Is “Flexible Work” feasible in a production, manufacturing environment?


I’ve spoken quite a fair bit on the topic of a flexible work arrangement and its benefits. However, as many of us would agree, the concept of a flexible work culture seemed to be more prevalent in specific industries or function. And those industries or functions often don’t include the manufacturing and production folks.

During a recent HR event, this very topic came up as part of a discussion I was engaged in with a fellow HR leader. We had a very spontaneous discussion around the topic, which I felt had some really good takeaways, which could help organizations in the manufacturing, production or even call center space when they are exploring the topic.

One of the first “objections” that came up during the discussion was that “we need someone to press the button on the production floor physically, and until we find a way to do that from home, we cannot have a flexible work arrangement”.

The thing is, there is a serious misconception that flexible work equals to work from home. That is just one of the many features of a flexible work arrangement. There are other factors to consider when offering a flexibility at work. There’s “Time”, “Location”, and even “Scope of work”.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the factor of “Time” and “Scope of work”, and let’s put this discussion into the manufacturing and production environment. We will do this by looking at the needs of the 2 parties, employer and employee.

One of the key constraints we face in the manufacturing/ production environment is the need for physical labor. Thus, as an employer, we will need the employees to be physically around to work!

Now, looking from the employee’s angle, one of the modern day issues that an employee has to deal with is the increasing demand on his/ her “time”. The make up of a modern family in most developed countries is much smaller. Many families also have a dual career track, which changed the dynamics and support infrastructure compared to decades ago.

The demand for family time and care is still there, but the availability of that “time” becomes a scarcity.

What’s more, the concept of a “8 hour work day” as we know it today is over a hundred years old. (You can read all about it on wiki) I guess it’s about time we need to relook at this very concept.

Coming back to the example of the manufacturing/ production environment. There are 2 factors that we need to consider when managing production capacity and planning for manpower demand.

  • Uptime – How long we need the production line to run?
    Will there be a need for shift coverage to maintain a certain level of production time ensuing a certain volume of output?
  • Competency – What skillset is required to operate the equipment/ to function for the specific task? And to what degree of competency?

For the many of us who’s taken a “Uber” car before would be familiar with the multiplier which is applied to the fare. It’s a love-hate relationship we have with this multiplier. During the peak hours, that multiplier could cause your fare to increase exponentially.

However, if we look at this from a supply-demand perspective, it’s an ingenious way to utilize real-time data to solve a capacity issue. (Higher multiplier would generally encourage more drivers to hit the roads, thus increasing the supply)

Let’s take a page out of Uber’s playbook. Employees are assigned a specific shift and station by default. Providing them a self service platform to swap shift and function would allow a great deal of flexibility for them to manage their time.

To compensate for shifts/ functions that are less desired, a multiplier on wage could be applied which will help balance supply-demand ratio.

If we take this one step further, we can move away from a 12 hours or 8 hours shift to having 4 hours blocks. This way there can be a lot more flexibility in time management.

Logic and rules can be built into the selection and scheduling algorithm to help mitigate impact on productivity and mandatory rest time for employees (from a health safety perspective).

There is another factor that we need to address. Depending on the training and qualification process, employees would have different selection made available to them based on their competency level.

By adopting the system, we will be able to create a self-motivation for employees to seek additional training and qualification in order to increase the selection for functions.

Putting the lens back on the employer, this will also allow a much more efficient skills inventory system.

While there are a lot more considerations and work that’s needed to put this into production (pun intended), I hope this article would serve as a starting point to a deeper conversation, in turn creating a real flexible work environment for all.

Cheers and happy weekend!

Eric

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