5 Tips to Empower Frontline Factory Workers

Manufacturing workersAlthough manufacturing factories no longer comprise the bread-and-butter of our economy the way they did 30 years ago, millions of people in the U.S. still earn their living at industrial plants. And although a lot of factory work involves mind-numbing routine, employees must be adept with the technology involved in a modern-day plant.

Given the increased reliance on technology and the diminishing number of people with a manufacturing background, retention of staff is vital for the success of the business. Employee empowerment is one of the most effective ways to keep employees on-board and engaged.

As a manager, while you may not always have the power to change pay, benefits or company policies on a whim, you probably have wide latitude to empower your employees. You may not realize how much you can do, so we devised five suggestions to help:

Five tips to empower frontline factory workers:

1. Clearly communicate goals and information

People want to be “in the loop” — it’s just human nature. Research consistently shows one of, if not the most important factor in whether employees feel empowered centers on the level of communication between management and non-management. With more communication comes more trust, which then leads to higher engagement and productivity.

So as a manager, you must adequately communicate goals, performance, missions and other relevant information to employees. Factory workers may not have a corporate email address, so you have to get creative. You can print out company memos and hang them in the break room. You can all-hands meetings regularly. And, of course, you can use mobile applications such as Red e App to disperse information to employees in a more fluid, user-friendly environment.

Whatever your methods, do whatever necessary to get messages top-of-mind.Of course, front-line employees can’t know every morsel of company information at all times. However, if questions arise about factory operations, company plans or anything else you don’t know or can’t answer at the moment, you owe it to employees to be upfront. Let them know that you can’t answer their query and why. Then, if possible, provide a timeframe for when they will receive the information.

2. Give employees a voice

Not only should employees go to work clearly understanding the values and mission of the company, they should have a voice in their daily roles. Many assembly lines now use the andon-cord principle, an innovation originally crafted by Toyota. When workers at the plant would see a problem with a car, they pull a cord that stop the entire assembly line until issues were readily addressed. Not only does this help curb defective products from moving across the chain, it empowers workers to make decisions about whether products are able to move to market. Consider implementing this system if your plant hasn’t done so already.

Not only should employees have a voice in individual product decisions, management should also give credence to ideas brought forward regarding company operations and overall plant/factory management. By giving people a voice, you can be sure these people will be far more engaged and excited to contribute to the company’s success.

3. Maintain good relations with the union

Relationships with unions can be rocky. As battles over pay and benefits become tense, both management and union leaders often resort to hostile language to get their point across. Common refrains include, “The union’s demands are unreasonable and are a non-starter.” A union response follows that sounds like, “Management puts the profits of people ahead of the safety and well-being of workers.” Even when your company and the union engage in heated negotiations, you cannot let anger seep into conversations with workers, the press or on social media.

Employee empowerment depends on your restraint in these times because unions exist to protect workers and negotiate better employment terms. If you trash the union at the top of your lungs, it can come across as trashing the employees of that union – likely leading to a very unhappy and unproductive workforce.

4. Address tensions among workers adequately and fairly

As the paradigm of employment in factories has changed, many industrial companies now operate on a two-tier compensation system. This means that long-tenured employees get paid on old plans negotiated by the union, while newer team members get paid on a different scale that comes with less money — often a sizable discrepancy. Needless to say, this can create resentment.

Managers probably can do little, if anything, to adjust the pay structure, so take the route of candor. Explain the system and detail as much as possible what the employee can expect after certain tenure and performance. Listen to any feedback the employee might discuss and offer to take suggestions up the chain of command. If concerns repeatedly arise or the employee poses queries you feel uncertain about answering, respectfully refer them to human resources rather than shoot off speculation.

5. Show support for career development

Not everyone at the factory wants to just come to work, do the task at hand, and collect their paycheck. Many employees want to enhance their professional value, and one of the most important tasks a manager in any industry plays is career development. Show employees that you want to help them move upward in their career trajectory.

If someone expresses interest in plant or factory management, don’t feel threatened by your own job. Rather, allow them to get a glimpse of your day-to-day roles. If someone is interested in moving into the corporate offices of the company, perhaps introduce them to people based there.

Also leverage clear communications to ensure employees are aware of professional development opportunities such as in-house training programs and tuition reimbursement. Employees often don’t even know these opportunities exist. When they do, they take advantage.

10 ways to engage non-desk employees

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