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!



Redefining success and how we we measure performance!

One of the things that you hear me talk about quite frequently is the importance and need for work life balance. Over time, its evolved to become “work life integration” and maybe something else now.

However, I think all of us would agree that it means pretty much the same thing, our well-being. By this, I don’t just mean physical well-being, but also our mental well-being.

Our life is made of many different facets and work-life is just one of the many. There’s our family-life, social-life and personal-life. The list goes on and definitions may overlap, but when we place emphasis on one over the other, that’s where the imbalance and tension (stress) kicks in.

The word “Stress” has become one of the most commonly used word in the work place. Whether in jest or for real, the presence of work stress is becoming so common that it is now a part of life.

While some may argue that there are good stress and bad stress, let’s focus on the issue of stress and anxiety in the workplace.

The issue of burnout in employees is very real. The irony of the matter is we all know know to give our machines a rest, and that it’ll breakdown if it’s made to work nonstop. The parts wear out and is due for replacement, or that we need to send the car for servicing after clocking a certain mileage.

Somehow, we’ve all become superheroes when it comes to our own bodies. (My team would be giggling right now as there’s a picture of the Avengers in our office with our names against each of the superhero!)

Personally, I feel that the issue is partly self-inflicted. The availability of technology and the globalized nature of work probably played a part in making us all feel like superheroes. The ability to connect and stay connected feeds into this continuous flow of demand, making all of us feel the need to respond and engage immediately.

I will not argue that while this is the case for some professions, but I’ve also noticed that there are ways to mitigate this demand. Take for example, the doctors in the emergency room, they do go on shifts. Our family doctor’s got a stand-in when she goes on vacation.

I am fortunate to be working in and had worked for world-class organizations who have the same values as I in employees well-being.

Even so, i remember the conversation I had with a new hire many years ago in a company I used to work for. She joined us from an organization that in her words “doesn’t value work life balance”, and that was one of the things that attracted her in wanting to join us.

She was a superstar, her performance and work ethics was acknowledged by her manager just months into her new job. She was relentless in learning and had an insatiable appetite to take on new projects. Her capacity for work is just enormous!
After a year in her role, she’s back to working long hours with an enormous list of deliverable and feeling rather exhausted.

Some of us walk into roles with with load as high as Everest, while some of us have an internal magnet and desire to take on the world. We need to remember that it takes two hands to clap, and only we know how much is too much.

As an employee myself, I am sometime guilty of thinking I’m invincible and is capable of superhuman feats. As a father to two young children, I’ve come to appreciate how fast they’ve grown and if you’ve missed their early years, it’s not coming back. (And that’s a perfect excuse to invest in a good camera too).

I’m glad that I was able to make time for the kids and for my eldest, attend his every performance in school. Trust me, he does look forward to seeing his parents there. (He can be quite persistent in reminding me!)

As a manager, I made it a point to cultivate a “family first” culture in my team and support them in balancing their work and family life. We reinforce the message with a “no questions” asked policy within the team for family-related urgent time off.

I am half way through a very interesting book “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder” by Arianna Huffington. Arianna raised some really strong and passionate points about how we define success and the drive to achieving this.

I agree with her that there is a need to re-look at how we measure success and performance in organizations. A lot of organizations are already on board with making sure that their employees’ well-being are taken care of, and I’m proud to be to working for one such organization.

At a more macro level, I feel that this is a journey and evolution where organizations and managers undertake by being more aware, and translating that awareness to action.

What are some of the ideas you have on improving organization and employee well being? Have you put those ideas to work? What’s stopping?

Do share some of your thoughts below!


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

Eric Wong is ASEAN Talent Acquisition Leader at Johnson & Johnson. His experience spans across the various human resource functions such as HR Information Systems, Business Partnering and Talent Management. Eric currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). Connect with him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter @ErickyWong.

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