The Role of Workforce Flexibility in Manufacturing

The Role of Workforce Flexibility in Manufacturing

Workforce Flexibility Series – Part 1

We recently completed another segment of our Manufacturing Leaders Roundtable Series with HR and operations experts from industries with high-volume staffing requirements. With continued labor stressors on operations leaders and frontline workers remaining high, this roundtable discussion explored the role of workforce flexibility in combating the labor shortage. Our panel examined how to respond to some of these longer term attraction and retention challenges by examining what workers value in their employment.

In the first of our two-part blog series recapping the discussion, we looked at different definitions of flexibility, near-term strategies, and how training can enhance flexibility and productivity for an organization.

Featured Panelists

  • Corey Gilchrist is VP of total rewards and HRIS at Shamrock Foods. He brings 11 years of HR experience in regional and national food production and distribution.
  • Kevin Schoen is a manufacturing consultant, recently retired after 34 years with General Mills. His expertise focuses on supply chain operations and helping organizations develop their people and expand workforce capability.
  • Bob King leverages 27 years of experience in manufacturing and distribution in his consultancy work with mid-size manufacturers, helping them improve operational performance and efficiency.
  • Doug Hammond is division president at Randstad’s Inhouse Services division focusing on high-volume custom labor solutions for a variety of large manufacturing clients.

What Does Workforce Flexibility Really Mean?

Flexibility can mean different things to different stakeholders. For most white-collar workers, we often think of geographic flexibility — being able to plug into work from any remote location — which has inherent flexibility built in. But for hourly employees who must work in a dedicated setting, it’s an entirely different picture. To stay engaged and valued, these workers want some type of scheduling control to handle unexpected events such as child illness, school cancellation, and medical appointments, allowing them the flexibility to plan for their future. In a nutshell, shift workers like to have the flexibility to work when they’re available and not be penalized when they have a conflict. Workforce flexibility also helps reduce employee burnout by improving work-life balance and empowers managers to adapt to changing variables over time.

As you investigate flexibility solutions for your organization, it’s imperative that you align worker needs with business goals to give you the best value for your labor dollar.

“Organizations that adopt a workforce flexibility solution that also meets business goals are bound to see more retention and higher productivity, and therefore become more competitive in a tight labor market,” noted Hammond.

How Are Manufacturers Leveraging Flexibility?

Think flexibility is a one-size-fits-all solution? Our experts disagreed. Through their career experience, our panel has learned that some workers might value consistency, while others may value more visibility into their schedules over the longer term. They emphasized acquiring new points of view, enabled through discovery conversations, to better understand what your employees need and want according to their specific definition of “flexibility.”

Second, you should identify what problem you’re trying to solve. Labor issues are not the same for all departments, locations, or employees. Despite some national flexibility trends you may be hearing about, “many solutions can be local,” offered Gilchrist. “They can vary quite a bit depending on location and what those specific needs look like.”

What Are Some Strategies to Consider?

An array of flexibility options exists for manufacturers to consider, whether it’s consistency, visibility, or even “usability,” as in the case of technology that enables improved schedule communication. But again, listening to worker needs is critical. Some employers have invested in flexible labor pools to offset worker burnout and churn as an essential part of their solution. Others find that day-scheduled flexibility, where workers choose which days they’d like to work, motivates workers to be more accountable, leading to fewer call-offs. From an operations standpoint, this kind of predictability can have big payoffs for manufacturing and other production lines — especially during a labor shortage.

Organizations can, understandably, feel overwhelmed or anxious when considering changing up workforce processes, especially those with long-term viability. But our panel suggested that you don’t have to think of flexibility as the absence of rules.

“It’s not the Wild West,” asserted Hammond. “The best labor solutions have flexibility within specific guardrails that are directly linked to business outcomes that employers need to accomplish.”

Employers have also looked at compensation during tight labor markets to sync up additional capacity and quickly attract more workers. While these bidding wars were more common earlier this year to attract talent, the practice has slowed down as shift workers made their varying needs more apparent. Compensation is just one piece of the puzzle; workers value flexibility, benefits, and corporate culture as well.

Can Training Impact Flexibility?

In manufacturing, it’s easy to feel limited in terms of flexibility when your workers are trained on specific machinery with its associated safeguards. So, to expand flexibility options, consider training workers beyond their current scope. With workers owning multiple skillsets, you can plug them into flex pools and increase the value of your labor dollar, a huge win-win for both employer and employee.

“It’s one of most impressive areas I’ve seen,” noted King, speaking of his performance consulting experience. “Training is a key area that helps keep employees engaged. The more training you offer, the more environments are provided to work in, and that increases your ability to be flexible.”

“We’re actually upping the training level significantly,” agreed Schoen, speaking of the high-speed automated packaging lines at one of his client’s facilities. “Now workers are enabled to perform some of the maintenance as well as some other safety checks, which will get workers into a whole different pay zone as well.”

Finally, training doesn’t have always have to be machine or line specific. The more training you can invest in your employees, the more ready they will be to work in different environments, including supervisory, coaching, or other roles.

If you’re pondering where to start or improve options for your workforce, read on for Part 2 of this webinar-recap blog series, where our panel shares tips and methods to implement a workforce flexibility initiative at your company.

Read Part 2

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