Employee Engagement Employee Recognition

How to improve employee engagement in manufacturing

According to statistics, the manufacturing workforce is the most disengaged of any sector.

Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace Report found that only 25% of employees in the sector identified as being engaged in their work, the lowest average of any industry. There are numerous causes of this, ranging from labour shortages, to outdated policies and practices, to public perception of manufacturing roles.

So what can people leaders in the sector do to turn the tide? How can they make their team happier, more productive, and truly invested in their work?

In this blog, we’ll talk about why employee engagement in manufacturing matters more than ever, and how you can go about improving it within your organization.

The importance of employee engagement in manufacturing

Employee engagement can have a massive effect on productivity, employee wellbeing, and even on recruitment due to how closely it ties to your employer brand.

But for manufacturers, arguably the most pressing reason why manufacturing employee engagement matters right now is retention. With older workers retiring, the sector is currently facing a labour shortage which could cost up to $1 trillion in lost output by the end of the decade in the US alone.

This makes it all the more crucial for manufacturers to retain the talent they do have, and do everything they can to make sure they are invested in their careers long-term. Ensuring they are engaged and happy with their work environment is a crucial part of that.

Creating an employee engagement plan for manufacturing

Improving employee engagement in a manufacturing organization can seem like a daunting task for even seasoned HR professionals. How do you bring about wholesale cultural change in such a large, diverse organization? How do you know what will make an impact? And how do you even measure the success of something so intangible?

However, as our podcast regular Kwesi Thomas pointed out recently, creating a plan to improve engagement is, at its core, like any other project or people initiative. That means you can apply the same principles as you would to any other project management task. He suggests:

Defining the problem

What exactly is causing low engagement at your company? Is it a morale issue? Is it a workload or personnel issue? Defining the problems in your culture will help give your engagement strategy direction.

Planning initiatives

Once you have a clear understanding of the biggest problems at your company, you can put initiatives in place that actually work to address them. That could mean anything from planning more social activities, to refining your career development plans, to offering more flexible schedules. 

The important thing is to be strategic about what you’re planning, and make sure the initiatives you put in place actively work to alleviate some of the issues. For example, if your employee surveys show that your staff don’t feel appreciated for their work, a recognition program is an ideal solution. But if the problem is that they feel overworked, you might also need to rethink some of your management approaches and production processes or recognition won’t do much to move the needle.

The other thing to remember is that there’s no single silver bullet to boost engagement. You’ll have more success if you put a few different initiatives in place in tandem, rather than trying to find a magic solution that fixes all of your problems. 

Setting goals and timelines

Whatever you include in your plan, you should have clearly defined goals for your initiatives. This could mean participation rates for programs or activities, improvements in productivity, or more macro goals around eNPS, retention, or career progression.

You should also set a clear timeline for when you expect to hit your targets. Improving manufacturing employee engagement takes time, but it also can’t take forever, and you’ll need to be able to show at least some of the results of your efforts as things progress.

Measuring and improving

As you move forward, you should measure your success against your targets regularly, and be ready to tweak things if you aren’t seeing the improvements you’d hoped. You should also check in regularly with your employees and seek their feedback on your programs and the changes you’re making, to see if they are resonating with them.

15 employee engagement ideas for manufacturing industry

When we think about what makes great culture at Guusto, we often come back to our POW Model, which highlights 3 crucial components: Purpose, Opportunity and Wellbeing.

These areas are a good starting point when considering manufacturing employee engagement, too. With that in mind, here are a few employee engagement ideas that focus on these 3 cultural pillars.

5 ways to give your manufacturing employees purpose

If you can give a manufacturing employee purpose, they’ll approach their work with passion, rather than just seeing their role as a job to pay the bills. 

The problem is that a lot of manufacturing employees, particularly those on the frontline, can become quite disconnected from the bigger picture of the company, and not understand just how crucial their work is to helping your organization reach its goals. Here’s how to change that.

1. Change perceptions

In the modern era, manufacturing has something of an image problem. Where once it was seen as a sector teeming with new innovation, it’s now viewed as stodgy and mundane by a large portion of the public.

The reality is far from that. As Leading 2 Learn CEO Keith Barr said in 2018, “The industry is more dynamic and complex than it used to be. There’s more technology, more data, more analysis, more creativity, more gamification, more critical thinking, and more problem solving. Factories more closely resemble a space station than a rust belt.”

Bringing some of these more innovative elements to the fore in your culture can help you change your employees perceptions of their work, and encourage them to take pride in being part of your company. Highlight the innovative processes you're implementing, the exciting products your employees are helping to build, and the vital contribution your sector is making to modern society.

2. Communicate the big picture

Further to that, it’s important that employees at every level of your organization understand and value the contribution they are making to your success. Take time to share wider company goals, targets, and results, and be clear about the role your team is playing in these accomplishments. This will help employees feel like their work has real meaning, and make it more fulfilling.

3. Align your employees’ work with your values

If your company has core values, they shouldn’t be just meaningless jargon in employee handbooks. Core values are meant to guide how employees approach their day-to-day work, and ensure that their actions match the culture you’re trying to build.

If you’re trying to improve employee engagement in manufacturing, it’s worth assessing whether this holds true at your company. Do an exercise with your managers, or even entire groups of staff, and see if they know the company’s values, and how they think those values translate to the work they do in their specific roles – how they solve problems, how they interact with others, what they prioritize. 

Aligning everyone across your company to act according to your values can help unify your culture, and ensure everyone from the frontline, to the head office, to support staff are on the same page about what kind of company your organization should be.

4. Connect different departments

Another way to help unify your culture is to try to connect people a bit more. Large manufacturing companies can become quite siloed, with limited communication between staff in different departments or locations.

You can create more opportunities for people across your organization to come together and form bonds. Run team-building exercises where factory floor and office employees work together, or host retreats and social events that give staff from different locations a chance to meet up. You might even find that these initiatives create opportunities for collaborations and innovations across different branches of the company that you hadn’t considered.

5. Focus on social impact

A lot of manufacturers contribute to charitable and social impact initiatives at an organizational level. If your company does this, highlighting it to your employees could be very beneficial at improving manufacturing employee engagement. It’s always nice to feel like your work is doing some wider good in the world.

You can also introduce initiatives that allow your team members to give something back at the ground level. Offer volunteer days to employees who want to do some charity work, organize charity drives in specific departments and teams, or whatever else you feel might give your employees an outlet to contribute to causes they are passionate about.

This aspect of your culture’s purpose might resonate especially strongly with younger workers. 64% of millennials won’t take a job if a company doesn’t have a strong sense of social responsibility, meaning it could play a big role in your ability to recruit and retain employees in the next decade. 

5 ways to promote opportunity in manufacturing companies

One of the reasons manufacturing employee engagement tends to be low is that jobs in the sector can sometimes be perceived as ‘dead-end’ positions without a lot of room for growth. 

In a thriving, engaged culture, your team should have opportunity, not just to advance their careers, but to grow and develop as people, learn new skills, and have a voice in your organization. That way, they’ll be more likely to want to stay long-term at your company. 

Here’s how to build opportunity into your manufacturing organization.

6. Promote learning and development

The first and most obvious way to create opportunity in your company is to focus on learning and development. Whether through in-house training, mentorship programs, or stipends for external learning, your team needs to have an opportunity to develop new skills and take control of their career direction.

It’s important to make sure these opportunities are available to everyone, regardless of their department or job function. You shouldn’t, for instance, offer learning and development initiatives for your office staff but none for your assembly line. This merely reinforces that you don’t see their job as having paths to advancement, and aren’t prepared to invest in their growth.

7. Create clear career pathways

On that point, it’s important to show all of your employees that they have clear paths to long-term advancement at your company. If assembly line workers have opportunities to progress to supervisory or management positions, make sure they all know that from day one. 

If there are opportunities to move further up the ladder, such as pathways to head office roles, make them aware of those, too. All of your employees should have a clear picture of the possibilities your company offers them.

What’s more, you should highlight and celebrate employees who do progress in their careers. These people can serve as examples of what’s possible to newer employees, and inspire them to work on their own development.

8. Hire for the long-term

It might sound overly simplistic, but a big part of trying to improve retention in manufacturing is hiring people who want to stay. When recruiting new employees, seek out candidates who are excited to get into the industry. Illustrate the advancement opportunities, learning and development initiatives, and career pathways your organization offers, and demonstrate the potential of a long-term career in manufacturing.

Of course, some manufacturers will always need short-term or seasonal employees alongside their full-time staff. Even in these situations, though, you should treat candidates as potential long-term hires, and showcase the opportunities on offer. You never know when you’ll find a candidate who is impressed with your culture and begins to consider it as a long-term career option.

9. Create open feedback channels

One complaint that’s often cited as causing low engagement in the manufacturing industry is communication between head office and the frontlines. As one Operations and Logistics Manager said in Axonify’s 2023 Deskless Report, “We don’t have a good system. We try to email, but 60% of people don’t check it. We run 24/7, but we don’t have time built in to do communication meetings. All meetings are voluntary and happen during breaks.”

This is a familiar situation in a lot of manufacturing organizations. Communications and feedback are poorly managed, minimal, and one-way. Employees don’t feel they know what’s happening in an organization, or that they have a voice in it.

To remedy this, focus on creating open feedback channels between different departments and arms of the company, with an emphasis on bottom-up communication from your frontlines. This gives your employees a chance to communicate what matters to them, and to feel heard.

10. Cross-training

One of the biggest challenges with trying to create advancement opportunities in manufacturing is the systematic nature of production processes. As much as you might want to give your frontline employees opportunities to learn, they may still need to be on an assembly line doing the same thing day after day. Giving them the chance to spread their wings while balancing that with your production needs and targets can be tricky.

A potential solution is to embrace cross-training for employees in different functions and tasks, so that your team members aren’t stuck in one role all the time. This will make your organization as a whole more agile, while also making it easy to find meaningful growth opportunities beyond that.

5 ways to improve manufacturing employee wellbeing

Last but not least, employee wellbeing will likely play a crucial role for any HR professional looking to improve employee engagement in the manufacturing industry. 

Manufacturing can be a tough job, with long hours, high pressure to deliver on targets, and physically demanding work. Employees at every level are starting to feel the strain, and looking to their employers to do more to help them look after their wellbeing. Here’s a few employee engagement ideas that manufacturing companies can put in place around this area.

11. Engagement activities

Employee engagement activities in the manufacturing industry can be somewhat limited. Although some companies do a better job of this than others, the systematic nature of the work makes it hard for leaders to create much space for social events, team-building exercises, and other initiatives like volunteer opportunities. While organizations will often run events outside of work hours, these can be viewed as a chore by some employees as they take time away from their personal lives.

But even if it's difficult, there’s an argument that making the time to offer your employees these activities (whether inside or outside of work) is worth it. Social and team-building activities help strengthen bonds between employees, improve morale, and even foster communication between different team members who wouldn’t otherwise interact with each other. 

12. Inclusivity

Another major focus your HR team should have when it comes to employee wellbeing is inclusivity. The manufacturing workforce has always been diverse, with employees in different departments and levels having vastly different backgrounds, education levels, and personalities.

As companies strive to attract new talent into the sector, that diversity will only increase. Employees who are new to the country, who speak different languages, and who are used to different cultural norms and working approaches are becoming more and more common, and it’s up to you to make sure that these employees feel like they’re a part of the team.

Accomplishing this could mean anything from running Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging training workshops for staff, to establishing Employee Resource Groups, to smaller gestures like offering employees time off for specific religious and cultural holidays. The more you do to make every employee feel like they belong at your company, the more engaged they will be.

13. Flexibility

The rise of remote and hybrid work has been a big contributor to the current manufacturing labour shortage. Faced with a choice between working from home with a flexible schedule and working in-person with a very strict schedule, many employees are choosing the former. 

But while manufacturers obviously can’t offer the option to work from home, they can at least become more competitive by offering a bit more flexibility. For instance, using flexible scheduling tools to allow employees to choose and swap shifts more easily can help them better manage their work alongside other commitments. You could also consider offering more PTO, or even experimenting with 4-day work weeks in order to gain an edge in the talent marketplace.

14. Wellness challenges

If you want a manufacturing employee engagement activity that has a very direct effect on your team’s wellbeing, running a wellness challenge or a similar initiative is a great bet. 

These kinds of programs can come in all shapes and sizes. You can set your team's simple goals, like running or walking a certain distance in a month, or incorporate different types of exercise, offering points for different activities. You could even put people in teams and encourage a bit of healthy competition if your employees are game. 

You could also incorporate mental wellbeing elements, such as practicing meditation or cutting down on screentime, as well as diet by encouraging your team to eat healthier or drink more water during the challenge.

For best results, think carefully about your team and what they would respond to, and set achievable targets so that as many people as possible participate. You can also offer prizes and incentives to encourage people to take part.

15. Employee recognition

Last but not least, a great way to improve your team’s wellbeing, and to drive engagement as a whole, is employee recognition.

Showing your team some appreciation will make them feel happier and more valued at work, and could even be used as a tool to drive participation in employee engagement activities, learning and development programs, and other HR initiatives. When used strategically, recognition can be one of the most powerful tools at your disposal to change your culture.

Using recognition for manufacturing employee engagement

If you want to learn about how recognition can help drive employee engagement in manufacturing, check out Employee Recognition for Manufacturing:The Complete Guide. This free eBook takes you through:

  • The key challenges facing the industry today
  • How recognition can help
  • The challenges of implementing recognition in the sector
  • How to do it successfully

The guide also includes a free fillable worksheet to plan your own manufacturing recognition program! Fill out this form to download your copy:

Employee Recognition for Manufacturing

The complete guide to building an impactful recognition program for the manufacturing sector and a culture where your team can thrive.

Noah Warder

Written by Noah Warder

Noah is the Head of People at Guusto and loves sharing his insights, experience and knowledge when it comes to HR and People practices. He is always up for a conversation on how best to support employees to make safe and inclusive work cultures.

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