Business: The Future of Shift Work
How will the future of shift work be shaped?
Shift workers are a crucial part of the workforce anywhere. Often assuming physically intensive roles, such as in manufacturing, construction, mining, warehousing, logistics, retail or maintenance, they fulfill an important function in society.
The skills possessed by shift workers are easily transferable as they don’t require a high degree of specialisation; and while “low-skilled” is often a term associated with shift work, the phrase undermines their importance in keeping the wheels of our economies running round the clock, with over 160 million informal workers in Southeast Asia.
In Singapore alone, industries such as manufacturing, construction, utilities, wholesale and retail trade, and transportation sectors—which hire a number of shift workers—contributed almost half of Singapore’s 2020 GDP of S$469 billion, underscoring their importance in the economy.
The importance of shift workers
COVID-19 has caused a global reset, pushing many of us to reassess different aspects of work and life. At the pandemic’s onset, white-collar jobs quickly pivoted to remote or hybrid work, but the situation looked very different for shift workers, given the industries they worked in were perhaps hit hardest by the pandemic.
The early stages of the pandemic saw a more rapid increase in unemployment among shift workers. While the unemployment rate among non-PMETs (comprising mostly shift workers) grew from 4.7% to 6.4% between June 2019 and June 2020, the increase in unemployment among PMETs was much more subdued, growing from 2.9% to 3.5%.
It is clear that although many of their roles are considered ‘essential’, shift workers have borne the brunt of COVID-19.
The pandemic has put different kinds of pressures on this segment of the labour market. For many of our logistics clients, social distancing measures meant factories and warehouses had to go about business maintaining stringent standard operating procedures. This resulted in factories working at lesser capacity, while coping with a surge in demand due to e-commerce transactions owing to the pandemic.
Rapidly changing demand and supply dynamics in this segment of work have made things difficult for many companies we work with, particularly as they try to come to terms with frequent changes in safe distancing and work regulations.
Addressing challenges with shift work
Shift workers afford a level of flexibility to managers and allow them to manage this flexibility. This fluidity in terms of having more or fewer workers depending on demand at any point can be cost-effective when set up properly, and it means businesses are not burdened with the costs of maintaining an idle workforce.
But there are other challenges associated with the recruitment and management of shift workers as we have seen in many companies that manage a large shift workforce, especially across multiple locations.
One key aspect of meeting business demands is to ensure there are enough workers to meet this demand. Often, we hear about companies faced with situations where workers don’t show up, and when they do, they’re faced with a high rate of worker churn. This is further compounded by the difficult and time-consuming process of hiring workers in large numbers. The pandemic has also seen recruitment changes in affected industries such as food and beverages. When Singapore entered its first Circuit Breaker in 2020, a slowdown in the restaurant business resulted in a number of workers having to turn to other sectors for employment. As lockdowns ease and the economy recovers, the industry might face a shortage of workers, making hiring even more competitive.
Businesses typically desire quick access to a large pool of on-demand workers who are both reliable and trained – just availability is not nearly enough. Some of the most successful companies we work with in the warehousing and logistics space handled this predicament well, and increased both worker fulfilment and retention, just by using a data-first hiring approach to support recruitment needs, thereby reducing time and resources required to rehire or train workers.
This has helped these companies particularly in times of sudden demand surges – for instance, when e-commerce sites have sale periods, or around the time of festivities. In such a context, using a workforce management platform with an integrated labour marketplace has made it much easier to hire from a large pool of trained, reliable, trustworthy workers.
Similarly, managing a large roster of shift workers is difficult and can become unwieldy. Many companies currently use different solutions to manage their floor operations. While one solution might track worker attendance, another allots shifts, and a third keeps a tab on days of work and compensation payable.
But we have seen that fragmented systems result in fragmented data, which makes it difficult for managers to sync all of this information in real time to arrive at actionable insights. The use of fragmented systems also means there is no real-time visibility over the workforce, businesses are unable to respond to workforce gaps immediately, and reporting is retrospective and usually delayed due to time needed to reconcile all the information.
These gaps are not always apparent – many businesses we speak to have used the same processes for years, and often overlook the importance of having visibility when managing a large shift workforce. It is only when these businesses plan to set up new locations or scale, that they discover the need to address the question of visibility, or handle the widening gaps in data. To begin with, it is hard to estimate optimal workforce requirements at different points in a day or a week. Additionally, keeping tabs on requirements, who has come in on what days, who has worked how many hours, considering overtime rates – becomes difficult if there is no consolidated, streamlined process to bring all this information together and truly know the health of your workforce performance.
The management of a shift workforce without a solution that integrates all of this information is even more challenging when a greater amount of information has to be synced as businesses scale. More locations mean more data across fragmented systems, which will only prolong the time taken in the reconciliation of information, and leave more room for error.
Workforce management can be streamlined and made efficient if all of this data is processed simultaneously in real time, allowing businesses to take effective decisions quickly.
The next step
We’ve seen several industries experience difficulties owing to the pandemic, resulting in a fall in the demand for shift labour. But as the economy recovers, we expect their demand for shift workers to increase rapidly. Their HR teams must be prepared for this eventuality.
The continued use of either manual processes or fragmented systems is not going to help in this respect. But it is never too late for businesses to get on the digital transformation journey and employ systems that can enhance workforce management and productivity.
Organisations must act proactively. Implementing integrated, automation-driven tools can offer performance data to help manage workers and enhance productivity by helping managers track retention, recurring worker rates, punctuality and worker feedback. We have seen businesses not only saving costs, but also facilitating their march towards business growth by taking the right recruitment and operational decisions that consider future workforce enablement.
There are several HR solutions today for white collar workers, but workforce management applies to shift work too. If done well, it can help these organisations make big gains in workforce productivity.
About Mathew Ward
Mathew is the CEO and Founder of Workmate. He has over two decades worth of experience in building high-growth businesses and teams in the APAC market, and has worked with startups across Australia, Japan, and the UK. Prior to founding Workmate, he was the CEO and founding team member of Admax Network (acquired by Komli Media), Managing Director APAC for Lotame where he set up and launched their Asian business, and served on the advisory board of Ardent Capital.