The need to work vs. the need to stay safe

Oct. 13, 2020
In this Big Picture Interview, a new study shows that nearly 75% of industrial workers are feeling caught in this COVID-related conflict.

Dan Johnston is CEO at WorkStep, which was founded in 2017 to help industrial companies screen, hire, and retain their frontline workforce. WorkStep has helped more than 400,000 industrial workers earn over $126 million in jobs placed on the platform, and recently conducted a study surveyed more than 600 industrial workers across the country to gain insight into how those on the front lines view the impact of COVID-19 on industry, as well as their employers’ response. Dan spoke recently with Plant Services chief editor Thomas Wilk about some of those survey findings.

PS: Let's start with one of the data points in your report, and it's the one that focuses on how age affects impact. I was struck by how pessimistic the respondents were about the opportunities were for a post-COVID improvement. Were you surprised by this data point?

DJ: Unfortunately, I wasn't. If you look at overall job satisfaction ranked by industry, what you see over time is that manufacturing and distribution consistently rank the lowest. And therefore, it's possible that older workers, who have spent more time in an industry that has been relatively slow to evolve and prioritize worker interest and worker satisfaction, are simply more jaded to the status quo.

PS: Did you see any overlap between the data point on flight risk (that 58% of workers have sought employment at another company) with other data points? And do you have a sense of whether men or women are predominantly the ones who are looking for new work, or are having trouble sort picking up a new job?

Big Picture Interview

This article is part of our monthly Big Picture Interview column. Read more interviews from our monthly Big Picture series.

DJ: It's a good question. Based on the survey results, only a slightly higher percentage of women sought new jobs during the pandemic than men, about a percent more. That said, when you look at the data point around the concern that financial health and family safety could be in conflict during the pandemic, it would make sense, as our data shows, that this disproportionately affects women. On average in the United States today, women have more than their share of family care duties, both of children and parents, and therefore may be more concerned that any health risk introduced by their job could be carried over to the loved ones in their care.

And that's true across likely any frontline workforce. If you don't feel that your role is 100% COVID-safe, then there's always going to be an internal conflict between the need to work and the need to stay safe. There has been this narrative in the media over the last six months that every job is now a remote job, and that's just not the case. For jobs in manufacturing, production, and distribution, there is no digital equivalent. Your job requires physical presence. As a result, frontline workers suffer not only a great impact on their day-to-day, but also bear more than their fair share of the overall health risk of society.

PS: That's a great point. We've been hearing a movement towards greater interest in remote monitoring, especially when it comes to asset care and asset management, but as you say, we've seen just as much of an interest in fleet management and field service management, as much to keep the workers who are doing the job you described safe and socially distanced as it is to see how many jobs they can get done in a day.

DJ: I think that if there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it's that it has been a forcing function for companies of all sizes to prioritize the health, safety, and satisfaction of their frontline workers. More than that, it's required companies to think of their frontline workers as a first-class constituent right alongside their customers and HQ workers. I would expect the pandemic’s negative impact on job satisfaction to decrease over time. With innovation happening in the realm of workforce safety protocols, as well as technology innovations like WorkStep Retain, the detriments to workforce satisfaction will trend down because companies are investing in making their workers feel supported.

PS: Is there a specific data point or an insight that really struck you as particularly insightful coming out of the WorkStep survey?

DJ: The two major data points that jumped out at me are, first, the leading data point that around 70% of industrial workers feel that their safety and their family's financial security are in conflict. That is an incredibly difficult conflict to face, and the fact that nearly three-quarters of workers in the sector feel that way on a daily basis is, I think, really illuminating and also saddening.

The other data point, which certainly confirms a lot of our learnings at WorkStep, but might not be shared knowledge amongst the industrial sector, is that 94% of industrial workers – 19 out of 20 – are more likely to be retained by a company that listens to and encourages their feedback. Historically, some companies in the industrial sector have tended to treat workers like cogs in a machine, and have not necessarily invested in workforce engagement, specifically for their distributed hourly workforce. What this data point is saying is, "Listen, I want to be a part of this team, and I want the conversation to go in both directions." 94% is a very high portion of people who feel that way.

PS: That is remarkable. That was where my last question was leading towards, so I'll just make a comment and then invite a final comment from you. In the Plant Services survey from earlier this year, we asked our respondents, "Has the business slowdown from COVID-19 revolved any of the following pressing needs in the area of human resources?" And they could choose up to three. For nearly 40% of our readers, the top answer was “better coordination between internal teams on maintenance best practices”. They did not vote strongly for better coordination between plants, or better partnerships with their contractors. They wanted better coordination between internal teams, which aligns really well with what you're saying, that 94% of industrial workers are more likely to stay at a company they feel listens to them.

DJ: Another one of the top predictors of workforce retention, time in and time out, is that a worker feels like there is a high degree of teamwork amongst their team, and also a positive relationship with their manager that allows for bidirectional feedback. We see those sentiments are closely correlated to workforce retention.

To help solve some of these challenges for large industrial companies, WorkStep empowers those organizations to not only ensure that their frontline workforce feels heard, but also to identify those actions that would be the most impactful in improving outcomes for each individual. And so, the WorkStep technology platform is well-suited to help industrial companies navigate these unique challenges that are more pressing than ever in 2020.

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