Working Time Solutions’ Kevin White discusses how workforce planning and management software can help simultaneously reduce the threat of strike action and strengthen labour relations.
Barely a week goes by without a news story about industrial unrest linked to shift patterns.
This summer we’ve seen hugely disruptive strike action by London Underground workers with the RMT Union stating that new 24/7 rosters show ‘no consideration’ for the work/life balance of its members.
There’s also been strained relations over shift changes at a confectionary manufacturing site owned by Nestlé in Newcastle, and a week-long strike at clothing firm Barbour and Sons in Gateshead.
It illustrates how working time can be a highly sensitive area of employee relations.
For many manufacturers the need to change resourcing patterns is pressing, with a fully optimised workforce and improved asset utilisation central to solving the “productivity puzzle”.
Tens of millions of pounds are wasted every year on underutilisation, unnecessary overtime and using agency staff to cope with busy periods – issues that can be addressed through demand-led rostering.
While the benefits of matching your labour supply to demand are clear, for many management teams the risk associated with altering legacy ways of working, engrained and restrictive practices or cultural norms is deemed too great.
These perceived barriers to adoption can be overcome if manufacturers take a considered approach to employee engagement throughout the planning, design and implementation phases of a working time change project.
For some employees, terms like ‘workforce optimisation’ and ‘flexible resourcing’ can be interpreted as management speak that masks job losses or inferior working conditions.
There’s often a natural human resistance to change, so building understanding around the rationale for a significant roster re-design is essential.
Leave a vacuum and it is likely to be filled by guesswork and negativity.
When the logic behind the project is made clear, most employees and other stakeholders will understand that inefficient, inflexible and institutionalised working practices pose more of a long-term risk to job security than any change to shift patterns.
Senior management has a vital role to play in helping overcome anxiety and scepticism, particularly in businesses where significant change is not a common occurrence.
Engagement needs to be led from the top with timely, authentic and empathic communications, helping to build trust, ensuring concerns are aired and addressed early and demonstrating the business’ commitment to participation throughout the process.
What about me?
While communicating the strategic drivers and business case is key, employees will want to understand the impact of change on their own personal circumstances.
Family lives are often built around working patterns so alterations can have a dramatic impact on earnings, quality of life and wellbeing.
Employee apprehension in this area is understandable but entirely avoidable if the benefits of demand-led rostering for the individual are communicated at an early stage.
It needs to be made clear that, through better demand forecasting and shift pattern design, the company can eliminate reliance on long hours and goodwill to meet peaks in demand.
For the workforce this translates into a better work-life balance and increased wellbeing with a reduction in overworking and greater certainty around holidays, working days and stand-by days.
Crucially a demand-led approach to rostering unlocks a broad range of options, making the process of shift planning and allocation more adaptable and responsive to employees’ needs.
This can include ensuring an equitable distribution of shift pattern types and providing the flexibility needed to meet different life-stages, lifestyles and changing personal situations.
Transparency & collaboration
The core principle behind workforce optimisation is ensuring that precisely the right amount of resource is available at exactly the time it is needed and that contingencies are planned for.
The data-validated model of demand needed to achieve this creates an important opportunity to engage the workforce and demonstrate transparency.
In many projects using this data in employee briefings is often the ‘lightbulb moment’ where trust and understanding is cemented.
Data can illustrate how business is increasingly operating in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) and how essential flexibility will be going forward.
Individuals recognise how this relates to their day-to-day role, which in turn helps them to understand the context for change and their importance in delivering it.
In many instances misconceptions, assumptions and differences of opinions during the planning process can be overcome by cross referencing the certainties contained within the demand data.
Potential resistance can also be overcome by engaging the employees during the shift design phase of the project, with technology having an important role to play.
Software can provide real-time interactive planning tools that help employees visualise the impact of shift changes for them personally and give them the ability to easily experiment with variants.
This allows teams and individuals to collaborate in the creation of patterns that suit them and their colleagues whilst staying within the parameters dictated by the demand data and regulations.
To minimise the risk of working time change-related disruption, manufacturers need to put employee engagement at the heart of their approach.
Often it is the fear of the unknown that drives resistance. A lack of visibility over the drivers and potential impact of shift pattern changes can leave employees feeling powerless and defensive.
Engagement isn’t just about getting workers and their unions ‘onside’. Empowering employees often unlocks additional insight and creativity that delivers enhanced project outcomes.
It’s essential that, alongside the strategic and operational considerations for working time change, there’s a genuine, tangible effort to communicate and be inclusive.
Aside from dramatically reducing the chance of industrial action, embedding the engagement process can serve to improve employee relations and help create a workforce that embraces and contributes to change.