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Flexible Working in Manufacturing


In our latest HR leaders’ webinar, we considered the challenge of implementing flexible working practices within food and drink manufacturing. The food and drink industry tends to have unique challenges and our webinar series is a chance for key decision-makers from the sector to compare their experiences and discuss solutions.

Attendees were asked to consider the following two questions as the basis for a broader discussion around the themes of flexible working in manufacturing:

  • What solutions have you already implemented, or are considering implementing, with regards to offering flexible working or additional benefits to those in operational roles?
  • What do you think the impact will be on employee welfare, engagement and the broader business?

Flexible working was defined as:

“… a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.” GOV.UK

Consultants from our HR, Manufacturing & Engineering, and Supply Chain teams were joined by HR professionals representing food and drink businesses across the UK. Each shared many similarities in the challenges they face. The key themes of the discussion are shared below.

Flexible working is an emerging trend that has been accelerated by COVID-19

Attendees agreed that flexible working has become an important benefit during the last few years. This is especially the case for those within support functions, with compressed hours and working from home arrangements, for example, becoming commonplace. Often, candidates will prioritise flexible working arrangements over salary when changing jobs and are reluctant to move if they aren’t guaranteed the same level of flexibility elsewhere.

Even before COVID-19, the flexible working trend was beginning to impact manufacturing. For example, some employers were beginning to find it easier to attract operations talent if they could offer flexible working in addition to other traditional benefits. One individual noted how it is younger people entering the workforce driving this trend: “Work-life balance is particularly important to young people now, as well as concerns for the environment. Twenty years ago, neither of those things were discussed at job interviews.”

It was agreed that “plugging engineering talent gaps” will require attracting more younger people into the industry. Flexible working, it is assumed, will become a key factor underpinning successful talent acquisition and retention strategies. Significantly, COVID-19 has enabled HR leaders to prioritise implementing flexible working within a manufacturing context. As one attendee noted, “It's unlikely that we’ll be able to offer the same level of flexibility to manufacturing staff, as we do office-based employees, but I do believe some outside-of-the-box thinking is required to conceive unique solutions that enable everyone in our business to enjoy some degree of flexibility.”

Business leaders that have been traditionally sceptical about flexible working within factory settings are now willing to engage with HR on possible solutions. “What the last year has demonstrated is that different ways of working are possible,” said one attendee. “We’re opening up a dialogue with sceptical individuals on the basis that things have changed and the way we worked in the past isn’t necessarily the way we’ll operate in the future.”

A ‘one-size-fits-all’ model is impracticable

Several benefits are associated with flexible working. The broad objective of ‘achieving a work-life balance’ means different things to different people. Working from home, for example, makes childcare, as well as caring for sick or elderly relatives, easier. For some businesses, attendees highlighted that having staff working from home improves productivity. Others noted how home-working has also enhanced employee wellbeing and led to a reduction in absenteeism.

The downsides of home working were also discussed. Certainly, during the last 12 months, attendees had noted various distractions associated with home working, such as parcel deliveries or unexpected visitors (e.g. salespeople), which can be disruptive. Home-working can also have an adverse effect on employee mental health. People who live alone have struggled during the last 12 months. Those who have been able to keep in regular contact with family members, friends, or work colleagues, have fared better because of those support networks.

Businesses are nervous about a potential breakdown in communication between remote employees. Being together in an office facilitates idea-sharing and other collegial behaviours. Furthermore, being onsite also makes it easier to resolve conflicts. One attendee noted: “We still acknowledge the importance of physical proximity at work. There’s definitely a need for a balance between the two models. Just because it poses a challenge, though, doesn’t mean you can’t find a solution that works for everyone.”

Setting realistic goals and expectations is essential

As we begin to enter a period of relative normality, compared to the last 12 months, there will be permanent changes to working practices, especially for those who work in support roles. That includes opportunities to work from home more often. HR leaders are worried that those who work in operations will become resentful of office-based colleagues. Companies should acknowledge this potential issue now and seek ways to prevent any bitterness on behalf of employees within operational functions.

Attendees agreed that being clear “you’re not making any concrete promises” is the best way forward. Businesses should also review relevant processes and seek to understand employees’ needs and priorities moving forward. This process will help HR leaders conceive feasible solutions to offer flexibility for the whole workforce. “There is no right or wrong approach,” said one attendee. “You’ve got to do what is right for your company.”

One individual explained the challenge of trying to develop a one-size-fits-all flexible working model across a multi-site manufacturing business: “Different factories are more populated than others. And at smaller sites, for example, someone’s role is more integral to how that plant operates and therefore there are restrictions on how much time that person can work remotely or enjoy different shift patterns.”

Overall, attendees were enthusiastic about what they see as “definite positives” that have emerged during the last 12 months. COVID-19 will fundamentally change how and where people work. Consequently, companies will be “better places to work” in the long term.

A values-based approach must underpin a flexible working strategy

While it’s important to ascertain what flexibility employees want, educating people about the potential downsides of remote working must also be factored into the engagement process. All flexible working solutions have their pros and cons. And attendees were adamant that being realistic about what’s possible “on a case by case basis” will avoid making people feel like they’re being treated unfairly. Engaging with the company’s values should make this process easier.

Interestingly, companies represented at our webinar shared many of the same values. Some of the most common values included:

  • Employer of choice
  • People
  • A great place to work
  • Open-mindedness
  • Ambition
  • Courage

Food and drink manufacturers, like businesses in any sector, value their people and want to become recognised as an employer of choice. When it comes to flexible working, being ‘open minded’ is essential. Companies must also be ‘ambitious' about what they can achieve with regards to offering employees greater flexibility at work. And it will take ‘courage’ to change working practices, which have remained unchanged for decades.

Traditionally, people working within operations don’t like change. But HR leaders were certain that reminding those sceptical about flexible working what the company’s values are will be important in overcoming objections. A key factor is educating “old school” operators that flexible working is having a positive impact on the wider industry, especially around talent attraction and retention. “If we can create a flexible working policy that meets the needs of our people, and the business in general, then the company will become known as a great place to work – internally as well as externally.”

Employees value open and transparent communication

People enjoy coming to work if they feel valued and recognise that they are being listened to. As employees begin to return to offices and facilities, companies should ask staff “what does a work-life balance look like to you?” Communication will be important in ensuring everyone’s needs are met. Each business will be different if flexible working strategies are based on open dialogues with employees and reinforced by a feasibility approach vis-à-vis the needs of the whole organisation.

While some companies are still preoccupied with the impacts of COVID-19 on other critical areas, others have already begun the engagement process. Attendees highlighted the positive impact of employee surveys focused on flexible working needs. As one HR leader explained: “Our survey aimed to get individual perspectives on potential approaches moving forward. There’s been a really mixed response. What is particularly releveling is the appreciation shown by employees in operations who didn’t expect their views to be considered at all.”

While attendees noted that it’s still too early to say what their business will do with regards to implementing flexible working for those in manufacturing, surveys have been useful for “identifying potential pinch-points” and helping companies get prepared for when COVID-19 restrictions are finally lifted. Future communication, it was agreed, should highlight all avenues that have been investigated so that the process remains transparent. “This approach is better than just ignoring the issue altogether and hoping it will go away.”

Creative solutions are challenging the concept of factory work

HR leaders showed a great deal of enthusiasm for the potential flexible working solutions shared during the webinar. While some of these solutions are only proposed at this stage, some attendees highlighted the impact these changes were already having within their businesses. The proposed solutions were as follows:

  • Changes to shift patterns
  • Flexible core hours
  • Production related KPIs
  • Linking reward to productivity
  • Shift swapping
  • Part-time jobs/job sharing
  • Hiring resources on shorter contracts
  • Upskilling machine operatives
  • Adapting factory shutdown periods
  • Investment in specialist equipment
  • Offering free meals
  • Adequate provisions for breaks

Changes to shift patterns and flexible core hours

HR leaders representing 24/7 manufacturing operations noted the difficulty of adopting changing shift patterns. Those businesses that manufacture ‘long-life’ food products, however, indicated how shift pattern solutions are achievable. Examples discussed included employees doing 12 instead of 8 hours shifts, which allowed them to work full-time hours over 4 days instead of 5.

Imposed remote working during COVID-19 has led businesses to adapt shift patterns, and in some instances, create rotas for when certain individuals can be onsite. At one frozen food manufacturer, for example, key factory workers were split into three teams and rotated, whereby they worked three days onsite and two days off. Those employees struggling with childcare arrangements were also permitted to work from home when necessary. It's anticipated that changes like this will remain in place, given the positive impact they’ve had on employees’ lives. As one attendee noted, COVID-19 forced their business to adopt flexible and informal processes around the core hours employees work: “There is no rigid start and finish times anymore. All we ask is that people get agreement from their line manager before making a change.”

Monitoring the effectiveness of process changes is the key to success. While this may become a time-consuming activity, and in some cases involve Trade Union negotiations, allowing them to proceed is a positive step in the right direction.

Production related KPIs and linking reward to productivity

Regarding production-related KPIs, the example of a multi-site food manufacturing business was discussed. Factory workers at the business were told that if production targets were achieved by 30th December, then no one would have to work on New Year’s Eve. Targets were met and employees enjoyed an extra day’s holiday.

Given the impracticability of allowing factory workers time away from the site, attendees also highlighted the value of cross-functional opportunities. This helps provide production line staff with some flexibility and variety in their roles. At one business, for example, an attendee explained how production teams are getting involved with NPD. Cross-functional KPIs, it was suggested, could be a way to extend this initiative – “if everyone is working towards the same goal, then improvements are inevitable.”

Shift swapping, part-time jobs and job sharing

Generally, it was agreed that cross-functional opportunities and flexible working will help businesses attract a broader range of talent and boost diversity too. Shift swapping, part-time roles and job-share arrangements were also raised by HR leaders as ways to achieve flexibility within a manufacturing context. Attendees spoke of allowing employees to swap up to 8 shifts per month, enabling them to manage their personal lives more effectively.

At one business, an individual explained how a recent job share agreement within production had allowed an employee to return from maternity leave, and another to enter part-time education. “In the past” they noted, “that would never have happened.” Another attendee highlighted how flexible working had improved candidate attraction, including their ability to hire talent based in other cities. The business’s new head of NPD, they explained, commutes from Sheffield to Manchester three days per week. “If we hadn’t offered her that flexibility, she would never have joined. And she’s had a massive impact here, so far.”

Although still rare in the UK, part-time working within manufacturing is a method utilised by Swiss-based companies to enhance diversity. Manufacturers even offer part-time contracts for senior positions, which of course, facilitates better career development opportunities and helps make manufacturing a more attractive career for women.

Upskilling machine operatives and investing in specialist equipment

Finally, investment in training and technology, as well as being creative around employee rewards, are challenging traditional factory working practices. Many manufacturing businesses have a two-week shutdown period each year to perform equipment maintenance. In some sectors, this always happens at the same time every year. Investing in predictive maintenance technology, however, and training machine operators to do basic equipment maintenance, is reducing stoppages and making extended shutdown periods a thing of the past.

As one HR leader from a large food manufacturing business explained: “We deploy a lean methodology focused on training basic maintenance skills. Everyone on the line now can fix most equipment faults. This means we don’t have to rely on bringing in engineers to fix equipment as frequently. Production workers also take ownership for carrying out preventative maintenance on equipment.”

All attendees agreed that Continuous Improvement (CI) will be a focus for businesses this year. Employees, in some instances, have been pushed to the limit due to increased demand for goods during COVID-19. Identifying the risks that underlie production issues will ensure any mistakes that were made won’t happen again. Upskilling operatives to perform small fixes is certainly an obvious solution. And that also frees up time for engineers to focus on bigger projects. Longer-term investment may also include remote monitoring robots that notify engineers of equipment failure when they’re offsite. They can then assess whether to fix the machine immediately or add it to a maintenance schedule.

Offering free meals and adequate provisions for breaks

Given the demanding environment for food and drink production workers during the last 12 months, attendees were keen to highlight initiatives to thank employees for their efforts. These included having ‘hot meal’ vans visit facilities to provide free food for staff, as well as offering Christmas sandwiches to production workers at the start of the festive period. Buoyed by the appreciation shown from employees, HR leaders indicated their intentions to include similar initiatives in next year’s budgets.

Furthermore, plans to revamp canteens to make them “more refreshing and relaxing spaces” were also discussed. Attendees agreed that factory work is often a thankless occupation. Because of this, there is a pressing need to consider other ways to make factories nicer places to work, including creating spaces where workers can better utilise their downtime. Even improving the aesthetics of a site can have a huge impact on employee morale. Initiatives like these will ensure staff return to their machines feeling revitalised.

Implementing flexible working leads to several benefits

“Employees and managers agree that flexible working increases individual performance, and is more motivating than a bonus.” CIPD

Our webinar on flexible working in manufacturing revealed several potential benefits of companies who embrace the changes outlined above. They include.

  • Become a recognised employer of choice
  • Improve candidate attraction
  • Attract a broader pool of people
  • Impact workforce/board-level diversity
  • Hire the best talent in the market
  • Enhance engagement, job satisfaction, and loyalty
  • Boost employee wellbeing
  • Reduce absenteeism
  • Ensure the right people are in the right jobs
  • Create better career progression opportunities
  • Close the gender pay gap

If businesses start embracing flexible working now, it will quickly become a USP and help firms stand out from competitors. Those companies that refuse to change may struggle to hire the people they want, as well as retain key staff. COVID-19 has created an ideal environment for enacting these changes.

A flexible working culture and diverse workforce also make it easier to move talent into different roles and create lines of progression and other career opportunities. This can have a snowball effect. If companies can attract a broader pool of people and the best talent in the marketplace, employees will continue to challenge the business and encourage leaders to conceive different ways of doing things.

If people recognise your company as forward-thinking, ambitions and open-minded, then they’ll be excited to work for you. Engagement, job satisfaction, and retention will improve.

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