Ann, a human resources (HR) generalist, and Steve, a training specialist, have both received the option of working from home three days each week, and their company has been mulling over a policy that would permanently prescribe select positions to move into full-time work-from-home availability. Meanwhile Joe, a line 5 tech, and Sasha, a raw material supervisor, do not have that option. All four have families, and all would enjoy schedule flexibility. Joe and Sasha are not pleased with this development. They feel that since they must show up every day, everyone else should, also.

This scenario is not a statement against allowing certain positions to be able to work from home. Rather, it’s a statement in favor of making sure that while we are making work-from-home options available for more positions, we do not forget employees for whom this option is not possible.

There will inevitably be a segment of operational (production) staff who view the ability to work from home for some “office” personnel as another perk and slap in their face. If the COVID-19 pandemic has done anything, it has shown us how easy it is for employees to be productive outside of the office. The question, however, is how this exodus home will affect the productivity of people who cannot work from home. Will the “perks” of “office people” create a downshift in the morale of operational or production staff? If so, how can we mitigate it?

First, we must look at the production staff’s point of view. For decades, manufacturing has been viewed as “the floor” (production), and other staff have been viewed as “the office” — and the office has always been viewed as receiving the upper hand, whether in terms of salary, time in the facility and seeming importance. Now, they’re also allowed to work in pajama bottoms from their sofa?

What’s the impact of this shift? Does the perceived slight to production staff workers cause them not to give quite as much as they could? Does it have a larger impact on product quality, leading to higher re-work costs? Could it increase product lead times? Does it lead to a reduction in customer satisfaction and, thus, a reduction across the profit margin or bottom line? Just what are the ramifications when only one group receives a perceived perk?

One way to combat this imbalance is to provide production teams with benefits that office teams don’t appear to have. One example is sick time; with office teams working from home, how much “sick time” do they really need? Could we add an extra sick day to production teams? Could we consider a potential schedule change that is more palatable to the production staff? Could we give a production bonus to workers who are deemed “essential” on-site staff? Companies inevitably incur some savings when they have a larger number of employees working from home, potentially making these perks possible, depending on the industry.

What about intangible perks? Here is where learning and development (L&D) teams can have a larger impact. First, L&D professionals are constantly discussing how we can get a “seat at the table” when it comes to business leadership strategy sessions — which is good. We should be having that discussion, but let’s not forget that there is more than one table where we should be aiming to sit. We also want our production staff to view us as partners. We want them to accept us as the people who are looking to help them perform more safely and proficiently — and the people who provide them with the ability to gain new skills in order to grow their career. How can we take advantage of this opportunity to solidify their trust in L&D?

One way is to assess two of the most significant L&D capabilities during this time: availability and visibility. L&D needs to be seen as essential on-site staff (which is not to say that departments cannot create a schedule for some to work from home and some to stay on site).

Availability

Do your production teams have trouble reaching you? Do they always find your office empty and closed like you’re gone for the day? Are you slow to answer their emails? If you have a learning management system (LMS), are you slow about helping when they reach out?

The answers to these questions can be dealbreakers when it comes to how production staff views L&D. You don’t necessarily need to be in your office all day. As a matter of fact, doing so would be counterproductive. There must be a balance; after all, the L&D professional has to have time to work on projects. Rather, consider posting a schedule of when you plan to be in the office. That way, you can have time out of the office doing what we’re going to talk about next …

Visibility

Having worked as operational staff myself for some 10 years, I will say that the office personnel who showed the most interest in me and my growth were the ones I trusted the most. If production staff can physically see their L&D team around the facility, among the people and forging relationships, it goes a long way toward having that seat at the table of trust with production.

Talk about processes. Ask what would have made learning easier for them. Show interest in the things that frustrate them. Keep a pulse on quality assurance (QA) and what the biggest quality issues are. This information will help you know when and how to apply an L&D solution to fix their problems. Plus, when production staff see that you’re interested in fixing what frustrates them, you’ll gain trust. When you’re gathering information to build a new training course, interview your subject matter experts at the point of production, if possible.

Yes, this new workplace environment has caused a void. However, it is an opening for L&D teams. Now is the time to maximize your availability and visibility. Gain the trust of your production teams; let them know by your actions that they are valuable to the organization, not a forgotten casualty. Doing so will not only help establish a great working relationship, but it can have a great impact on the company overall as it maintains a quality product and, ultimately, happy customers.

Availability, trust, visibility venn diagram

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