A Better — More Flexible — Factory

On a recent sweltering hot Sunday morning, an air-conditioned conference room at a remote corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center started to fill up by 7:00 AM with human resource professionals from the manufacturing sector attending the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference preconference session, Attracting and Retaining Talent in Manufacturing.

pre con photoSpeaker after speaker at the manufacturing workshop remarked on how impressive it was that so many individuals had gotten up so early to attend the session.

What brought many there was one mounting business concern: How do you attract and retain great factory workers in a career climate where many younger employees in particular aren’t even considering the sector as a choice?

In fact, some Millennials who accept positions at plants report to work on day one and then don’t show up on day two, explained Nooshin Nathan, the chief human resources officer at manufacturing firm JM Eagle, who spoke at the workshop.

It’s a gnawing problem, but many innovative manufacturers are finding ways to turn the tide, embracing the work-life concerns of their workers and testing and implementing programs and practices to make factory jobs more flexible.

The workshop was meant to share best practices and is the culmination of several years of research by myself and my colleague Kenneth Matos, senior director of research for Families and Work Institute and the lead author on a recently released report entitled Workflex and Manufacturing Guide: More Than a Dream.

Slide1A team from the Institute was on hand to share the findings, and the presentation included an array of manufacturing employers who told their stories about making their workplaces more work-life friendly and how that’s helped employees and their companies’ bottom lines.

The overarching message was the need to reach out to employees, find out what they want and try to make modifications to the factory floor in order to accommodate as many employees as possible.

Some of the attendees were concerned about how such changes could impact the production of goods, labor laws and matters of equity for employees.

“It’s about changing your mindset,” implored Matos, pointing out that all other industries are more likely to provide workflex than manufacturing. “Factory workers,” he stressed, “are leaving manufacturing for other industries that offer more flexibility.”

“Workflex isn’t just about telecommuting,” he continued. “It’s about how you work, and manufacturing can do better.” Employers need to find out what their employees are facing and come up with creative flexible options that can help. And concerns about equity are often sidelined when you create thoughtful alternatives, not a one-size-fits-all approach, he added.

One attendee raised the issue of how much of a “huge culture change” it’s going to take in order to bring flexibility to factories.

Matos suggested that employers frame workflex differently, talk about how flexible work options can create a more predictable workforce and work flow. Don’t even mention flexibility if you think it will spook your management or line managers.

Many supervisors are concerned that they won’t have workers on the line when they need them if workflex is implemented, but the opposite is actually true because you have the procedures in place to handle production when someone needs to be out to go to the doctor or care for an ailing parent.

There was also the recurring questions about how you make such changes in a union shop, particularly how you get feedback from the rank and file covered by a bargaining agreement.

One large manufacturer with some unionized plants (that was included in our report) used recurring employee satisfaction surveys to find out what employees needed, and they also worked with the union to set up pilot projects to test out flexible work options.

Sometimes flexibility comes out of necessity, as it did with AST Sensors that implemented a rolling furlough plan in the height of the recession—with the help of local labor regulators—during the bad economy. “Thanks to the cross training and new practices allowing employees to have more flexibility that resulted, the company saw a tremendous productivity improvement,” said panelist Bernadette Scarola, AST’s HR business partner.

Here are a few examples of what manufacturers can do to create a more predictable workforce:

  • Flexible work hours: Consider whether there are core hours where employee presence is necessary and secondary hours where more flexibility is possible. Perhaps require all employees to be present during core times and swap essential start/clean up tasks to give employees more flexibility around the edges. If employees can work independently, consider how they could adjust their start and stop times, breaks or workdays to take care of personal matters without having to use leave or incurring unnecessary overtime by going over their daily or weekly maximum hours.” Consider allowing employees to take vacation in one-hour increments for things like doctor appointments. For example, after Kraft Foods found that hourly workers in manufacturing plants were the least satisfied with their work-life integration of all the employee groups, the company started its Fast Adapts program. This program changed policies like requiring that production employees take their vacation in one-week increments and take their vacation time to address even issues that would only take a few hours. After Fast Adapts was instituted, employees were allowed to take vacation in one-day increments and use shift swapping to address schedule conflicts of just a few hours.
  • Compressed workweek: If possible, consider whether work can be compressed for particular work teams to allow employees more days off. The particular compression schedule would need to work for all members of the team, the production schedule and comply with local and federal overtime standards.
  • Parttime work: While cutting shifts in half may be unrealistic, employers could offer 16-hour shifts over two days a week with some Saturdays as a more realistic alternative to a full-time schedule. Part-time shifts between two full-time shifts can also provide more flexibility around key transition moments, such as the start and end of the school day.

Flexible Shift Arrangements

  • Alternative shift arrangements: Employers can make use of a variety of shift schedules to create a more flexible workplace. Talk with employees and see if there are alternative schedules that would help them meet personal and family demands without interfering with productivity.
  • Input into break arrangements: In certain workplaces, coverage demands require that employees take breaks at times scheduled by their supervisor. However, flexibility may be achieved by coordinating with employees to ensure their breaks coincide with needs, like medication schedules. Alternatively, employers can engage in break swapping with the same requirements as noted under shift swapping.
  • Split shifts: Split shifts allow employees to separate their shifts into two or more sections with a pause between each section.
  • Adjusted shifts: Consider whether the start, stop and break times for shifts can be better coordinated with other employee schedule demands, like transporting children to school.
  • Shift swapping: Workers voluntarily exchange shifts or workdays to manage personal and family responsibilities such as school events, medical appointments or caring for a sick relation. Shift swaps are best when the employee is responsible for arranging the swap, including finding the person to swap with and pursuing all required paperwork and approvals. In turn, employers should be clear on which employees are eligible to swap with one another, acknowledging issue like seniority, expertise and shift-specific knowledge. This method also helps managers be more productive by freeing them from the choice of doing extra work or denying flexibility.

Managing Production/Staffing Demands

Manufacturers with fluctuating production and staffing demands can use the following options to convert a contentious reduction in hours into a workflex opportunity. Even if employees don’t take advantage of these options, the opportunity to volunteer for an option that acknowledges their economic security will improve morale across the organization.

  • Incremental or proportional reductions: Employees choose to work some percentage of full time for the same percentage of wages and benefits. If paired with job sharing (where another employee works the difference) and changes in production demands, this can help turn reductions in hours into a bonus rather than a penalty.
  • Variable part-year schedules: If fluctuations are predictable in timing and/or length (e.g., three months every year or every summer), employees can work a reduced schedule during slow periods and full time the rest of the year.
  • Voluntary furlough: Employees are invited to volunteer to take unpaid time off with an expectation that they can return to their job when demand increases.
  • Creative use of time off: When employers must reduce work hours—such as during economic downturns or low demand periods—using time off in novel ways can create new opportunities, especially in unusal circumstances. For example, during the economic downturn of 2008-2010, Globe, a manufacturer of athletic gear for firefighters, reduced their work weeks from five to four work days. In order to retain their trained employees and minimize the financial hardship for their employees, Globe instituted a policy for those Fridays which were not scheduled workdays. If the employees met the goal for the four-day week (counted in numbers of units produced), then the company paid four hours of the fifth non-work day, and employees could choose to use any available Paid Time Off (PTO) for the other four hours or take the time unpaid.

Other Considerations

  • Economic security: Employers should consider how particular workflex options may impact employee economic security. Arrangements which put an employee into economic jeopardy will not be used and will damage employee morale and trust for their employer. Consider how employees might keep their benefits and service credit so employees are not penalized for using flexibility or volunteering for programs that help the employer manage payroll costs. Also consider whether there are ways to spread the costs to employees over longer periods of time. For example, spreading the pay loss to an employee taking unpaid leave over the rest of the year.
  • Overtime: What role does overtime take in your organization? Are employees dreading it or seeking additional hours and pay? Is your system for determining how, when and who will work overtime equitable with opportunities for employee feedback? Is overtime swapping a possibility under the right circumstances?
  • All hours are not equal: Employees may be able to find the flexibility they need by working unpopular shifts with fewer hours overall. For example, an employee may agree to regularly work the weekend shift in order to get weekdays to attend educational programs.
  • Minimum amount of time off: Employees often need an hour or two scattered throughout their schedules to meet their various responsibilities. Consider how time off and reduced time options could be more flexible allowing employees to take smaller increments of time off so that they can work as much as possible while still fulfilling their responsibilities.
  • Paid Time Off (PTO) banks: Fusing multiple forms of PTO (sick days, personal days, holidays and/or vacations) into a single pool of time can alleviate the complexities of deciding whether an employee has the right reasons for time off.
  • Reward great work: Consider providing employees with workflex coupons—rewarded for being consistently on time, helping fill in when emergencies arise or coming up with suggestions to help the production line run smarter—and provide 15 minutes to an hour off, for example, to be used when needed.

It’s all about thinking outside of the factory box and thinking of flexibility as a new way of working, not a way to a quick buck.

“If a leader heads down the workflex path to save money, they’re doing it wrong,” said session speaker Dave Lagerstrom, chief executive officer of TURCK Inc.


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