Flexibility in the Workforce

Brian Sandalow, Associate Editor

Metalcasting plants aren’t always thought of as the most flexible places to work. Employees show up for their shifts at a set time, diligently do their jobs, then go home, or so it was thought. But the norms of scheduling might be changing. Today, staff in all industries work with their supervisors to craft schedules that allow for more life balance and elasticity. And some metalcasters are no different. They’re offering staff on the shop floor the opportunity to devise schedules that work for their lives and needs, while still making sure their foundry gets their high-quality components out the door to customers on time.

“People often think what makes our industry different. The answer is they’re not,” said Jim Dillingham, a partner at Shiftwork Solutions, a consulting company that works with organizations with multi-shift operations. “Your people are just like the people that are in other industries.”

Why Flexibility Matters
It’s not news to anybody that unemployment is at an all-time low. Companies all over the country are scrambling to stand out and attract available workers. Beyond some of the more obvious draws (competitive compensation and benefits, modern amenities), foundries also can offer a flexible schedule to their staff.

“What’s important about a flexible work schedule in today’s day and age is that unemployment is so low,” Dillingham said. “It’s one of the bullets in your holster to attract a workforce, that puts you in an advantage over somebody else that wants to hire that same person.”

While that doesn’t allow workers to show up three hours late for their shifts or to start working when their supervisors don’t expect them to, it does mean more freedom. Using a 40-hour workweek as an example, an employee could choose the standard five days with eight hours apiece. But that isn’t always the best fit for the worker. Maybe somebody coaches their kids’ basketball games in the afternoon or needs to see a doctor who’s only available at certain times.

That’s where flexibility comes in.

AFS Corporate Member ATEK Metal Technologies (New Hampton, Iowa) has recently begun offering more flexibility to its staff. Teresa Weber, the company’s director of HR, said ATEK has tried to implement different things to allow people to flex – with notice – and work with other operators to accommodate their needs.

At first, the change wasn’t entirely smooth.

“It was a little confusing to people, as people almost preferred structure. But once they got used to it, it was a big boost for people,” Weber said. “Allowing people to work out their schedules, where possible, is fantastic. Sometimes it doesn’t work – sometimes we have to work Saturday or we have to do certain things. We’re flexible to the point that we can still run our operations the way we need to. We’ve been pretty clear about that.”

Dillingham echoed that.

“Management has to see if schedules can work,” he said.

Dillingham and Weber also know the importance of listening to their staffs. What the management thinks is flexibility might not be the staff’s definition, or vice versa. Both stressed the importance of listening to workers and understanding what they need.

Today’s workers want to be heard, and not dismissed out of hand.

“First and foremost, understand what you can and cannot be flexible on, and make sure your “cannots” are not just because it’s more convenient not to think about it,” Weber said. “Really stop and think about what you could be flexible with. There are things you’re not going to be flexible with. Those are things each organization needs to figure out on their own.

“It’s really easy to not think outside the box and what you can be flexible on.”

One place foundries can be flexible is overtime. Dillingham suggests giving workers the ability to choose when they work overtime, and the opportunity to trade with co-workers.

“Give workers predictability, let them know why it’s coming and know when it’s going to end,” Dillingham said.

That’s a lesson ATEK has taken to heart. Because of an increase in business, overtime has become a necessity. But ATEK has used overtime as an opportunity to show its flexibility.

Instead of assigning specific times, the company is giving options about when the work is done.

“Our biggest area of flexibility right now is if we need an extra eight machine hours per person, we give the employee the opportunity to do that during the week,” Weber said. “Whether that’s working a 10- or 12-hour shift or if they want to work on a Saturday or Sunday, we allow the employees to work that out and sign up for times that may work best for them.”

That also extends to part-time employment, which ATEK also offers. Workers can pick which days and hours they report, but ATEK asks they stick to a schedule instead of working at random days and times.

“That really helps the supervisors,” Weber said. “We try to provide as much structure around it for the supervisors as we can.”

Giving workers more freedom in their hours has multiple benefits (recruitment, morale) but also brings challenges. For one, it means supervisors have to keep track of who’s working when, opposed to the standard shifts.

For smaller companies, that might not be too much of an issue. For a place like ATEK, that can bring headaches.

“It’s a lot easier to do with a couple office people instead of 150 production employees. It’s definitely a balance,” Weber said. “The more flexibility we create, the more work it puts on the supervisors to really manage through that.”

ATEK is working through that challenge. Employees sign up for when they’re working, so shifts can be managed more efficiently. And as Dillingham warns, flexibility also means supervisors aren’t always working with the same combination on crews, making it tougher to assure that all skills are covered.

“Don’t offer a degree of freedom that makes your company less productive, competitive or efficient,” he said.

It’s also crucial to make sure employees aren’t working too many hours. Not only can that brush up against labor laws, but an overworked employee is in danger of being fatigued, which can lead to an increased risk of injury. ATEK also always makes sure there’s several people in the plant when work is being done, so it avoids staff being alone.

But even with some of the headaches, Weber and ATEK see the benefits. They have a different and positive dialogue with their staff, and it’s part of getting them more involved with the direction of the company.

And though the flexibility is relatively new, Weber sees other benefits coming down the line.

“Some of the initiatives are fairly new, so we haven’t used as a recruitment tool, but it has set us apart from other industries in the area,” Weber said. “That word travels fast.   

Click here to see this story as it appears in the February 2019 issue of Modern Casting