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Industrials raced to build hybrid workforces. Which changes will stick?

06 May, 2021

Fuad Abdelhadi
Principal (Partner) at Strategy&, PwC US
Miguel Denosky-Smart
Principal, PwC US
Russell Frieder
Director at Strategy&, PwC US
Brandon Pyle
Senior Manager at Strategy&, PwC US

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted industrial companies to design resilient and fit-for-purpose workforces to help minimize disruption and increase worker safety. For some, this transformation unlocked value and sharpened their competitive edge.

One year into the crisis, most manufacturers have gone through initial steps—staggering shifts and creating new remote work arrangements—which could prove favorable for companies and employees alike in a post-pandemic world. 

The hybrid workforce: Now what? With these first steps taken, industrials are thinking, what’s next? What are the critical steps needed to graduate from a workforce reassessment to a reengineered industrial workplace that is “future-proof”?

Manufacturing companies face distinct challenges given that a large swath of the workforce may need to be co-located with specialized equipment or technology. While this category of employees may not be eligible for a hybrid model, other support roles (such as procurement or finance) may be more suited to the new model. So, businesses should consider under which circumstances a return to the office or factory floor is more advantageous for both employer and employee. Consider a January 2021 PwC survey finding that, while executives are more comfortable with work-from-home options now than they were before the pandemic, the majority (68%) agree that employees should be in the office at least three days a week to maintain a distinctive company culture. In addition, 65% believe that the office plays an important role in increasing employee productivity. So, while the pandemic has altered the future role of office space, physical footprints will likely remain an important consideration in a hybrid workforce model. 

Key workplace design elements in a post-pandemic world: We believe that, at this juncture, manufacturers should first focus their workforce strategies on three “workforce design elements” to yield further (and enduring) value: physical space development; IT strategy, collaboration and selection and; change management. Three additional key design elements (to be detailed in a forthcoming blog) include governance and workforce policy, utilization forecasting and workforce analytics.

Physical space development

As the pandemic subsides, we expect workplaces in the industrial sector to morph into a hub for collaboration and accelerated innovation. Many industrial companies will likely have to reconfigure physical spaces to facilitate intra-team and cross-functional collaboration. While the specific physical space considerations will vary depending on individual company requirements, there are several broad approaches that help guide change:

Footprint redistribution. Consider the following initiatives while determining footprint redistribution:

  • Increase aggregate office space dedicated to huddle and small team rooms

  • Reduce total square footage allocated to individual assigned working desks and offices 

  • Use extra office space for collaboration areas

Shared working spaces. Deploy hotel-type shared desk seating arrangements and establish “in-office” days for specific departments (e.g., setting Tuesday and Thursday as the financial planning team in-office workplace days). Special physical space considerations will need to be made depending on the results of your office-based employee mobility model. For example, additional space could be allocated for team-working and huddle rooms for those jobs that particularly benefit from in-person collaboration, such as design engineering and document production. Additionally, industrial companies might afford space to accommodate the broad range of stakeholders across leadership (e.g., engineering and finance involved in major capex planning decisions).

IT strategy, collaboration and selection

Once physical space considerations are made, IT solutions should be adopted to help increase  collaboration, analytics and productivity. Additionally, a coordinated IT strategy can help manufacturers open their offices safely and quickly (via a mix of employee vaccination tracking and contact tracing). For example, wearable contract tracing devices such as key fobs or mobile beacons can sync with sensors and help automate contact tracing efforts.

Near-field communications or infrared sensors can be embedded throughout the workplace—in offices, the factory floor and the warehouse. Once set up, employees have the power to “hotel” into spaces (for example, dispatch elevators or access certain floors and team rooms) through smartphones. Smart sensors can also reduce operating costs by identifying when employees are in the office and adjusting environmental systems, such as heating and cooling, as needed. 

Additionally, consider implementing a high-quality videoconferencing ecosystem throughout the workplace to nurture collaboration and connectivity, such as smart whiteboards and voice-activated video systems. Other IT tools can include digital kanban boards for work tracking, and virtual and augmented reality to accelerate knowledge-sharing, learning and collaboration. 

Change management

Workforce design elements can only be as effective as the change management efforts supporting them. Gaining employee buy-in and support is critical. Change initiatives also need to be digitally enabled, people-centric and designed to be flexible enough to evolve over time.

Change starts at the top. Successful change management often occurs when senior leadership buys into changes in workplace design—by reducing their workplace footprint and demonstrating flexibility in where and how they work. By doing so, leadership can drive a dynamic culture that understands new approaches to staff mentoring, development and connectivity that support the new hybrid model. Leadership should also consistently communicate across all channels and stakeholders at all employment levels of the organization to help promote widespread understanding and support​ of the new hybrid environment.

As the pandemic subsides, industrial companies are finding they can leverage the flexibility and innovation they demonstrated over the past year to make their workplaces—and workforces—more productive, nimble and efficient than ever. By doing so, they also have an opportunity to make their businesses more competitive and, at the same time, a more rewarding workplace for existing and future employees. In our next blog post, we’ll examine three other key design elements: governance and workforce policy; utilization forecasting; and workforce analytics.