Successfully engaging a workforce is a dark art, and one that business leaders can spend an entire career trying to perfect. Getting it right, though, is vital. Research by Kronos has shown that an engaged workforce is as much as 70% more productive, 78% safer and 44% more profitable. The organisations they work for will enjoy 70% lower staff turnover and 86% better customer satisfaction. When people leave a company, 60% do so because they don’t feel engaged.

However, with the rise of Industry 4.0 and the increased use of technology in the workplace, the challenge of ensuring an engaged workforce is changing. A fear of automation supplanting many ‘traditional’ factory roles has led to disengagement, and many see the growth in technology as a threat to their personal autonomy.

That was the topic of debate for a group of industry leaders from across the UK, who met in Birmingham in June to discuss their methods of engagement, the impact technology is having on their sites and their hopes and fears for the future.

Open communication and regular feedback

Before looking at introducing technology, the delegates all agreed that the first step was to ensure the workforce is engaged and ready for the change. Trying to introduce a radical change too soon can often be met with apathy or even outright hostility. This was highlighted by Kirsty Wainwright, production manager at The Glenmorangie Company, who tried to use technology as a way of simplifying shopfloor operations. “When I first started, it was a real nightmare trying to work out shift patterns and production schedules,” she said. “It took ages to work them out. As a company, we’re quite tech-savvy, so I looked at a better way to organise shifts.”

Wainwright and the team set about developing an app that would send shift notifications to workers’ mobile phones. A no-brainer, they thought – it would make it easier for staff to request shift changes, meant the company could easily send out announcements and reduced the reams of paper stuck to walls. In reality, however, the move proved to be a bit of a damp squib. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a lukewarm response to an idea,” admitted Wainwright. “There was a small uptake, but the majority wanted the shifts to stay on the boards, not their phones.”

It was at this point that Wainwright came to a realisation, and one that resonated with the other delegates in the room: she had not consulted with the staff about the changes. “That’s how they’d always done their shifts, so why would they want to change it? If they want to swap shifts, they can just talk about it on the shopfloor. As a result, the app has just become a bit of a chore.”

Quite often, however, preparing people for change can be quite a challenge, not least for Adam Batting, operations director at Fujifilm Speciality Ink Systems in Broadstairs, Kent. “We made a bit of an error early on our engagement journey,” he said. “We just enforced everything and assumed that everyone would be on-board. We have a lot of people at the factory who have worked there for 40 years or more. They didn’t want to change the way they did things. As a result, our progress inevitably stuttered.”

Batting explained how the company had found a relatively easy way of rectifying the issue: offering ways for the shopfloor operators to give feedback. “We use techniques like anonymous comment boxes, townhall briefings, cell meetings, toolbox talks and so on. Once we had given people an outlet to vent their problems, it helped get them on board with any changes we were looking to make.”

The trouble with feedback, though, is that you often have to take the rough with the smooth. “Getting feedback is always scary,” continued Batting. “Filtering out the bits you need is the hard part: if people really love an idea, or really hate it, they’ll tell you pretty quickly. It’s the swathe in the middle that are a mystery. In the past, we’ve been guilty of taking a scattergun approach to making changes on the shopfloor – trying lots of things and seeing what sticks, rather than trying things one at a time and asking for regular feedback. If you don’t then act on that feedback, not only will you put off the ones who commented, but you’ll also deter those who have good ideas but haven’t spoken up about them – they just won’t see the point in doing so.”

John Pozzoli, manufacturing manager at Crowcon, was facing a similar problem. “The biggest issue for us has historically always been in following through with our best engagement ideas,” he said. “More often than not, we launch a bold new scheme just to see it fizzle out. That can turn people off more than if we’d just left things as they were.”

This isn’t an uncommon problem, said Rab Scott, head of digital at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Fixing it requires long-term commitment from senior management, he explained. “If the guys at the top don’t keep it up, even the best idea will never work. Once people realise that an idea is yesterday’s news, they won’t come back to it tomorrow.”

Crowcon have acted on this already. “We’ve installed a giant kaizen board on the shopfloor,” explained Pozzoli. “The senior team reviews all the kaizen activity at the board – and we make sure we give direct feedback. We found that if we took the discussion ‘offline’, into an office away from the shopfloor, the feedback would never make it back to the originator of the idea. That can make them feel alienated and stop them submitting improvement ideas in the future.”

Using tech to engage the workforce

Stopping that alienation of the workforce is something that global industrial services provider Leadec have struggled with as they have tried to introduce technology to the shopfloor. “Our workforce is aging, so we often find it hard to get people to engage and change the way they work,” explained the company’s HR director, Maralyn Kitchingman. “As a case in point, we recently launched an app across the whole company, worldwide. It was designed, similar to Glenmorangie, to act as a tool for the company to communicate directly with our employees. Our older workers, however, haven’t engaged with the app at all.”

Wainwright proposed a solution to this issue. “Our engineers are supposed to use iPads to track their work,” she said. “However, they often claim to have forgotten their login and would rather just work on bits of paper. We have a very modern facility, so have to sit down and tell them that forgetting their login isn’t an acceptable excuse. To combat this, we have introduced something called Tech Tuesdays. This is a forum for people to ask any tech-related question – even something as simple as how to book a meeting room using their iPad. This has helped get people on board with the newer technology we’ve introduced.”

Similarly, for Crowcon, a recent investment in technology – again, iPads – has helped engage not just long-term staff but also new starters. “We give out tablets that contain work instructions, risk assessments and so on,” said Pozzoli. “This way, all the information is in one place, instead of on out-of-date bits of paper stuffed down the back of people’s desks. It’s cost us a couple of thousand pounds in tablets, but it’s really engaged the workforce in training. It’s also shown new starters that, as a company, we’re moving in the right direction.”

Taking tech to the next level

Discussion then turned to the future of workplace technology, and in particular how it can be used to monitor employee behaviour. “In the brave new world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there’s a lot of discussion around monitoring workforces, and going beyond looking at cell performance towards individual performance,” said the AMRC’s Scott. “Many companies are trying to do this, but simply don’t know what to do with the data.”

It’s not just in monitoring people that data is getting confused, said Batting. “We’re monitoring a lot of things on-site, and we spew out data at an alarming rate, but aren’t tying it all together and doing anything meaningful with it. I can tell if a machine is running too hot, or our water consumption is above average, but I can’t necessarily work out why just by looking at the data.”

Adam Titchen, membership development manager at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, suggested that one solution to Batting’s issue may be to employ a data analyst. This is becoming increasingly popular in today’s connected world, he said, adding that one local member had “hired a data analyst, purely speculatively, without even knowing what they were going to do.”

This idea didn’t come with a strong recommendation. Indeed, many of the delegates were scathing of the concept of hiring a data analyst at all. Glenmorangie, explained Wainwright, used to employ a one, who would cause more problems than they solved. “She used to take great pleasure in showing me dozens of spreadsheets and dashboards,” she said. “It didn’t mean anything though. In short, nobody cared about her data! It became a real issue when we asked people on the shopfloor about their efficiency, for instance. ‘I dunno,’ would be the reply. ‘I’d need to ask the data analyst about that.’ In the end, we had to stop her coming to meetings, because the team would look to her for their answers.”

Before long, however, we will be in a situation where monitoring data is commonplace. Scott explained how the next step will be to monitoring individual workers. “You can already monitor things like pulse rate, perspiration and even eye movement,” he said. “Tired workers blink more. As an example, in mines in Australia, there are cameras in the cabs of the diggers that monitor the drivers’ eyes. It can take 45 minutes to drive from one side of the mine to the other, so if you call them in for their rest break and they’re already tired that could get dangerous.”

The benefits are obvious, he said, but selling the idea to your workforce is going to be hard. With good reason, they will assume the worst – that you are “monitoring them for nefarious reasons, not to try and improve their working conditions.”

Engaging staff in this comes down to the way you sell the idea, said Batting. “Operators are a suspicious bunch, so as soon as you start tracking them they’ll assume you’re about to sack them,” he argued. “In reality, we just want to make the way they operate a bit better. If you just start off by saying ‘we’re going to measure what you’re doing’, you’ll get resistance; people don’t want to be monitored – they get visions of George Orwell. However, when they realise they aren’t getting measured for a ‘bad’ reason, but to make their lives easier, you will get more engagement. It’s a tough sell though.”

Conclusion

Whatever the future has in store, employee engagement will remain the key challenge for companies, the roundtable concluded. The rise of technology like automation will bring its own hurdles – most notably, the perceived threat to jobs that robotics will bring. However, it can also bring substantial benefits, especially when training new starters.

As with any change, the implementation of new technology must be approached correctly. Rush it, and you will alienate the workforce. Done properly, though, you will reap the benefits of a connected, healthier and more productive shopfloor. Technology will be vital in encouraging the workers of the future into manufacturing, as today’s children are growing up in a world of smart phones, super-fast internet and even connected TVs. If they step into your site only to be met with reams of paper-based instructions, they will become instantly disengaged.

Other key quotes from MM’s roundtable:

“People will only sing the praises of their job if they are engaged with it.” - Rab Scott, AMRC

“We’ve given out chocolate to reward people, and had people complain that they don’t like that particular brand of chocolate.” - Kirsty Wainwright, Glenmorangie

“Empowerment is all about having the confidence to tell someone that you’re not happy with the way they are doing things. That needs to be encouraged more in business.” - Maralyn Kitchingman, Leadec

“At our townhall meetings, the MD reports on the targets and how the company performed against them, but the only question that gets asked at the end is ‘do we still get our bonus?’.” - John Pozzoli, Crowcon

“There are numerous charities and organisations in the UK that are focused on getting youngsters into STEM; there’s a danger of all the messages becoming replicated.” - Adam Titchen, EEF

“If a sensor isn’t telling you anything important, turn it off!” - Adam Batting, Fujifilm SIS