South Africa

Navigating hybrid work models and the industrial sector

Louis Van Tonder
Client Business Executive
4 mins

In December 2020, Google announced that employees only needed to work from the office three days a week, and the rest of the time they could work remotely. The policy was not in response to the still-raging global pandemic, but the strategic decision to shift to a hybrid work model. Since then, organisations across industries and of all sizes have begun to explore hybrid working as well. 

Because there is no fixed hybrid business model to follow, companies are creating their own frameworks. For example, IBM’s model is based on deliverables: how often an employee goes into the office will be determined by the need for team collaboration instead of a fixed schedule. 

Similarly, Ford’s office workers will be permitted to stay home for independent work, but they’ll need to be on site for certain meetings or projects.

Whether or not an organisation can offer a hybrid work model depends on several factors, most notably industry or job type. Gartner estimates that 51% of knowledge workers will be remote, but what about industries where remote working simply cannot work? How can companies balance the expectations of workers who have enjoyed more flexibility in their lives during the pandemic with the needs of the business?

The challenge is that there are industries where hybrid doesn’t work. While some businesses are focusing on how to develop hybrid policies that balance the need for people to come to the office for key projects with the ability to work from home, allowing them to invest in smaller real estate and supporting the desire of knowledge workers to have more flexibility and control over their time, other companies cannot currently offer their employees the same benefits.

The hybrid work challenge in the industrial sector

Consider an ammonium nitrate production plant, where safety requirements could mean the difference between life or death for workers. Maintaining equipment and conducting regular safety tests requires people to be on site. These aren’t tests that can be performed via a Zoom meeting. 

Unfortunately for these industries, the question of hybrid models cannot simply be ignored either. Workers who are more site-based are not oblivious to the fact that many knowledge workers are demanding far more flexibility in their lives – they are conscious of how ways of working are changing and looking for solutions that benefit them as well, which is where careful management is coming into play.

For example, in some cases fully on-site workers need to seamlessly coordinate with remote managers or operators. Not only is this proving especially challenging for industries such as construction, engineering or healthcare, there is a danger that on-site employees will become disgruntled that they do not have the same flexibility as their colleagues. 

The challenges of bridging together the digital and physical worlds look different across industries, as a McKinsey study confirms. In the financial services and insurance sectors, for example, up to 76% of work can be performed remotely. In manufacturing, this drops to 19%, and 15% and 7% in construction and agriculture respectively. There is no doubt that hybrid models will change the future of work, both in sectors that are naturally suited to hybrid models and those that currently are not. The question is, just how much?

Preparing for the workforces of the future, today

The answer is a lot, but this will happen over time. The reality is that hybrid is already the new norm and there is no turning back now. With continuous advancements in technology, organisations will be able become more innovative and employees will be able to become more productive. 

We believe that the next phase of remote work is likely to change and transform sectors, including economies and the geographies where employee stay and work from. The dilemma is that more and more employees will want to join the hybrid or working from home model, particularly the youth. It is likely to affect career choices as well. This may lead to disparities across sectors, creating imbalances in supply and demand. The industrial sector will almost certainly come under pressure as a result. 

Sectors where employee presence is physically required, such as manufacturing, agricultural, mining, transport and retail trade, will have to innovate to balance these risks. One area for businesses in these sectors to consider is the way they remunerate today and in the future. We cannot rely on the same principle that was developed during the 2nd Industrial Revolution back in 1870, characterised by mass production on an assembly line and the division of labour. As a result, the clock card was introduced in 1888 to monitor time keeping and limit wage theft and unapproved overtime claims. These time-based restrictions are exactly what workforces are rebelling against as too rigid and restrictive in a hybrid world. 

Unfortunately, without clear objectives and policies, it won’t be possible to remove time and attendance systems. Industrial sector organisations are therefore challenged to consider methods that can revolutionise the way they remunerate employees in future. One solution could be an outcome-based pay method, based on clear outcomes instead of time. For example, when done with the daily tasks (quantity and quality), an employee can go home and still earn the full day’s wage. 

Such a model may shift individual and work team behaviour and may surprise organisations on how productivity can be improved. Although not practical in all situations, where possible, the time has never been better to consider it than now. It will require a paradigm shift for both employers and employees but the future is here, and the businesses that recognise that things will never return to the way they were will be well positioned to innovate in an outdated system.

Another way to create a more flexible workforce that is already proven and available is through various forms of outsourcing and contracting. Contingent workforces can help businesses scale up and scale down on demand but they also give employees more flexibility because contingent workforces often move between different companies, gaining experience faster and enjoying the life of a contractor while having regular employment.

Overall, the realities of hybrid workforces are upon us. It’s now up to organisations to put their heads down and strategise how to build the productive workforces of the future.

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