Can Workflex Work in Manufacturing?

By Roy Maurer Jun 28, 2015
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Anne Weisberg

Anne Weisberg, senior vice president, strategy, for the Families and Work Institute, addresses the Attracting and Retaining Talent in Manufacturing preconference workshop Sunday. Photo by John R. Anderson

LAS VEGAS—A bevy of senior leaders and HR professionals put forward the case that flexible work arrangements are not only possible on factory floors but are successfully being implemented and are yielding measurable returns in employer branding, employee satisfaction and worker productivity.

Dozens of representatives from the manufacturing sector participated in a lively preconference workshop June 28, 2015, on redefining workplace flexibility in order to attract and retain talent in their sector at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition.

The workshop was put together by SHRM and the Families and Work Institute (FWI), partners in the When Work Works initiative aimed at helping companies adopt flexible workplace policies and practices.

Is workflex possible in manufacturing? “The answer is yes,” said Ken Matos, senior director of research for FWI, “so long as you don’t get bogged down in the idea that workflex is only defined by one or two specific things. It’s greater than telework,” he said. “We try to redefine it as a dynamic partnership between employers and employees that determines how, where and when work gets done in ways that work for all. It opens up the idea of looking at it from a work process perspective.”

And the results are measurable, Matos said. “Because workflex is about effectiveness and efficiency, you can look at how it is affecting turnover, how it is affecting bottom-line results and see what it’s doing for the company.”

The common presumption is that flexible work practices are impossible to implement in the manufacturing sector, with many fearful to bring up the concept. And many of the presenters related reactions of incredulity and pushback.

“Educating our leaders at the top and our supervisors has been the biggest challenge,” said Michele Green, senior vice president for HR operations and senior director of HR for USG Corp., a building materials producer headquartered in Chicago. “You get the looks like ‘how on earth do you expect that is going to work?’ ”

When Craig Porter, president and owner of Plasticert, a plastic-injection molding company based in Lewiston, Minn., brought up the idea of flexible work practices in 2011, the then-owner said, “We don’t want our people even thinking about something like that.”

Since acquiring the company, Porter has begun instituting a workflex strategy and has been working to change people’s mindsets “up and down the chain” about traditional, rigidly set work hours.

“For workflex to be successful, human resource and other leaders must reinvent how they strategize around and implement workflex for their specific organizational and employee needs,” Matos said.

“I tasked our HR team to think differently,” said Dave Lagerstrom, president and CEO of Turck Inc., a global company based in Germany with facilities near Minneapolis that develops and manufactures technology products. “How can we better engage our employees? And it’s important to note that if a leader sets down this path to save money, they’re doing it wrong. You’re doing this for your employees, end of story,” he said.

Globe, the world’s largest manufacturer of protective gear for firefighters, based in Pittsfield, N.H., instituted flexible paid leave and scheduling policies for its production staff after a month of planning, coordinating schedules and adjusting child care, commuting and other arrangements. Workweeks were shortened to four days, and Globe paid employees who met their weekly goals for half of the fifth day, allowing them to use paid leave in half-day increments to make up the difference.

Additionally, the company switched from requiring 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. workdays to allowing employees to select any start time between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. with a correspondingly later end to their shifts. “The changes have been highly successful, with few complications,” said Gayle Troy, HR manager for Globe.

Plasticert and American Sensor Technologies, an international company that manufactures pressure sensors at its Mount Olive, N.J., facility, cross-trained their production workforces so that employees are able to cover multiple positions in the production process. When a worker is absent, cross-trained colleagues can step in and contribute to high-priority projects. “This prevents production systems from being halted because an employee is unavailable, and the company can be more generous with time-off policies because the plant can keep operating when someone is out,” Porter said.

USG engages in a variety of employee empowerment methods. Based on employee input, the company attempts to institute shift structures that work best for each facility’s workforce rather than enforcing a single shift rotation schedule at all its plants. USG employees are able to coordinate their own break schedules, swap shifts with colleagues and buy vacation time as a benefit during open enrollment.

Over 40 percent of the workforce takes advantage of the opportunity to buy additional vacation time, Green said. “After eligible employees set aside a little bit of their paycheck every week for the additional week they can take off, they get a full paycheck,” she explained. “It’s one of our most popular benefits.”

Green said USG switched from a rigid attendance policy where every unexcused absence was written up and included in an employee’s record to a more collaborative attendance management approach.

“Now, employees are not automatically disciplined for every absence but receive a temporary ‘point’ for each absence. As those points increase, managers are expected to speak with employees—not just to enforce attendance, but to strategize around ways attendance can be improved. This has led to changes in schedules and shifts that have allowed more employees to fulfill all their commitments and improve their attendance,” she explained.

Of note: Almost all of the presenters’ organizations are union-free. When labor organizers in union-rich New Jersey “learn about our flexible workplace policies, they’re just hands-off,” said Bernadette Scarola, an HR business partner at American Sensor Technologies.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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