Can manufacturing staff be flexible? (Spoiler: There’s a lot to be gained – especially in unpredictable times)

Flexibility: it’s a word that’s thrown around quite liberally in business these days. And when it comes to ‘flexible workforces’ many organisations and employees alike enjoy the benefits on offer.

Since COVID-19, this situation has only been amplified and now a large majority of office employees demand more flexible work arrangements. The result tends to be better productivity and a happier, more committed workforce. 

But what about the manufacturing industries?

Understandably, the traditional state of play has been specific shifts, at specific times, doing specific duties. Considering the cemented nature of plant and equipment, it’s easy to imagine these constraints can never change. But when you think about it there’s still a surprising amount of wiggle-room manufacturing organistions can adopt for the betterment of all.

Looking at the studies

According to research by the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), Australian manufacturing employment accounted for a quarter of our workforce throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1970s changes in technology, products, regulatory environments, global supply chains, off-shore competition, and competition from service sectors have driven down Australian employment in manufacturing. This became a trend with all advanced manufacturing economies globally. 

It wasn’t until 2015 the downward trend reversed and Australian manufacturing enjoyed a welcomed recovery. But in 2020 COVID-19 turned everything around again with the loss of 56,600 manufacturing jobs in the second quarter of the financial year. 

It’s now obvious that, if our manufacturing industries are to prosper in uncertain times, they need to be agile in their processes, output and staffing. 

Predicting the future

Like all areas of the economy, stability only arises when world order hums away without a glitch. Since so many tangibles now hinder that equation, planning for uncertainty and sudden change is probably the wisest approach. 

Whilst that may sound ominous for our manufacturing industry, it’s not all bad. Many Australian manufacturers in the Chemical sector, for instance, enjoyed an upswing during COVID-19. And as a result of overseas stock shortages, freight delays and disruptions, some manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors say their suppliers are considering ‘reshoring’ production back to Australia to prevent supply chain disruptions in the future.

Also, in a recent study by UniSA, Professor Emily Hilder discusses the competitive advantage our manufacturing industry offers. The Australian Government also recognises this and has invested heavily in the sector to boost growth – especially as a means of bringing the economy out of the recent downturn. 

All in all, manufacturing in Australia could be viewed as being as highly viable as it is vulnerable. 

Delivering resilience through flexibility

Traditionally manufacturing relied on workforce expansion and contraction to ride economic peaks and troughs. In today’s rapidly changing environment, this model of employing/retrenching staff can prove problematic:  Recruiting reliable, well-trained workers with Australian working rights is time consuming, expensive and difficult – especially with the current talent shortages. It’s also not easy (and traumatic) to lay off staff quickly – should a sudden downturn occur. 

The solution?  Keep full-time staff levels at a minimum (relying on your best people) and accessing a dedicated pool of temporary, part-time and contract workers to meet demands. 

Of course, the key word here is ‘dedicated’. This overcomes the issues with non-familiarity of plant and process with new workers and alleviates the need to retrain people on a regular basis. 

As for ensuring staff are dedicated to you, it’s well known that employees (both full-time and flexible) remain committed to employers who are considerate, supportive and treat them well.

What does a flexible manufacturing workplace look like?

According to a 2018 Mercer Talent Trends Study, 51% of manufacturing employees want more flexible work options. We suspect this percentage has only increased over the past few years – making the transition to flexible working options welcome.

For your office workers, days in the office plus days at home each week can be easily adopted.

For those on the ground, there are a number of solutions that can be offered.

Flexible Contracts

Having a pool of short and long-term contractors to call on can be a great backup for sudden production spikes, sickness cover, maternity leave or specific project hires. Contractors are usually covered with their own insurance and can be negotiated for very short to extended timeframes. Contracts can usually be rolled over to cover additional needs, as well.

Flexible hours and shifts

Employees often find flexible hours as a significant boost to their work/life balance – particularly if they have young children to get to school, or pick up from day care. 

Consider this:  What if a dedicated group of people can begin work at 6am, and another at 8am? Or if employees could swap shifts with their co-workers when necessary? (In doing so, they’d be able to fit in odd life-administration events, rather than having to take time off for an appointment.)

If you establish flex hours or shift swapping, you may need to establish:

  • Who/number of people allowed to swap shifts during the month
  • The approval process
  • If you need scheduling software to avoid administration errors

Compressed or short work weeks

Many industries already take advantage of compressed work weeks – from nursing to firefighting. Essentially, they enable staff to work longer days but less days per week. This option is usually adopted with three 12-hour workdays followed by four days off. Alternatively, some organisations offer 9-hour days with every second Friday off; or four 10-hour days per week. 

If production has to be wound down dramatically, you may even ask your teams if they would like to reduce the number of days they work per week, rather than needing to retrench anyone.

Job sharing

Job sharing enables two people to share a single position. This means, Monday to midday Wednesday can be worked by one person, and the other person works midday Wednesday to Friday. If required a handover can be performed when the employees swap over.

Job sharing is a particularly useful for organisations that need capable backup for specialised duties. It allows the more experienced person to train the second person – providing a safe solution, should your key person become sick or even plan to leave the organisation.

Do benefits outnumber the issues?

We believe they do. Indeed, we think the future of manufacturing will depend on having good flexible staffing arrangements. It simply allows organisations to expand and contract on demand. It also opens the doors to a wide range of talented workers they may otherwise miss. And, once a regular pool of trusted workers has been established, training, onboarding and administration issues become far less of a problem. 

It’s simply a matter of identifying which individuals you would like to be key, full-time team members and consulting the rest of the staff on their working preferences. We think you would be surprised at how many of them would be open to flexible hours and conditions. 

Sourcing your talent pool

To take the difficulty out of sourcing reliable, experienced contractors, Occulus can provide you with exceptional talent for every level of your supply chain and operations. We’ll obtain a thorough understanding of your business and develop recruitment solutions that are uniquely tailored to your requirements. 

To discuss your blue and white collar talent requirements across Logistics and Supply Chains, Production and Manufacturing, Engineering and Trades, feel free to contact me for a non-obligation chat

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