Sponsored by Shiftboard

Production volatility and a labor shortage have many food and beverage manufacturers struggling to cover shifts. Learn three strategies to improve staffing flexibility by leveraging employee schedule optimization strategies. 

Adjusting to market fluctuations and shifting demand has always been a crucial part of business operations for food manufacturers and producers. But the ongoing global pandemic amplifies the need for a flexible workforce as companies continue to deal with unprecedented labor shortages and production volatility.

Throughout most of 2020, as manufacturers scrambled to adapt (many are still adjusting), one central lesson emerged: To survive (and even thrive) during uncertain times, operations leaders must do more to build flexibility into labor scheduling to enable quick response to unforeseen change —and keep their front lines running.

Indeed, the pandemic forced manufacturers to adjust operational processes very quickly. One aspect of manufacturing operations that’s especially ripe for change? Employee scheduling.

The employee schedule is the crucial link between the volume targets production lines need to hit every day and the people who do the work, so the stakes are high to get it right. By taking a strategic approach to employee scheduling, plant managers can optimize their workforce, cut costs, and streamline operations, all while creating a safer, more positive work environment.

Food manufacturers use various strategies to build flexibility and efficiency into their employee scheduling workflow, laying the groundwork for more streamlined operations and a more successful, profitable organization all the way around. Following are three successful strategies for increasing staffing flexibility in plant operations.

1. Improve shift coverage with flex pools

The purpose of flex pools is to ensure critical shifts are covered when unplanned events occur (like, say, a pandemic!) that impact production volume and labor demand. Implementing a flex pool is an effective strategy for improving shift coverage in any demanding circumstance.

Flex pools can also boost employee retention by attracting and keeping high-quality talent who are drawn to flexible work opportunities. According to data from Gallup’s 2020 State of the American Workplace report, 51% of U.S. employees said that they would switch to a job that offers flextime. Working mothers were especially likely to seek out and benefit from such arrangements.

Most production workers require training and credentials to operate equipment safely and comply with food safety regulations. As a result, pulling in people “off-the-street” isn’t a viable solution for last-minute labor needs. Having a trained, flexible pool of workers to call at a moment’s notice significantly improves staffing flexibility.

The structure of flex pools varies by plant and facility. Some companies organize their flex pools by role, production line, or department. Others leverage skilled part-time workers or full-time workers who are eager to volunteer for overtime. The common attribute of flex pools is that they include people with versatile skill sets and high flexibility in their work schedules.

While some plants build their flex pools in-house, others may work with an outside temp agency to staff their flex pools of trained and credentialed workers. Regardless of the flexible labor source, having access to real-time data about the flex pool itself is essential in making this technique effective.

2. Improve coverage with a self-serve scheduling strategy

Production facilities typically create schedules using a top-down approach, with work schedules set far in advance. However, supervisors often overlook complementary scheduling strategies to meet near-term production goals and labor requirements. For example, adding in bottom-up scheduling — self-serve scheduling where workers pick up the shifts they want to work — is a complementary strategy to quickly fill coverage gaps with qualified, eligible, and eager workers. It’s especially helpful when organizations enable part-time employees — who likely have specific scheduling needs — to self-schedule.

Self-serve scheduling can serve as a critical tool when it comes to managing overtime, too. Voluntary overtime programs are shown to be highly effective in terms of achieving shift coverage and keeping workers happy, demonstrating yet another benefit of a self-serve strategy: improving job satisfaction.

Because they provide workers with the ability to pick up or sign up for open shifts themselves, self-serve scheduling gives employees more autonomy over their work/life balance. In fact, research shows that 87% of hourly workers consider it extremely important to control their work schedules, and 55% say they’d likely leave their job if they lacked some measure of control over their schedule. Supervisors are relieved of the administrative burden related to managing these types of schedule changes, and businesses see operational benefits.

3. Re-examine and adjust shift patterns as needed

Manufacturers can also improve shift coverage by changing how they structure shifts to create a more flexible workforce. For example, one of the largest chicken processing plants in the U.S. created alternate shifts — shifts cut into shorter periods — to expand their workforce by attracting workers in need of flexible schedules. The plant was able to structure shifts to accommodate these workers and still keep operations running smoothly.

Other shift pattern adjustments include adjusting shift start, stop and break times to coordinate with workers’ personal demands, such as transporting children to and from childcare or school, a situation that became far more common during the pandemic, as many parents struggled with childcare on top of full-time jobs. Adjusting shift lengths, patterns, and break times empowers employees with more flexibility to manage work with life — without interfering with plant productivity.

The role of technology

All of these strategies can prove highly effective, boosting productivity, employee morale, and the bottom line. And they can easily be fueled by the real-time data that automated scheduling technology provides.

Automated technologies like employee scheduling software remove the complexity involved in making optimal labor scheduling decisions. As a result, these solutions are invaluable tools in keeping food and beverage production facilities nimble and able to adapt to market disruptions, industry trends, even global crises. As manufacturers cautiously move into a post-pandemic era, managing labor needs in response to volume shifts is poised to be an enduring challenge well into 2021 and beyond. Employee scheduling software is specifically designed to address that very issue, all while vastly reducing the stress and hassle that often define manager and supervisor roles.

The sooner food and beverage plant managers can tap into the power of an automated, intelligent employee scheduling solution, the sooner their organizations will reap the many benefits of a flexible workforce. Shiftboard, a provider of employee scheduling software for continuous operations, has manufacturing customers who have reduced overtime by as much as 51%, while also creating safer workplaces with more productive, happier employees. In some cases, employee grievances decreased by 93%. All of that can result in significant savings (into the millions) and a remarkable ROI — no matter what sort of challenges the industry, the market, or world events have in store.