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ML Journal June 2022

Leading the Way to Workforce Optimization

In a difficult hiring environment, investing in staff and fostering employee-focused cultures are essential.   

Employees are leaving jobs in record numbers, and meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the highest surge in manufacturing demand of the millennium—a 58% increase over pre-pandemic levels.1 This is forcing manufacturers to strategize regarding best practices for attracting and retaining a talented workforce.

As increasing digitalization creates a corresponding shift in employee expectations, manufacturers must provide appropriate solutions and environments to ensure success in today’s evolving professional world. Examples of this include options for remote work, interactive training, agile and rapid collaboration platforms, career development, work-life balance, and others.

Embracing Remote Work

Leaders must embrace a natural outcome of the pandemic: there are numerous arrangements for remote work. Though some job functions require time onsite, manufacturers can pull from a larger talent pool by reducing the need to hire based on location. This can simultaneously broaden organizational diversity, improving innovation and problem solving with multiple perspectives for input. Employees of different cultural backgrounds also often enhance an organization’s language and cultural fluency, extending global support and business opportunities.

Remote hiring can broaden organizational diversity, improve innovation, and expand global support and business opportunities.

 

Additionally, flexible remote work arrangements open the door to employees seeking a better work-life balance. Caregivers especially can find the demands of full-time and onsite employment, which may require a long commute, to be incompatible with demands at home, whereas a remote environment empowers them to structure work time according to their personal needs.

These flexible arrangements, where appropriate, can prevent the resignation of new parents and also attract talented individuals who previously placed their professional careers on pause to focus on caregiving. For example, organizational “returnship” programs, which help experienced individuals reenter the workforce following gaps in their resumes for caregiving, are particularly effective for increasing the number of women on staff.

Managing from Anywhere

Remote work has its share of challenges, particularly when it comes to managing a team. Clear communication becomes even more critical to set objectives and measurable metrics for success when teams and managers are not physically in the office together. Effective goalsetting and results evaluation are necessary for aligning vision and staying on target.

For example, a manager’s objective may be to improve product quality, measured by reducing product defects by 10% this quarter. By defining measurable metrics for success, managers empower employees to self-assess, and by avoiding overly prescriptive processes for achieving results, managers can foster autonomy and creative ways of meeting these objectives. Additionally, individual performance rubrics for advancement with clear milestones—e.g., “successfully leads and executes internal initiatives”—provide employees with the knowledge to improve company performance and advance their careers by independently taking initiative.

Written instructions and procedures for executing a job can be invaluable for familiarization and reference, but they are insufficient when not accompanied by on-the-job training.

 

Setting performance expectations is critical, but leaders must also provide the time and resources for professional development. Training opportunities provide teams with new or refreshed knowledge to attain success, fostering confidence in individual contributors, in addition to their manager and coworkers.

Standardized onboarding helps ease reservations associated with hiring people of different work and educational backgrounds. Written instructions and procedures for executing a job can be invaluable for familiarization and reference, but they are insufficient when not accompanied by on-the-job training. A team member can read a manual about performing maintenance on a pump, for example, but might not fully understand what to look for while inspecting seals until they have hands-on experience.

Interactive training is more engaging than static manuals because it requires learners to respond to instruction, thereby reinforcing knowledge. Shadowing and then performing functions under a mentor is often a helpful way to teach the intricacies of job functions not easily communicated in writing, and it provides experienced team members with the chance to validate newcomers’ performance, creating better relationships.

A similar approach can extend to implementing new tools or processes within an organization — present it on paper, test it in practice, and allow team veterans to validate the results. In an agile environment where technology is constantly evolving, willingness to learn and experiment can be just as important as previous experience.

Growing through Collaboration

When adding a new team member, providing the resources to learn the tools and processes associated with their role is not enough. Long-term retention depends on employees understanding how their role fits into the larger organization, and cross-departmental and cross-site communication can help individual team members understand shared objectives throughout the organization.

For example, a quality engineer may discover insights while performing root cause analysis on a seal defect and share these results to help an operations team member adjust procedures to prevent seal defects in the future. By further sharing this knowledge with other sites and implementing the same changes, teams can improve operations throughout the organization.

To emphasize the importance of knowledge sharing and the benefits it provides, leaders should hold forums spotlighting specific use cases. These forums can take the form of a group chat, a live presentation, or a more informal discussion, and gatherings like these advance business level objectives and individuals’ sense of connectedness to the team. And by sharing success stories beyond an individual team or function, employees receive an opportunity to be recognized for their work among a wider audience.

Exposure to additional departments and sites also provides career development opportunities, considering vertical promotion is not the only path to advancement. In some cases, horizontal mobility encouraged by cross-departmental connections may be just as—if not more—fulfilling because it enables employees to build a more diverse skillset, and better master the organization’s dynamics.

In addition to communicating successes, sharing lessons learned provides opportunities to learn from failures, which are also part of development. Open discussions about both successes and failures enhance understanding among a group and can uncover additional insights.

Performance recognition and career development opportunities are just some of the ways to support a people-first team culture. By prioritizing the respect and care of individual employees, these team members are more likely to remain loyal to the organization.

Cultivating Strong Connections

There are numerous factors that contribute to a job well done, and it is critical for leaders to recognize the factors motivating and detracting from team performance. Many individuals glean a strong sense of motivation from outside the workplace. Maybe they are training for a race, volunteering to help the community, exploring the outdoors, creating art, or traveling the world. By understanding a bit about team members outside of business hours, teams can cultivate more personal and meaningful connections, providing a deeper sense of community.

Leaders can play an important role in developing this type of culture by encouraging employees to pursue interests outside of work, as this can help reduce stress and prevent burnout. These messages need not occur exclusively in a one-on-one context as they can be promoted in teamwide atmospheres. For example, leaders can sponsor company lunches — catered in-person or virtually with meal delivery gift cards — or interactive teambuilding activities, intentionally providing time for people to share individual interests and life updates with their teammates. This helps to connect those with similar passions, while celebrating companywide diversity. This can extend to creating employee resource groups or committees for employees with shared interests, further nurturing team connections, and it can be as simple as starting a new messaging channel or email chain.

In an agile environment where technology is constantly evolving, willingness to learn and experiment can be just as important as previous experience.

 

Additionally, teams can celebrate milestones outside of work accomplishments. Parties to celebrate major life events, such as weddings and new babies, help create a family-like environment. These celebrations can be improved by finding the time and occasion to physically remove the team from its normal work environment to make the time together more enjoyable.

When leadership takes care of a team’s personal and professional needs, this vastly improves the quality of work, increases retention, and makes it easier to recruit new staff. Talented individuals often possess a talented network, and the work experience and job openings are sure to be shared with this network. When considering new candidates for the team without prior connection, introducing them to their potential team members during the hiring process can also provide them with a glimpse of the working environment before both parties make a partnership decision.

Breaking the Status Quo

Teams are comprised of individuals with many different interests, stressors, and motivators. To lead successful manufacturing teams today, more than ever leaders must venture beyond standard procedures to recognize personal needs and celebrate diverse talent, supported by a framework unifying teammates in a common mission. Employees who are professionally and personally satisfied not only optimize their individual productivity, but also enhance overall team production and experience by example, encouraging and challenging others to do the same.  M

About the author:
Katie Gates is the Director of Customer Success Management at Seeq. Prior to joining Seeq, Katie served as a nuclear engineering officer for the U.S. Navy. She has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s in engineering management degree from Old Dominion University.

1 Long, H. (2022, Jan 9), Why manufacturing workers are voluntarily leaving jobs at rates never seen before. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/01/09/why-manufacturing-has-seen-biggest-spike-workers-quitting/

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