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9 Powerful Employee Engagement Tips for Manufacturing Employees

Published: January 10, 2020

Last Updated: February 7, 2024

  8 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

Here are some employee engagement tips for manufacturing workers, so you can start building a more happy, enriching, and engaging workplace.

Manufacturing work is not for the faint of heart. Many factories operate 24/7, and as the machines continuously run, employees must work in shifts to monitor their operations.

The conditions are physically demanding — lifting, walking, standing, all day (or night) long. The work environment is also harsh. Factories can be loud, foul-smelling, and temperatures can soar — especially in the summer. To sum it up, this is not a cushy desk job in an office adorned with plants.

As such, it comes as no surprise that employee engagement is low in manufacturing. The 2020 employee engagement report by Workday shows employee engagement rate in manufacturing is one of the lowest across industries — hovering around 34%. In other words, over half of manufacturing employees surveyed claimed to be disengaged at work.

Fortunately, there are many ways to engage manufacturing employees and ultimately drive greater retention. In this article, we'll discuss some of these proven strategies.

Hopefully, you’ll find some tips and ideas that can spark your imagination and get you on the right path to building greater engagement for your industrial teams.

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Manufacturing employee engagement9 Powerful Employee Engagement Tips for Manufacturing Employees

Pay employees fairly

We will start with the most obvious point — pay your manufacturing workers a fair salary. 

This may seem obvious. But we had to mention it; because fair pay is not a "nice to have"; it's a prerequisite to employee engagement. And most importantly, the other points in this article won't move the needle if your employees are being underpaid.

That said, when we say "pay," this includes an employee’s base salary, of course. But also any other monetary incentives which can be critical in a manufacturing environment. 

Examples of incentives:

  • Premiums for difficult shifts.
  • Profit-sharing.
  • Performance bonuses.
  • Tenure-based bonuses.

To that end, to drive both long and short-term engagement, compensation plans ought to be flexible. Ideally, compensation should reflect both the average market wage for the role and the individual value an employee adds to your organization. 

Actively connect employees to the bigger picture

In a manufacturing setting, employee disengagement can often stem from workers feeling removed from the end-user of their products. When one is disconnected from the bigger picture, it can lead to cynicism and a lack of emotional investment in their work.

This challenge requires organizations and managers to connect workers to a broader purpose and meaning.

How can this be achieved?

An experiment by Adam Grant, a leading organizational psychologist, shows how simple it can be to create a more meaningful and purpose-driven work environment. 

In this research, he was asked to help motivate call center workers at a university. The task was to call alumni and ask for donations. However, these employees had been performing below standard recently. 

But Grant had a plan. He tracked down a few scholarship recipients, and he got them to tell their story to the call center employees for just 5-minutes.

The results of this simple experiment were astonishing. 172 percent more money was raised, and 142 percent more time was spent on the phone as a result.

The power of meaning is undeniable. Speaking directly with a scholarship receiver triggered an emotional connection between call center employees and their work — giving them a greater sense of meaning and purpose. In turn, this emotional incentive strongly impacted their motivation and engagement. Ultimately it drove them to be more productive on the task at hand.

Treat people with respect and promote inclusivity 

I used to work as a manager in customer service for an eCommerce company. I was in close contact with many of the warehouse employees due to the nature of my job. Once the warehouse staff grew, the company began to exclude them from certain social events and activities. And warehouse employees would often complain to me about feeling unsatisfied and left out. Many eventually quit as they felt alienated from the culture.

The moral of the story: Disengagement can often stem from perceived unfairness. For example, employees may believe that others are receiving better benefits or perks than them. Or that they are being excluded based on their role of function within the organization.

This type of disengagement is simple to avoid. Make sure your manufacturing employees are receiving the same treatment and perks as everyone else. Doing so demonstrates value and respect for them. These simple gestures of inclusion are easy to put into practice and have a high impact.

Encourage supportive managers that check-in frequently

A manager's job is to ensure work gets done. But we must not forget that great managers also provide moral support. And having a supportive manager is critical to employee engagement. 

You may already know this fact intuitively. Yet, manufacturing companies seem to run on outdated norms. 

In short, there is a tendency for managers in manufacturing to be less available and present for their employees. Moreover, critical managerial soft skills such as coaching, mentoring, and supporting employees are overlooked. And many managers may lack the training for effective communication, coaching, and empathy.

To that end, driving greater engagement in manufacturing usually begins with cultivating stronger manager-employee relationships. 

For example, HR teams can support managers by institutionalizing more frequent check-ins or 1:1 meetings. Also, making sure managers arrive prepared and giving them a roadmap for success — for example, what they should ask at 1:1s and what to do to improve team communication and support.

Make sure employees feel appreciated and recognized

The positive impact and importance of recognition are undeniable. Taking the time to highlight small wins each week or month will build happiness and morale among employees.

For example, a recent 2021 study of manufacturing workers showed that workers who felt valued were more than four times as likely to report high levels of work engagement (59% vs.13%) and less likely to say they feel stressed out on a typical workday (16% vs. 66%). 

That's huge!

In short, workers don't want to be taken for granted or feel replaceable. People want to feel as if their particular skills and even personality are bringing something to the table.

Many formal and informal solutions are available to support the goal of greater appreciation in the workplace, including:

  • Implementing a peer-to-peer recognition platform.
  • Taking 5 minutes at the end of a team meeting to give employee shout-outs. The manager can take the lead and open the floor to anyone else who wants to share.
  • Sending out a "recognition" email to your team highlighting the small wins from that week or month.
  • Providing regular and spontaneous verbal recognition for good work and performance.

Whether it is unique abilities or their knack for making jokes and keeping team spirit up, the goal is to recognize and celebrate employees’ contributions in a timely manner.

Before implementing change, give employees a voice and listen to their opinions

The anonymous employee "suggestion box" in the factory cafeteria is a stereotypical image for a reason. Giving employees a voice is essential.

Listening to employee feedback is even more critical in hazardous and accident-prone environments.

That said, asking for employees' opinions about how to improve the work environment is only part of the picture. Your manufacturing employees work with your systems and processes day in and day out. They can provide companies with valuable information on ways to improve. 

Organizational research supports this idea.

For example, in 1950, psychologist Alfred Marrow conducted many fascinating experiments on workers at the Harwood clothing factory. For one experiment, he wanted to test the best way to get factory workers to embrace change.

Factory workers were asked to adopt a new process, but workers were divided into a few different groups and given varying degrees of control over the new process.

The results were astonishing. Those who were forced to make changes (without being asked for feedback or recommendations) suffered. There were more complaints, and their productivity dropped by 20% and never recovered.

Workers who were asked for their opinions and gave their feedback to leadership experienced different results. While their productivity initially dropped as they adapted to the new process. It then recovered and exceeded previous rates by 15%.

The findings are clear: giving your employees a chance to be heard fuels a sense of competence and expertise. These feelings are critical for creating a sense of psychological fulfillment at work

Give employees autonomy in experimenting with new ways of doing things

By its very nature, manufacturing is repetitive. Most workers perform the same routine tasks every day. Aside from that, employees don’t have much autonomy in where and when their work gets gone. 

An environment marked by such rigidity is psychologically draining. As such, you can naturally see how workers can become disengaged and easily swayed to leave for a modest bump in salary.

But the manufacturing environment doesn’t have to be so inflexible.

It’s a misconception that manufacturing employees can’t be given autonomy. While manufacturing companies must impose controls for where or when work gets done, they can provide employees with more freedom and control over the process

For example, many companies bring this idea to life by granting employees more freedom to experiment and innovate with new ways of doing things. Or think about cross-training opportunities or role-switching for operators who can get stifled by the same repetitive tasks.

The bottom line, providing development and training opportunities is an important tactic to engage and retain employees. Simply building an environment of learning and exploration can go a long way to cultivating a rich, purpose-driven environment. 

Publicly celebrate work anniversaries

When an employee is celebrating a work anniversary (whether it's one year or five years), it's crucial to acknowledge their loyalty. All it takes is a small gift or celebration. It's the thought that counts. Even if your business doesn't have the resources to implement an official Service Awards Program, it doesn't matter.

For instance, HR can offer a modest budget to managers to host a small lunchtime get-together or make sure managers offer a handwritten anniversary letter for the most important milestones. Writing a card or letter costs very little and will have a powerful impact. 

Conversely, neglecting to recognize a work anniversary can lead to resentment and negative feelings. Anniversary celebrations are a sensitive time for employees; they are likely to evaluate their current job and happiness, so it's important to leave them with a positive impression of your company and culture.

Create opportunities to talk freely about non-work topics

Talking about one's personal life might seem very alien in a manufacturing setting. Men historically dominate these workplaces, and emotions, feelings, and personal stories are checked at the door.

Would things be different if people were allowed to open up to one another? Can a more empathic climate improve collaboration, prevent accidents, and foster a more satisfying work environment?

Shell explored exactly that with its oil rig workers. In the late 1990s, oil rig accidents were rising, and it was not uncommon for oil rig workers to die on the job. As a result, Shell began hosting sessions with Claire Nuer, a respected leadership consultant. In these sessions, employees were asked to open up and talk about their personal stories; to get closer to one another.

In an Invisibilia report, journalist Hanna Rosin explains how the Shell oil company's "vulnerability" seminars had a dramatic impact on the company. The company's accident rate decreased by 84%, and worker productivity improved significantly. 

Even if your company does not have the means to execute company-wide workshops or hire consultants, the idea remains. Encouraging employees to stay open and discussing non-work topics can be a powerful way to create a more fulfilling work environment.

A number of other studies support this claim. 

A recent article on HBR sheds light on what high-performing teams do differently. "Investing time in bonding over non-work topics" and "being more authentic at work" are cited as two key characteristics of high-performing teams. Being authentic means employees feel safe expressing a range of emotions at work — for example, positive emotions — like joking around with a peer. But also negative emotions, like if admitting to making a mistake or feeling upset by something.

In essence, opening the floor to learning about each other creates positive moments and fosters social connections.

Here are some ideas:

  • Asking ice-breaker questions can be a fun way to start meetings. For example, asking people about their first job, their favourite quote, favourite vacation spot, or best advice they’ve received. 
  • Scheduling periodic activity sessions with the goal of simply getting to know each other. Have people share photos from their everyday life and invite them to share a few words about each image.

The quality of our relationships at work determines how emotionally connected we are to our jobs. And people are more likely to feel connected with leaders and colleagues who they know and understand on a personal level. Simply put, being human and genuine at work pays off.

Final Thoughts

When striving to increase employee engagement, most companies want a silver bullet — one action, perk, or program that will instantly fix their problems.

Unfortunately, there are no singular solutions for greater engagement.

Just like personal happiness, cultivating engagement is a continuous process. It's something that everyone — leaders, managers, employees — must nurture every day through small, consistent actions. And remember that the biggest drivers of engagement are intangible

For instance: gratitude, respect, connection, experimentation, play, learning, growth, rest, openness, safety, and autonomy. These are fundamental to motivation. To that end, any initiative you decide to roll out should speak to these basic human needs. And fortunately, for most businesses, they are also the most affordable.

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