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Covid forced manufacturing companies to rethink their ways of functioning, develop the right workforce strategies and adapt to digital

Purva Bhatia

Covid-19 has overhauled the way organisations used to operate. Companies are having to ensure safety, flexibility, and adaptability of employees even as they try to optimise employee costs. While every sector has its own sets of challenges, manufacturing companies have perhaps found it the most difficult to function as plant employees were not able to work from home. They have had to quickly deploy innovative tactics to keep their machines running, and the workforce safe as well as productive ..

To understand the way forward for managing the manufacturing workforce during uncertainties, The Economic Times and Ultimate Kronos Group (UKG) organised a webinar for top industry leaders.

Sudden lockdowns affected demand as well as supply and hence impacted the manufacturing sector severely. Some companies were forced to shut operations because of the restrictions or falling demand, while others saw a significant increase in demand for essential supplies. The supply-side got impacted due to the limited movement of goods, services, and employees.

There were other challenges too. “The challenge for the cement industry is that we are supposed to run the fuel mill 365 days a year unless there is some major shutdown. To see that things can come to a grinding halt was shocking. Maintenance of these machines was a major challenge during this time,” said Rajnish Kapur, COO, JK Cement.

Companies had to think on their feet to come up with solutions. “One thing we have understood clearly is that Covid is out of our control. We took immediate actions to keep the employees in our plant safe. But the risk of employees bringing back the virus from their families remained. We then put a stringent RT-PCR test procedure in place for everyone entering the plant,” said R.S. Sachdeva, COO, Eicher Trucks and Buses.

At the onset of the crisis, companies understood quickly that communicating with employees was important in order to gain their confidence and trust and to get things back on track. “The initial challenge was to get people come back to work as their families were apprehensive. We got our senior officials to speak to such family members through various channels and explain to them the safety and security procedures that were in place. We put cameras and alarms if people came closer than two metres. People started feeling safer inside the plants rather than outside,” said Vice President-Operations, Commercial Vehicle Business Unit, Tata Motors.

As with every other industry, digitisation has been an essential part of building resilience in manufacturing. From demand and supply analysis to remote work availability and capabilities of employees, digitisation has changed the way companies now operate.

“Earlier it was possible to plan months in advance but that’s no longer a possibility today. You need technology that can help you plan in a much smaller and much faster window,” said Sumeet Doshi, Sr. Director and Country Manager-India, UKG. Access to real-time information of employees can help achieve operational agility, workforce performance improvements, cost reductions, and enable manufacturers to deliver a better overall employee experience.

“Deploying the right people at the right time at the right place is important for the manufacturing sector. Technology lets you look at employee variables in terms of skills, preferences, availability, health information, whether they live in a containment zone, etc. Then there are the business variables such as the production plan, scales required, downtime, etc. Bringing the business and employee variables together is a complex process and that’s what technology helps us achieve,” added Doshi.

The pandemic has underscored the fact that a lot of processes can be swiftly handled virtually. “For instance, in a paint shop, it is very important that chemicals get stirred continuously and therefore the motor has to keep running. The pandemic forced us to question whether we need a person to keep monitoring it or can it be done remotely with someone getting a signal on their mobile,” said Lall.

The right digitisation tools can make a significant impact on workforce culture, enabling employees to communicate with managers in real-time, which will give them more freedom and flexibility helping their companies become more agile with manpower management.

“Several changes brought during the crisis are here to stay. One of the key learning from the pandemic is that automation is a necessity and is inevitable. With that we need to keep in mind that we must re-train to retain some people in our workforce,” said Sachdeva. Agreed Kapur, “Too much automation is going to lead to job losses. For instance, we realised that paperless entry into a plant is possible and therefore we do not need people at the gate. But we cannot just let go of those employees ..

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