Nearly every sign points to the need for a dramatic culture shift in the manufacturing industry. Longtime employees are aging out. Jobs are being left unfilled because of a skilled labor shortage. And younger generations are choosing other industries over working on a factory floor.

The COVID-19 pandemic only complicated matters as supply chain issues slowed production or stopped it altogether. Meanwhile, workers increasingly walked away from the industry, worried about coronavirus transmission on the job because they couldn’t work from home. Eighteen months into the pandemic, the struggle continues: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 437,000 people left their manufacturing jobs in August 2021.

A strong company culture isn’t a silver-bullet solution for any of these hiring, retention, and Human Resources challenges in manufacturing. But when business leaders build an intentional culture with an emphasis on improving the work environment, employee engagement, and worker well-being, they can make plenty of headway. Studies show that a strong company culture can lead to better employee engagement, which in turn can result in increased productivity and improved customer experiences.

But unlike other industries that have embraced opportunities to cultivate company culture, manufacturing has been slow to join in, according to a 2017 Gallup report. As a result, manufacturing companies have the least engaged workforce in the United States, Gallup found — making it even more critical for manufacturers to focus on and prioritize their work environment and culture.

“Culture has come to the forefront, but it’s always been there,” said Humberto A. Garcia, founder and CEO of the Ethos Consultancy, an operations consulting firm. “In my opinion, we’ve just chosen to ignore it to a certain extent because it’s [usually] about the top line and the bottom line and how [to] increase profits and how [to] minimize cost.” 

Building an effective and employee-friendly company culture in manufacturing companies, especially when it goes against the grain of decades of industry tradition, takes work, intention, and effort — but it’s doable. Here’s how manufacturing companies can build a better company culture for their workers.

4 Ways Manufacturing Companies Can Improve Their Company Culture

1. Demonstrate you’re listening. 

Engaged team members feel like they’re part of a team and that their voice matters. To help ensure workers feel heard, Sarah Skidmore, CEO of Skidmore Consulting, a consulting company that provides leadership training, recommended these steps for better communication

  • Survey workers. To gauge how employees are faring, use pulse surveys or text them quick questions about how they’re doing. A morning text might ask workers to rate how stressed they feel on a scale of one to five, while a pulse survey might go deeper with questions about how they measure management, whether they're satisfied with their benefits, or if they feel their work is meaningful. 

Track the data, see the trends, and then take action,” Skidmore advised. If the metrics show, for example, that workers are stressed at the end of each month when the facility is the busiest, look for ways to make those days easier with something as simple as a monthly pizza lunch or, if needed, new workflows to streamline operations. 

  • Empower staff members at all levels of the organization. Line workers might not be on the leadership team, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable opinions that could make business processes more efficient. Establish employee resource groups (ERGs) where cross-functional teams can provide input to the executive team on company policies or business processes. Set up worker-led committees or forums that focus on safety topics, for instance. 

“We want everyone to feel like when they come to work, they are living their purpose and providing meaning to the organization, and that their work matters,” Skidmore said. 

2. Help workers grow.

For some workers in manufacturing, daily tasks might not change dramatically across the employee lifecycle. Therefore, it’s especially important for managers and HR departments to identify ways all employees can grow so they remain engaged on the job, Skidmore noted.

A mentorship program, where workers are paired up with high school students or newly hired workers, is one way to foster engagement. “They get to be part of growing the future and the development of that individual within their trade group,” said Skidmore. 

Cross-training is another way to foster employee growth and development. When Garcia worked in manufacturing plants in Mexico, teaching workers to complete a variety of tasks was an important way to keep them engaged on the job. No longer were they doing the same, repetitive work day in and day out. Instead, they moved across the plant, completing different jobs throughout the day. “We made sure we had a universal workforce,” he said. 

Deanna Baumgardner, President of HR consulting firm Employers Advantage, recommended taking advantage of workers’ other skills in subject matter that might have nothing to do with their daily job. A line worker, for example, might excel at photography, so let them take photos for a social media campaign. 

“Just because somebody might be in a production role doesn’t mean they need to do that all the time,” Baumgardner said. “Maybe they have other interests that could be called on to help keep them interested and engaged, but also benefit the organization.” 

3. Showcase what’s new.

The next generation might prefer working for technology companies, but don’t overlook that plants and factories are more often relying on automation, robotics, and other technological advances and initiatives to streamline operations, increase productivity, and dramatically transform factory floors. For manufacturing businesses in the midst of their own digital transformation, it’s critical to showcase that their companies might look more like the startups and technology firms that Gen Z is seeking out.

Baumgardner recommended that HR departments at manufacturing companies promote their transition to increased automation and digitization as they build connections in the community, write job descriptions, and recruit new workers. Now is the time to create relationships with trade organizations and technical colleges to build programs that will ensure skilled workers are available in the future, she said. 

And as manufacturing companies evolve in this way, their culture will need to shift too, noted Baumgardner. “As [companies] continue to thrust toward more technologically advanced programs and processes in the manufacturing industry, they are not going to have the same work environment and culture that they had, whether they like it or not,” she said.

While this transition might be difficult for some in manufacturing, it’s important to remember the upside: When manufacturing companies change to meet the needs and expectations of today’s workers, they will appeal to a broader range of job candidates — including those who might have otherwise gone into tech and other sectors. 

4. Think about perks.

Improving employee experience doesn’t have to take much — sometimes just addressing workers’ daily nuisances and supporting their work-life balance can help strengthen company culture.

If workers are going home with filthy uniforms, invest in a laundry service so they don’t have to bring dirty clothes home, Baumgardner said. And Skidmore advised updating break rooms and locker rooms with new paint and comfortable furniture.

In an industry where business needs don’t always allow for remote work, ensuring that healthcare benefits provide access to virtual telehealth visits is another way to make employees' lives a little easier. Workers will then be able to fit in medical appointments around shifts and family life, said Skidmore, and employers are able to demonstrate that they care for their employees and their wellness. And employees will know it, she said.  

During a labor shortage and amid supply chain issues, Baumgardner acknowledged that the effort to rebuild company culture can feel like a lot of work. That’s why she recommended taking small steps. “It’s not something that happens overnight,” she said.

But with each step along the way to a better company culture, you’ll build the kind of strong, resilient company and empowering workplace experience that the right employees will seek out — and where they’ll want to stay.