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The Future of Flexible Work in Manufacturing

Workforce Priorities for a Hybrid World

Future of Work

The Workforce Question

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturers’ visions for the future of work were rapidly evolving. Digitalization, as a defining feature for roles and processes, introduced new data-enabled ways of working, and raised expectations for innovation and productivity gains.

Under the umbrella of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, advances in digital capabilities and automation accelerated during the pandemic. Today, as vaccination levels rise and demand snaps back, the experience of 2020 further elevated another critical dynamic for ongoing recovery and reshaping of the next normal.

“Hybrid work represents the biggest shift to how we work in our generation.”

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

Talent management is the defining challenge for manufacturers navigating the immediate post-pandemic future of work. Alternative, technology-enabled models of working were forged in the crucible of virtual work for the sake of business continuity and are creating different expectations.

Departments and functions that previously did not have remote work opportunities learned how to sustain productivity. Shutdowns and disruption tested manufacturers: Essential workers rose to the occasion with remarkable resilience. How much will the COVID-19 experience represent a blip or break point in traditional, facility-based work and talent management as economic conditions improve and more employees return to work onsite in the U.S.?

Flexible work models – including hybrid in-person and remote options – are one of the more immediate decisions manufacturing executives face in this next phase.  What exactly flexibility means for companies and employees is still uncertain, and a variety of models are likely viable. In a grand experiment, manufacturers will see how competitors and peers perform with different work models across different roles, departments, companies, and industries. Will early adopters have an advantage in the labor market? How will hybrid arrangements affect company culture? Real estate costs? Will companies that lose talent from well-intentioned decisions be able to course-correct?  

As the sector also faces an entrenched and expanding skills gap – and an increasingly outdated perception gap about modern manufacturing – talent shortages add urgency for leaders to define a new, more flexible work model for salaried and factory employees alike. The process of including employee voice and preference in company policy may prove more important than ever for setting a vision and tone that engages. Leaders recognize that stakes for talent retention and development have never been higher and will separate high- and low-performing organizations in this immediate post-pandemic period and beyond.

The Manufacturers Alliance, in partnership with Aon, surveyed nearly 400 human resources and function leaders in manufacturing to understand strategy, organizational and department priorities, barriers, and tactics for change management for the next 1-3 years. This report provides data insights to help leaders compare their readiness on the dimensions of the post-pandemic future of work, including areas of change and continuity for the workforce, and how work gets done.

Hybrid Future of Work Centers On Flexibility

Work Arrangements for Employees Able to Work Virtually

Hybrid Future of Work Chart

Executive Summary

As industrial manufacturers shift from their pandemic response for business continuity to focus their energies on recovery and growth, many are already advancing toward reshaping their business for a new era. Acceleration in organizational change, not a reset to the pre-pandemic norm or pace, is the consensus view.

The Manufacturers Alliance, in partnership with Aon, conducted survey research and executive interviews to understand the emerging trends and outlooks to help leaders benchmark and prioritize future-of-work initiatives in 12 critical areas during the next 1-3 years. Future competitiveness will continue to demand more organizational agility and resilience.

Five findings reflect key considerations for executives to manage in this immediate post-pandemic future of work.

  • Talent acquisition, development, and retention are the defining, high-stakes challenges for the post-pandemic future of work – More than half of executives rank talent availability among top factors shaping the future of work in the next 1-3 years. Along with retention challenges and the acute digital skills gap, organizations’ needs are foundational for change management: skills for leadership, adaptability, collaboration, and communication.
  • Hybrid work will be the prevailing model for salaried workers in manufacturing – 80% of manufacturing respondents expect their organizations will formalize a flexible remote and in-person work model (at least one day virtual) for employees during the next 12 months, a nearly 7x increase from the pre-pandemic level. At the factory level, expectations for flexibility in alternative schedules are also rising amid workforce shortages.
  • More companies are developing inclusive taskforces, not a one-size-fits-all strategy, to define their hybrid model – Only 15% of organizations report a top-down, corporate-led approach to defining the company work model; few have documented a uniform approach across locations; and indications are that a third expect employee preference, not company policy, to be the primary driver of work arrangement – a 4x increase from before the pandemic.
  • Cultural resistance to change is the primary barrier to future-of-work strategies and priorities – 59% of executives report that cultural resistance, not resources or expertise, is the primary organizational challenge, signaling an imperative for workforce adaptability and change management.
  • Emerging work priorities reflect likely shifts in focus longer-term – Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have seen renewed attention during the pandemic period and are the areas with high expectations for integration with future of work. Uncertainty remains in areas such as onshoring in the U.S.

Read the full report to see how manufacturing companies are primed for change, emerging from historic disruption and now planning future-of-work initiatives while building an adaptable culture to retain talent in a hybrid world.

View Full Report


Ken Abosch

Ken S. Abosch

Partner, Aon

Yanina Koliren

Yanina Koliren

Partner, Aon

Jeffrey Ryer

Jeffrey Ryer, Ph.D

Associate Partner, Aon

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About Aon

Aon plc (NYSE: AON) is a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions. Our 50,000 colleagues in 120 countries empower results for clients by using proprietary data and analytics to deliver insights that reduce volatility and improve performance.