The Great HR Debate: Is flexibility & autonomy possible in manufacturing?

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In recent years, the demand for flexibility and autonomy has been on the rise among manufacturing workers. This shift in attitude reflects a broader trend across many industries, where employees are seeking more control over their work schedules and greater independence in how they perform their tasks.

The topic of manufacturing workers demanding greater flexibility, such as a four-day work week, is indeed interesting and warrants further discussion.

This session of The Great HR Debate (TGHRD) looked into whether certain demands, such as relaxed dress code and paid time off, can be applied to India’s unique labour laws and cultural context. Additionally, it discussed how the world of work can be transformed to better engage employees and foster a sense of fulfilment and purpose.

“It is high time people recognised that the work environment has changed dramatically. As work has shifted from materials to information, so too must our approach to creating a dynamic and inclusive work environment.”

Emmanuel David, former director, Tata Management Training Centre (TMTC)

 

Emmanuel David, former director, Tata Management Training Centre (TMTC) says that gone are the times when unions and management clashed frequently. It is high time people recognised that the work environment has changed dramatically. As work has shifted from materials to information, so too must our approach to creating a dynamic and inclusive work environment.

David started the session by suggesting that the opportunity be grabbed to “massage” some ideas and consider how a more flexible, engaging, and productive work environment can be created for all by working collaboratively.

Rajesh Jain, CHRO, Welspun Enterprises, talked about the background of the manufacturing industry and how it is an evolved industry that has undergone significant changes over time. While it used to be the only industry at one time, today it coexists alongside the service sector. However, there is a misconception that manufacturing involves only physical labour, making it impossible to implement a four-day workweek. In reality, manufacturing has evolved to become highly efficient, and decisions about workdays are based on business requirements.

“However, there is a misconception that manufacturing involves only physical labour, making it impossible to implement a four-day workweek. In reality, manufacturing has evolved to become highly efficient, and decisions about workdays are based on business requirements.”

Rajesh Jain, CHRO, Welspun Enterprises

 

Employers prioritise cost efficiencies, and the range of practices has evolved from slavery to autonomy and partnership. While manufacturing used to operate six to seven days a week, it has gradually reduced working days to improve productivity.

Is a four-day workweek possible in the future of manufacturing?

The idea of a four-day workweek has gained popularity in today’s era, with many companies exploring the potential benefits of this model. However, when it comes to the manufacturing industry, there are several challenges that make a four-day workweek difficult to implement. The session discussed some of the reasons why a four-day working model is not possible in the manufacturing industry.

“While the idea may seem appealing, there are numerous considerations that need to be addressed before implementing such a policy.”

Manish Sinha, senior VP and head – HR, Mahindra Automobile,

Continuous production

One of the primary challenges in the manufacturing industry is the need for continuous production. Unlike other industries where work can be paused or resumed easily, manufacturing processes require consistent effort to meet production targets.

Legal issues

Manish Sinha, senior VP and head – HR, Mahindra Automobile, said that implementing a four-day workweek may not be a sustainable solution due to various legal and employee health implications. While the idea may seem appealing, there are numerous considerations that need to be addressed before implementing such a policy.

In response to the question whether a four-day workweek in the manufacturing sector is possible, Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group, said that the answer was both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.

Complexities

“Since manufacturing is a continuous process, balancing employee health and regulatory compliance can be difficult. Consequently, it is unlikely that a four-day work week will be implemented in manufacturing soon.”

Amit Sharma, CHRO, Volvo Group

According to him, the feasibility of a four-day work week in the manufacturing sector is complex. While manufacturing companies have factories, they also have corporate offices and various supporting functions such as engineering, supply chain, R&D and IT that are not directly involved in manufacturing.

“Today, most organisations work for five days, while plants operate for six days. However, if we consider implementing a four-day work week, regulatory frameworks pose a significant challenge. While the new wage code permits a four-day work week, the Occupational Health Safety Code and Factory Act regulations stipulate that employees must be compensated for overtime work,” he pointed out.

Sharma explained that since manufacturing is a continuous process, balancing employee health and regulatory compliance can be difficult. Consequently, it is unlikely that a four-day work week will be implemented in manufacturing soon.

Nonetheless, while offices can potentially adopt a four-day work week, manufacturing units will continue to work five days a week, and these models will have to co-exist together.

It is vital to balance work and health concerns, and a five-day workweek remains a suitable balance for most companies in India.

Is complete autonomy possible for manufacturing workers?

Achieving greater flexibility and autonomy for manufacturing workers is a complex challenge that requires a careful balance between employee needs and business goals.

While the goal is to create a more motivated and engaged workforce, companies must also ensure that their manufacturing processes remain efficient and productive, and that workers are able to perform their tasks safely and effectively.

“In a unionised factory, decisions are made in consultation with the workers’ union, which limits autonomy to some extent.”

Manas Martha, senior VP and head – HR, TTK Prestige

By finding innovative ways to achieve these goals, companies can create a work environment that supports both employee satisfaction and business success.

Manas Martha, senior VP and head – HR, TTK Prestige, pointed out that while complete autonomy may be difficult to achieve in a factory environment with thousands of workers, partial autonomy is possible. He gave examples from TTK Prestige, where workers are provided some autonomy through various unions such as the canteen union, quality circle, and continuous improvement processes.

According to Martha, “In a unionised factory, decisions are made in consultation with the workers’ union, which limits autonomy to some extent.”

However, he emphasised the importance of balancing autonomy with accountability.

He also observed that even white-collar employees do not have complete autonomy as decisions are made collectively with bosses, subordinates and team members. Overall, his belief is that even though complete autonomy may not be possible, providing workers with some autonomy while holding them accountable can be beneficial.

Paid-time off

To provide context to the concept of paid time off, it’s important to reflect on how the value of work has shifted over time.

“This requires a win-win approach where employees are given incentives while also ensuring work is being accomplished. The pandemic has further shifted the landscape and led to a paradigm shift in people’s thinking about work and leisure time,”

George Varghese, CHRO, Shahi Exports

In the past, work was often the top priority for individuals, as it was a means to build assets, status, and provide for their families. However, with liberalisation and a shifting workforce, work has stopped becoming the primary focus for many people. Manufacturing leaders must recognise this reality and adapt to make the industry more attractive in the marketplace.

George Varghese, CHRO, Shahi Exports, threw light on the recruitment methods that have also evolved over time, as the traditional approach of gate recruiting is no longer effective. To address this, manufacturing companies have partnered with government programmes and established skill-development centres in areas where talent is available. They train individuals on relevant skills, provide migration services to help them settle in new locations, and offer accommodations to ensure their comfort.

Varghese further added that the younger generation entering the workforce often prioritise their hobbies and interests, and manufacturing companies must cater to this aspect in their talent attraction and retention strategies.

“This requires a win-win approach where employees are given incentives while also ensuring work is being accomplished. The pandemic has further shifted the landscape and led to a paradigm shift in people’s thinking about work and leisure time,” observed Varghese.

The event is powered by Tata Steel Industrial Consulting in association with Keka HR. Other partners are Vantage Circle (employee engagement partner), Greyt HR (HR and payroll partner), Thomas Assessment ( talent assessment partner ) & NHRD Bangalore Chapter (community partner). The event is supported by XLRI Alumni Bangalore Chapter & XISS Alumni Bangalore Chapter. 

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