‘Am I accountable here?’ But again, that’s the whole point of openness… I think sometimes the message that goes down can be diluted at that tier as well.
Employment relationship tiers and retention
NMCN employs different tiers of workers, with some projects requiring short-term contracts with specialist workers who are paid weekly. Permanent employees tend to be managerial, supervisor and administrator roles. In contrast, the weekly paid employees are the site operatives who do not always have access to the same communications tools and employee benefits. Also, the difference in job insecurity between the different tiers of employment can play an important role in employee voice – some employees felt concerned about speaking out and losing their jobs. Technological barriers experienced by site workers, such as having no email access or work phones to be able to interact with the business, may also affect their opportunities for voice. ‘We need to give people the tools to be able to communicate with us and us to communicate with them.’
Engagement levels between permanent and weekly employees also vary. As competition for both work and skilled employees is strong in the construction industry, making sure that the workforce is happy and productive was considered one way of gaining an edge over competitors. Moreover, NMCN was also aware of low retention and relatively high turnover at around 14%. ‘Happy workforce, happy customers. I genuinely believe that if people are feeling good about the organisation that they work in, then they will deliver better for our customers.’
Tackling the challenges to improve employee voice
NMCN is aiming to change its organisational culture through a series of strategic initiatives. These include rebranding and focusing on their values with their new motto – ‘Our people at the heart’. Driven by a key member of the HR team, they have been working with the senior leadership team to examine the links between engagement, commitment and performance. This cultural change also focuses on improving line management and behaviours by working towards two-way communication through formats such as a listening forum. While NMCN has made some improvements, it is recognised that the communication is still too top-down and cultural and behaviour changes will take time to materialise given the deeply ingrained culture throughout the construction industry: ‘It’s a culture of behaviours that have been programmed in, and it’s hard to revert to a new norm when you’ve only ever done things one way… It’s understood on one level [intellectually], but it’s not understood in practice and how that shows up in everyday behaviours.’
The need for increased communication and changing behaviours has led to an increase in channels for voice at NMCN:
- Digital platforms
- iConnect: One strategy is using digital technologies to relay information more quickly through the workforce. NMCN now uses a system called iConnect that allows employees to find out news from different divisions across the company, seeking to bring a more holistic communication strategy to the whole organisation.
- Bright ideas: This experimental initiative is a digital suggestions box where employees can enter their ideas for improving the workplace, or suggest ideas that would help to improve their health and wellbeing. Ideas are reviewed quarterly, which takes time and other resources to be able to work effectively, especially if there are many suggestions. ‘I think we have been a victim of our own success with that… because we have 550 bright ideas in two quarters and it’s how we manage that without disengaging the people who have raised them.’ The success of the scheme demonstrated the appetite for expressing organisational voice, but also the challenges involved in managing the process and the ongoing engagement with participating employees.
- Paper magazine: NMCN has a paper magazine that it distributes quarterly with news and stories from around the company. NMCN decided to maintain this approach after surveying employees. The results showed there were still several employees who enjoy taking the print versions back to their families, particularly if the magazine contained a story about the work they were doing, or a project they were working on.
Leadership and line management
NMCN has introduced leadership briefings, where groups of employees can directly interact with the leadership team and raise issues or provide feedback about the ways of working. These meetings have resulted in the creation of new ideas and a sense of familiarity with the senior leaders, who make a concerted effort to engage with staff and to help solve problems arising on the ground.
On the other hand, some employees were less engaged and felt that attending these meetings was not part of their job. Some also found it difficult to raise concerns directly with a CEO, while others were concerned about the sessions becoming a place for disgruntled employees to complain.
Management by walking around
Senior leaders described being more visible and approachable on-site to address practical issues and concerns highlighted by employees. This approach breaks down the hierarchical barriers between managers and employees, enabling managers to get an understanding of the lived reality for site workers and be more connected with them.
A new mentality: from command-and-control to listening and engaging
NMCN described shifting away from the overriding blame culture of previous leaders and moving towards a new way of working. Part of this modernisation involved shifting communication and culture towards being more open, prioritising listening and responding in positive ways to problem-solving. This shift meant:
- changing communication from top-down to a two-way dialogue
- embedding a more open culture
- ensuring space for innovation, creativity, voice and action driven by empowerment.
NMCN is changing its approach to communication across the organisation. A trained psychologist who now works for NMCN has developed a programme that aims to enhance skills such as ‘active listening’. This course also incorporates aspects of emotional management and the role of emotions in conversations at work. This initiative is tied to the health and safety remit of the organisation, as communication has an impact on how it deals with risk and safety issues.
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