Enabling Workforce Mobility

Why the manufacturing sector shouldn't get left behind.

Flexible working: Is the manufacturing sector getting left behind?

All businesses want to improve output, and with 89% of people saying that flexible working is one of the biggest motivators to productivity, it makes sense for employers to give their staff the freedom to organise their working day.

Once limited only to the employees of the most technologically advanced companies, the last ten years have seen flexible working become mainstream. A recent study conducted on behalf of Vodafone reported that 75% of companies have now introduced some kind of flexible working policy.

With the UK Government now supporting employee’s rights to request flexible working (a law that came into place in 2014 ), it seems we’ve finally accepted that flexible working really can, and does benefit the economy. Flexible working not only alleviates stress , but has been shown to reduce absenteeism. People who are allowed to work more flexibly have greater control over their lives. They can fulfil personal obligations, cut commute times and work at a time when they know they can accomplish the most .

Vodafone’s report, which collected responses from SMEs, public sector organisations and enterprises also reveals the benefits for employers, with the majority of businesses believing their performance has been enhanced by allowing employees to vary their hours or work from home. 61% of respondents said profits had increased, 83% said they had seen an improvement in productivity and 57% said that adopting flexible working policies had been good for their external reputation. Allowing flexible working also been proven to boost morale and improves trust between employers and employees.

With technology now so advanced that it allows secure sign in to most systems through cloud hosted technology and VPNs, there are fewer excuses as to why most businesses can’t offer flexible working and yet, it seems the manufacturing sector is lagging behind.

A recent study undertaken by HSBC in November 2017 revealed that less than a quarter (23%) of manufacturing industry employees have the option to work flexibly. Perhaps it’s no surprise that that this is significantly lower than the professional services industry, but what few people would expect is that it’s also lower than that of the retail, hospitality and leisure industries as well .

Whilst machine operators and assembly line workers once dominated manufacturing, less than half are now employed in production jobs . This should, in theory, mean there is a greater opportunity to provide workplace flexibility for manufacturing employees such as managers, office workers and technical staff. Also, despite the misconception that the UK manufacturing industry is on a continual decline, the ONS reported that UK manufacturing actually grew by 1% in the third quarter of 2017 . We are still the world's ninth largest industrial nation with manufacturing making up 10% of GVA and 45% of UK exports. UK manufacturers directly employ 2.7 million people, a significant chunk of the population - so what it is that’s holding us back from offering more flexible working?

Too much focus on process and production

The nature of manufacturing means business owners have always been focussed on product output, quality improvement and driving efficiencies through Lean and Six Sigma processes rather than through the people themselves. This tunnel-vision approach means manufacturers haven’t been able to take a full view of where productivity is really lacking in the business, or how better management of people could cut time, costs and allow workers to be more effective.

Not enough investment in technology

Technology is the catalyst to productivity and is crucial for flexible working. Investing in the right infrastructure gives staff secure, compliant access to documents, ERP systems and emails from wherever they’re working. However, a 2016 report from the Confederation of British Industry has warned that the UK may be facing a digital divide, with over half (55%) of “pioneer” firms adopting digital technologies and processes, while the other half (45%) are falling behind. The report found that 70% of the technology sector classify themselves as pioneers, compared with only 17% of manufacturers, placing them in the position of laggards when it comes to digital adoption.

Difficulty in changing mindsets

Adapting to change can be difficult for any business, but in an industry where shift patterns have traditional been the norm and a large numbers of staff work on the factory floor, the idea of flexible working can take both employers and employees out of their comfort zones.

In a 2016 report produced by Lancaster University’s Work Foundation, more than a third (37%) of medium and large size business managers stated that implementing mobile working would result in them working longer hours, one in five (22%) said it makes them feel disconnected from their team and 28% felt it could block them from overseeing the work of others . In addition, despite all employees having the right to ask for flexible working, many are still afraid or feel unable to do so . In an industry that’s been dominated by a male workforce (85% male compared to just 15% female in manufacturing ) requests for flexible working are far less likely to be ringing around either the office or the factory floor. In fact, a recent study held in Australia showed that men feel discouraged, harshly judged and that their career has been jeopardised by asking for flexible working. They were also twice as likely as women to have their request for flexible working rejected.

What does the future hold?

With all of these factors in mind, are we still set to see a change in flexible working in the manufacturing sector? Well, things are certainly looking promising. With Lancaster University predicting that flexible working will be the main way of working for 70% of organisations by 2020, the manufacturing sector will certainly be under pressure to catch up.

HSBC’s survey also shows that attitudes in this sector are positive. Whilst only 23% of manufacturing employees do have the option to work flexibly, 91% of them confirmed that working more flexibly improves their motivation and productivity at work . With technology continuing to evolve at such as rapid rate, hopefully it won’t be long before concerns around visibility, collaboration and feeling disconnected are left firmly in the past.

Is it time for you to review your flexible working capabilities? Our 16 page guide, which includes a full review of how Microsoft’s products can be put to their full potential in the manufacturing sector can be downloaded here.

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