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Productivity & the Flexible Workforce - What is the best shift pattern?

Whenever I’ve worked with organisations to improve work-life balance and productivity, usually the first question I get asked is “What is the best shift pattern?”, my response is “The best shift pattern is the one your workers want to work that fits with your business demands”.

Without knowing a multitude of details regarding demand, skills, presence requirements, costs, workforce demographics, individual requirements, flexible needs for the business and people or contractual arrangements, to name just a few, any answer would be nonsense as the question itself is meaningless.

So where to begin? There are many reasons organisations want to look at the times and duration of when they ask their workforce to be present. As we have seen far more frequently in recent times this can often not only mean present in a specified place of work but also could mean working elsewhere such as a home office. However, for many workers this is a luxury unavailable to them most of the time, if working in a logistics or production facility for example.

In general, the best place to begin is with the demand. When does your business need people to be present? This is often not as straightforward as it seems.

Predicting Demand

Often the best place to understand what to expect in the future is the past! If data is available can this be translated into a future business demand? This could be done simply by looking at past years and adding a growth or decline factor. For some a better methodology may be to use some of the artificial intelligence (AI) capability now available which look at past data, examine how various algorithms predicted more recent trends, and then use the most accurate methodology to predict future requirements.

For some businesses this may be a straight-forward method of forecasting demand, but for others it may depend very much on the nature of what we are forecasting. For a manufacturing organisation what about stockholding - can demand be smoothed by building to stock or is it restricted by components needed for manufacture? Is there a lifespan of the product? What limitations or constraints are there of the process whether machine capability or space or labour post constraints?

Further problems may be seen if we use this very basic approach. Is the past data following a pattern that has been constrained by past shift patterns, i.e., is it the core demand or reflected demand? Digging further, are there any other historic limiting issues? Did the business fail to manufacture at times due to the cost of overtime? Could this be a time to review this policy or indeed review any other contractual arrangements?

If you are looking at base data, such as EPOS (electronic point of sale), then how does the sale fit to the demand for manufacturing? In some short life products then this may mean that a more flexible approach directly mirroring this should be examined. For instance, many fresh food suppliers may see a peak towards the end of the week when people have larger shopping trips. This may translate to the supplier being required to produce more the day or two in advance towards the middle of the week. This could mean that a more flexible shift pattern giving more presence on those days is required or overlapping crews, or even lower contract workers on these days only?

It must be said at this point that simply using a methodology to forecast sales or other demand leading data is only the first step. This data must then be translated to demand for skill presence at work. Is there a production line that requires a certain number of people to run? Do you have different running rates dependent on numbers present? Are all workers required to be present at the same time? Do lines need preparation before running and cleaning when they finish? I have frequently worked on sites where the first shift of the week is mostly preparation of the equipment and moving stock into place. This then only allows the lines to start running in the second shift. Do warehouse workers need to be in attendance until the production lines are running and supplying product for placement into stock? Also, are there particular skills needed to allow certain machines to run for health and safety requirements? A lot of questions…

Much of this may now move away from AI and algorithms and into discussions and working knowledge from the experts – your own staff.


The second (most important) part of the equation

Only once we understand the requirements for work presence can we even begin to consider how to respond to it

i.e., what shift patterns can we offer. Indeed, without having evidential data showing this presence requirement it would be difficult to argue that any flexible working request has been properly considered in terms of cost, meeting customer demand, quality, performance or sufficiency of work.

If you carry out surveys to understand what employees want from any change to shift patterns, you will get a multitude of individual requirements. They may be unfathomable to some people but, with personal situations, they may be very important to individual workers and could even mean that if changed, however negotiated, they would likely leave the business. Obviously, this then may become a balance between how we match their unique requirements and how they fit with business demands. A difficult case I saw was when working with a tourism service business.  I came across a few people that requested weekends and school holidays to be rostered off in a family friendly shift pattern in complete contrast to the far higher demand for services at these precise times. Furthermore, it may be that it is more than individual requirements, whole swathes of people may be very much against working nights or late shifts. It is then a matter of understanding how we can balance whole business requirements, meeting employee satisfaction and the ability to attract future employees – attraction and retention.

Any change may be difficult and often you will find that the shift pattern employees want is the one they know, and any change could be disconcerting. A process beginning with the demand examination followed by an open and honest process of education and understanding with your staff is often the only way forward for an amicable solution. A balance between cost benefit, reward and subsequent employee satisfaction will be the result.

So far, we have assumed that the demand is fixed. An added complication, requiring examination, is whether the demand is a movable feast?

Is it possible to both match it and still provide a solution that is not detrimental to the staff work life balance? This will perhaps only be of consequence to some businesses, but they will require to balance this agile requirement with earnings expectations for providing it. Ultimately it is likely to be determined by how much notice can be given and the extent of disruption to workers. Is it possible for some businesses to match the requirement, being pursued by the Living Wage Foundation, for four weeks’ notice of any changes?

Managing the solution

So, once you’ve got through the quagmire of understanding personal preferences or requirements and business needs it must be simple? Well, again obviously there’s a few other considerations to look at. Have you thought about breaks, whether looking at the legal requirement for a minimum twenty-minute break after six hours or the usually far more generous and realistic provisions in terms and conditions? How should they be timed? Do they effect the requirement for attendance i.e., do they need covering to meet the required demand? By the same measure have holidays, sickness and absence been accounted for?

All these added impediments mean that there may be a real argument for using a workforce management solution to monitor, plan and adjust for any demand or personnel changes. Given that if you have now truly looked at the real business demand rather than a flat 24/7 or 12/5 it may be a more complicated structure needing better tools for the job than previously required but with a decent return on investment for the business and the workforce. Accurate monitoring of absenteeism and lateness can help by highlighting not only individual issues within health or life away from home but also focus on problematic shifts, groups of people, skill issues, training, and productivity in a truly accurate auditable way.

In short, the best shift pattern is likely to be more than unique even within a single organisation or even department. It is likely to be part of a complex number of building blocks required to construct the whole attendance profile. In all probability, it will change as demand and personnel alters, and it may be all tied up in legality regarding contractual arrangements and past ways of working. However, with analysis, discussion and consultation, finding it can be rewarding to all.

For more information  on flexible ways of working or to discuss your shift pattern variations, please contact us on info@crownwfm.com


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