Worker female operator in uniform holding computer tablet checking food factory production line and tanker

By Sheila Stafford, CEO and Co-Founder, TeamSense

With an ever-increasing population, food and beverage manufacturers are constantly reminded of the pressing challenge of meeting rising demand — a reality that underscores their daily operations. The U.S. population has been consistently growing year after year, and whether they’re producing America’s favorite soft drink, essential dry ingredients, or salty snacks, manufacturers are facing a common obstacle — costs are outpacing productivity at unsustainable rates.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing costs increased 5% in Q1 compared to 2023, however, there was only a 1.2% increase in productivity. Though disrupted supply chains and increased processing costs are contributing factors, it goes without saying that the most prominent factor on farms and factory floors is the overwhelming labor shortage.

Food starts on the farm, but even at this first stage of the supply chain there’s a serious workforce gap with 2.4 million farm jobs empty. Zippy Duvall, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation has rightfully attributed industry challenges to labor issues, saying, “We are losing farms in America at a rapid pace and there is no question that our broken workforce system is partly to blame.” These staffing issues persist from the fields to the factory floors. According to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the manufacturing sector needs approximately 4 million workers to support continued success. However, the harsh reality is that despite these significant staffing shortages, the food and beverage industry will soon need to support even greater production, with a 19% increase in global food production expected over the next five years (Statistica).

Deskless workers shouldn’t fly solo

Though staff shortages are posing day-to-day operational challenges, a lack of appropriate resources is further restricting success, creating obstacles not only due to team size, but also due to disconnection. Technology for deskless employees is seldom employer-provided as it often is for desk workers. What’s more, though communication has evolved for desk workers through the introduction of digital, automated platforms, deskless teams have been left behind without tools tailor-made for trade. 

Instead, food and beverage producers are heavily reliant on manual processes — punch clocks for clocking in, phone calls and wait times for calling out, clipboard sign ups for overtime, and hours of records upkeep for HR. The only way to reach a manager when not in-person is via a phone call, which sometimes is not feasible. Despite being inconvenient for employees, time consuming for leadership, and fueling disconnection between workers and management, many employers are still relying on these methods.

Attracting and retaining workers is the key

With workforce capacity and production demands already so notably unbalanced, there is no room for disjointed teams. Insufficient communication is threatening employee engagement and motivation, and as a result tanking retention and team productivity. Without access to leadership, workers feel unsupported, and without consistent insight on employee satisfaction, leadership ultimately misses opportunities to meet worker needs. 

Employee dissatisfaction not only threatens retention rates and resulting production capacity, but also poses hiring expenses, both monetary and otherwise. To overcome current workforce challenges — first through retention, and second through growth — employers must first set a precedent of communication, respect, and loyalty from the top down to increase engagement and motivation at the most foundational level. At the end of the day, if employers want expectations met, they must first meet workers’ needs. 

Doing more with less: amplifying efficiency 

The same day-to-day inefficiencies that are muddling worker sentiments are also fueling an industry-wide loss of time and money. There’s a $225.8 billion annual loss associated with absenteeism alone and it boils down to convenience. When company protocols fail to consider employee ease and access to technology — which they could change — they do not encourage compliance. When it’s inconvenient for employees to call out — requiring a phone call, and potentially, hold times, language barriers, and questions from management — workers are deterred from giving notice of an unexpected absence entirely. This concept translates to every employee protocol throughout the business. 

These unexpected absences aren’t to be overlooked. In fact, between time spent adjusting staffing plans, listening to voicemail notices (around 3 to 4 hours a day), and running overtime shifts to meet production quotas (often 6 to 7 days a week), unexpected absences drive a 40% loss in productivity and put teams at nearly half capacity. Streamlining processes to amplify efficiency is not an option — it’s a necessity to do more with the limited resources and workers currently available to manufacturers.

Productivity in practice 

Reimagining protocols to increase convenience has delivered overwhelming benefits to food producers across the country. Companies that adopt digital, automated communication systems can improve efficiency throughout every aspect of the business and experience a notable reduction in the amount of time previously spent overseeing attendance, finding shift replacements, and coordinating overtime. Through meeting workers where they’re at (in terms of convenience, language, and tech accessibility), companies can boost engagement, motivation, and compliance. 

Another strategy is to implement a points attendance system to increase accountability and transparency. A points system establishes consistent company-wide expectations and arms employees with real-time knowledge of their own attendance status. This increased communication and records accessibility can drastically decrease unplanned absences. 

Despite ongoing population growth and increasing production demands, it is evident that by adopting updated processes to cater to workers’ needs and enhance efficiency, the food manufacturing industry can better balance costs and productivity to overcome the workforce challenges limiting its continued success.

Sheila Stafford is the CEO and Co-Founder of TeamSense – an app-free platform connecting deskless workers with employers since 2020. Prior to TeamSense, she worked directly in “each line of the P&L” and led success at industry powerhouses including General Motors, Whirlpool Corporation, and Fluke Corporation.