4 Ways to Fix Manufacturing’s Employee Engagement Problem

Manufacturing has historically low employee engagement levels, but there are ways to address them - even in the midst of a pandemic.

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The economic and generalized uncertainty posed by COVID-19 has uncovered many hiccups in the way we work, and this is particularly true in manufacturing. Although other industries have transitioned smoothly into the modern era of employee engagement strategies, manufacturing still lags. Manufacturing executives have spent $18 billion on this cause, but their investments have failed to overcome the industry’s unique obstacles. 

According to a report by Gallup, manufacturing employees are the least engaged of all fields surveyed, with only 25 percent saying they feel engaged at work. Common engagement tactics such as company-wide emails, individual events, or the occasional award won’t produce strong results on their own. In order to see real change, businesses need to go deeper to truly address sticking points within their company culture. 

Low employee engagement impacts many areas of a manufacturer’s business, but it’s especially costly when it comes to employee retention. In fact, employers should estimate the cost of turnover at 150 percent of a worker’s annual salary. Other impacts include low productivity and morale, which can spur accidents and unsafe behavior. 

Companies must find engagement solutions that ensure long-term growth, financial stability, and employee happiness, but COVID-19 has compressed the months manufacturers could have taken to map out this kind of program i. So where should you  start? 

Addressing Challenges 

The leading causes of low employee engagement typically center around a few key areas.

  • Not communicating in a satisfactory manner is one widespread problem. And with more employees trusting their companies over the government in regard to safety, manufacturers now play an even more significant role in helping employees understand how to operate and behave. Additionally, manufacturers are managing multiple generations in one workforce, and each has its own unique way of communicating. If you don’t reach everyone with a common communication tool or platform, you risk alienating employees.
  • Many manufacturing companies must also manage complex procedures that don’t exist in other industries. Maintaining engagement requires extra effort to ensure safe processes and the ability to have meaningful conversations with union leaders.
  • Some manufacturing employees don’t feel like they can enact change, and nothing kills motivation like feeling your voice isn’t valued. A great example is annual company surveys: Organizations send these surveys out year after year, but they inadvertently do more damage than good because they don’t act on feedback.

When you add the “next normal” posed by COVID-19 to this mix, boosting employee engagement becomes even more challenging. Because plants have adapted to this shift and have restricted the number of employees on their floors due to social distancing mandates, we’ve seen significant changes in the way plants function. Companies (and managers in particular) must be sure to clearly and efficiently communicate expectations and changes to frontline employees. 

Thankfully, the pandemic also gives companies an unparalleled chance to transform — not because they want to, but because it’s absolutely necessary. Here are four strategies manufacturers could adopt to improve employee engagement. 

1. Develop a regular bidirectional cadence of news and information. This can be daily, weekly, or monthly — whatever makes sense for your organization. Just make sure communication between leadership and employees goes both ways. Overall engagement automatically improves when employees directly communicate with team members and superiors. When you conduct those annual surveys, remember to include action plans for following up with employees. Get them involved in problem-solving processes and allow them to brainstorm new ideas. This can foster a sense of ownership in operations — a power move for engagement.  

2. Shape your positive culture around a peer-acknowledgment program. Everyone loves receiving shout-outs from peers, and it’s even better when management highlights that praise. When done thoughtfully, simple awards demonstrate appreciation for employees’ diligence and connect workers who might be feeling particularly isolated.  

3. Find ways to learn more about your employees. At many companies, there’s a strict line of separation between management and frontline workers. Some leaders might think this keeps things professional, but adding a personal element to your communications helps unite your team and increases loyalty. It’s one thing to leave a job — it’s another to leave friends. 

To form positive relationships, leaders should be accessible to employees. Foster engagement by consistently remaining visible, approachable, and receptive to ideas and concerns, whether they’re professional or personal. Leaders and managers who get to know employees better can more accurately judge whether problems at work are permanent issues or a result of temporary personal factors. Workers in lower-paying positions are more likely to deal with financial instability, for instance, which can cause other problems like absenteeism. 

4. Implement career development and coaching programs. Some engagement issues stem from a lack of education about the field or a lack of knowledge about the product. Providing opportunities for workers to learn why their work matters to consumers can boost motivation. Set up opportunities for virtual factory tours and video snippets highlighting both employees and customers. It’s always interesting for consumers to see how products are made, and workers can learn why company products matter to customers. 

Right now it might be inefficient for managers and leaders to communicate every piece of new information to their teams. In reality, their time is often better spent mentoring their direct reports and helping them grow. Leaders can do this by walking the floor, learning about effective practices, exploring potential improvements, and offering feedback. You can also offer employees a digital workplace allowing them to access training videos, guides, and how-tos at any time. 

Engagement strategies are most effective when they’re rooted in a true desire to improve lives both professionally and personally. Companies will only see high levels of engagement when leaders genuinely care about the employee experience. 


Daniel Sztutwojner is chief customer officer and co-founder of Beekeeper, a mobile communication platform for frontline workforces. 

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