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A Company’s Journey – Roberts & Co

Take a deeper look with Alison Mirams, CEO of Australian based contractor Roberts & Co.
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An interview with Alison Mirams, CEO, Roberts & Co

When industry veteran Alison Mirams was appointed chief executive of Sydney, Australia-based contractor Roberts Co in 2017, she was given a blank slate to change the way the company operated for the better.

Having risen from contracts administrator to commercial manager to regional director at Multiplex before joining Roberts Co, she had a very clear picture of the industry’s dysfunctions. The suicide rate among construction workers in Australia is more than double the national average, with construction workers six times more likely to die of suicide than workplace accidents. Women leave the industry six times faster than men, and the human cost of the industry’s high-pressure culture is estimated to be some A$6bn a year.

“I just thought we’ve got to be a catalyst for change,” she says. “If we didn’t do something different when we had a blank sheet of paper, it would have been the most enormous waste.”

One of her ideas for making the company more humane and inclusive for everybody was simply to give people weekends off, a radical idea in Australian construction where a six-day week is the traditional norm, making it extremely difficult for women to work in construction since childcare is only available on weekdays.

In 2019, Roberts Co bid for the project to build the A$341m first stage of the Concord Hospital Redevelopment in Sydney, involving the design and construction of a 44,000-sq-m clinical services building. In fact, the company submitted two bids, one committing Roberts Co and its supply chain to deliver the project on a traditional six-day basis, and another on a five-day basis.

But she delivered a tough message to the client, NSW Health Infrastructure. “We said you of all people can’t allow someone to die by suicide caused by workplace stress when we’re building a hospital to make people better,” Mirams says. “It’s not right. We said here’s a five-day programme and here’s a six-day programme, but understand that under the six-day programme, there might be a suicide from stress. And to their credit, they said okay, what’s the cost?”

The time implication was 10 extra weeks, carrying an estimated cost of A$2.5m, which the client agreed to absorb.

Mirams describes the project, which is due to complete in 2021, as an “overwhelming success”. She says people on the project, including subcontractors, report being happier, less stressed, excited to come to work Mondays, and able to spend meaningful time with family. Its five-day week has garnered the project national and international media coverage, and the University of New South Wales has been studying the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of workers and families. Its findings were due to be published in the fourth quarter of 2021.

She also retooled Roberts Co’s business processes, stripping out valueless bureaucratic impediments from the supply chain and focussing strongly on effective design management to keep progress flowing smoothly. She says subcontractor foremen tell her the Concord job is the safest, most productive and enjoyable site they are working on. “The reality is, we probably won’t use the whole 10 extra weeks,” she said. “We’ll use some of that time, and if it wasn’t for Covid I doubt we’d have used any of it.”

The project has also become a powerful recruitment tool. As news of it has spread, job applications from women have flooded in. “People are saying, can I come and work for you? This is awesome! Especially women. We see women leaving the industry in their 20s because they think they can’t have a child and work on site,” Mirams says.

She adds: “The struggle to change is really hard. The industry has a skills shortage because we’re not attracting enough people and yet it’s fixated on a six-day week because that’s the way we’ve always done it. It’s so stupid, it hurts.”

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