Becoming a World-Class Manufacturer Through Work/Life Strategies

Aug. 29, 2007
A healthy and well-balanced workforce will most likely contribute to a healthy bottom line.

Manufacturing organizations are facing tough competition and the impact has been huge on both the employees and the companies. The frequency of corporate layoffs, downsizing, organizational restructuring, leadership changes, spin-offs, acquisitions and mergers has increased dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years. During these corporate transitions, employees encounter incredibly stressful experiences and fail to adjust well to the changes. As a result, employee productivity, morale and motivation, loyalty and commitment, and productivity are often grossly compromised.

Increased corporate dependence and expansion of sophisticated manufacturing processes that require the use and understanding of technology (e.g., lean, six sigma) usually require a pool of skilled and knowledgeable workers. Contrary to employers' expectations, employees are not able to update their knowledge, skills, and attitudes at the same pace of the technological change, producing stressful demands that impact performance. These sophisticated work processes and technologies require that today's employees successfully complete in six months what yesterday's employees completed over a lifetime.

And there is an accelerated push toward globalization to achieve competitive advantage. The most effective global organizations recognize that globalization centers primarily on "how" to do business not "where" to do business. The emphasis on "how" is process-oriented, and the subsequent expectations for workers have drastically changed.

For example, employees must expand their capacity to work in differing environments (e.g., virtual teams), situations (e.g., multiple time zones) and with diverse stakeholders (e.g., co-workers, management, customers). Within the globalization context, work is conducted everyday, 24/7 across multiple shifts, and the pile-up of stressful expectations on employees is considerable.

Finally, there is an increased level of diversity in the workforce, particularly noticeable in manufacturing companies. Over the past 25 years, radical shifts have occurred in workforce demographics: decrease in the ratio of traditional families (i.e., husband as breadwinner, wife as homemaker) to dual-income families; increase in the percentage of families expected to provide caregiving to both children and aging parents; and the aging of the workforce. Similar to organizations, the pace and complexity of structural change within families is considerable and stressful. Without the advantages afforded through corporate-sponsored support systems and resources, employees cannot respond in healthy and productive ways.

Work/Life Strategy: A Solution for Competitiveness during Corporate Change

One of the many ways that manufacturers are managing corporate change and becoming more competitive is through the strategic implementation of Work/Life policies, programs, practices, and benefits. Work/life initiatives can be an internal source of competitive advantage that is often difficult to replicate. In many ways, work/life initiatives provide employees with a support system of healthy options that help them manage and cope with stressful work and life events.

As examples of the stress existing between the domains of work and family, please consider some of the following findings from the available work/life research:

  • 46% of working parents have children under age 18 living at home
  • 33% of employees worry daily about child care
  • 25% of employees possess eldercare responsibilities
  • 50% of employees experience at least one significant stress-related work/life conflict every three months
  • Work/life stress-related issues cost companies in absenteeism nearly $300 billion/year
  • 50% of mistakes/errors made by employees is due to work/life conflict
  • 70% of employees report no balance exists in their work/life situation

Rresearch has shown that ignoring the needs of an employee's work/life situation and not developing a work/life strategy to address these concerns is often a very unproductive business strategy for both employees and their employers. In stark contrast to the approaches being taken by traditionally minded manufacturing organizations, over the past 20 years, pacesetting manufacturing concerns have realized that a business case exists for implementing a work/life strategy, and that it is possible for both employers and employees to reap a number of positive benefits associated with offering work/life assistance.

Four Reasons "Why" Manufacturing Companies Should Implement a Work/Life Strategy

1. Productivity Increases.

The presence of work/life initiatives results in significantly increased corporate productivity through increased employee concentration/focus, improved innovation/creativity, better teamwork, increased training transfer, reduced absenteeism, tardiness, and turnover. Research has shown that work/family conflicts contribute to a high percentage of absenteeism and tardiness.

Manufacturing concerns are particularly vulnerable to this consequence. For example, absenteeism due to emergency caregiving can cost employers, per year, $4,000 per employee having child-care responsibilities and $1,200 per employee having elder-care responsibilities. Proactive companies have boosted productivity by offering employees services such as temporary back-up/emergency caregiving centers, consortium centers, information and referral call centers (sometimes called Work/Life Resource Centers), and flex-time schedules to help them manage their non-work involvements. Employees reward organizations that demonstrate awareness, sensitivity, and attention to work/life issues by being healthier and providing effective and efficient work on behalf of the organization.

2. Improved Recruitment, Retention, and Reduced Turn-over.

In 1950, the average longevity of an employee with an organization was approximately 22 years. Today, the average tenure of an employee with an organization is just over three years. Turnover is expensive and seriously erodes the bottom line. With the shrinking workforce talent pool, the need for companies to implement strategies to recruit, retain, and reduce turnover of their best-qualified talent has mushroomed. Studies have shown that companies with innovative and diverse work/life initiatives are extremely successful in building better applicant pools in finding and retaining the best talent. One nationwide study found that scheduling flexibility was the single most important factor influencing new talent recruitment. Work/life initiatives such as telecommuting, rapid reimbursement plans for travel and educational assistance, caregiving subsidies, and flexible work schedules have been hugely successful in offering increased job security and keeping the best of the best.

3. Improved Job Satisfaction, Morale, Loyalty, Commitment, Motivation, Organizational Citizenship, Volunteerism, and Engagement.

For the past 30 years, the Gallup Organization has examined the U.S. workforce and determined that a majority of companies are not fully benefiting from the strengths and talents of their existing workforce. Gallup has determined that while 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged, another 20% is actively disengaged, costing the U.S. economy nearly $400 billion annually. Smart companies realize that one of the best ways to improve the bottom line is to assist employees maintain their levels of engagement by being able to integrate their outside/non-work roles into their working roles through programs such as job-sharing and shift-swapping.

4. Improving Corporate Image, Attracting Investors, and Enhancing Customer Satisfaction.

In today's world of corporate scandal, investors are looking for signs within the workplace that point to corporate character, responsibility, and respect for others. Numerous studies have shown that when companies treat their employees well with progressive human resource programs such as work/life initiatives, stakeholder investment increases along with the long-term profits of the organization.

Pacesetting corporations that are committed to work/life initiatives also report higher customer satisfaction scores because their employees are not as distracted with the worries, anxieties, and turmoil of their non-work obligations.

Convinced? The Basics of Getting Started

There are a wide variety of available work/life initiatives and numerous ways to implement them. In examining several research studies, the most frequently used initiatives include: EAP programs, family-related leave for sickness or school functions, flexible spending accounts, on-or-near child-care sites, onsite vaccination programs, wellness/fitness programs, credit unions, and tuition reimbursement programs. Other initiatives include flex-time and telecommuting.

However, before implementing any work/life initiatives, it is critical to understand that the presence of work/life initiatives is not enough to impact the bottom line. There must be a game plan. It is generally believed that the greatest financial impact occurs when work/life initiatives are effectively bundled and aligned with the strategic goals of the organization. So, the driver of success for selecting and implementing work/life initiatives begins with the strategic mission and goals of the organization.

Want more competitive advantage? If so, remember -- a healthy and well-balanced workforce will most likely contribute to a healthy bottom line -- and a work/life strategy properly developed and implemented is one great solution for achieving this goal.

Michael Lane Morris, Ph.D., is an associate professor and program director of Human Resource Development in the Department of Management in the College of Business of Administration, the University of Tennessee. Presently, Morris serves as the President-elect of the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). Morris' specific scholarship interests include human capital metrics; evaluation strategies; occupational stress; health and wellness; work/life interface issues; positive psychology; teambuilding, and diversity.

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