More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional methods of training workers, flexible packaging companies continue fine-tuning their approaches that rely on technology to limit face-to-face contact. The changes also account for the increasing reliance on automation, a trend driven by the ongoing shortage of skilled workers, particularly in manufacturing.
But rather than see the need for change as a short-term challenge, companies are embracing it as a long-term opportunity. The efforts encompass not just training for employees but also scheduling and communication.
“We’re using technology in more ways than ever before,” says Jannick Thomsen, chief people and digital officer at Sealed Air Corp., based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sealed Air, for example, has been developing an application that will provide employees with on-demand access to learning and professional development. “These programs are designed to be short, snackable content that people can build into their day, without taking up their whole day.”
Predating the Pandemic
Manufacturers were turning to digital and automated tools before the pandemic struck in early 2020, according to Indrė Žebrauskaitė, a senior analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International. COVID-19 accelerated the trends.
The aviation industry, for example, had long relied on virtual reality (VR) to train pilots, Žebrauskaitė says. During the pandemic, companies began using VR to train mechanics and manufacturing staff.
At Boeing, VR allows mechanics to virtually handle tools they will use on-site and learn what it will look and feel like to work with them in the real world, she says. Luxury automaker Porsche is using VR to educate workers on the various components that go into electric vehicles.
Technologies like VR and its cousin, augmented reality, ensure access to training without the need for direct human interaction, which has been critical during the pandemic, Žebrauskaitė says. But they also make training smoother, faster, and more flexible.
“Moreover, trainees can get better personal ‘attention’ and feedback from the training system, which would be impossible with one trainer and numerous trainees at a time,” she adds.
At many companies, the pandemic-fueled shift to digital tools spurred a closer look at the mix among classroom, virtual, and hands-on training.
C-P Flexible Packaging introduced digital training over the past year for supervisors and managers, according to Bret A. Bowersox, vice president of human resources for the company, based in York, Pennsylvania, that has operations at 10 locations in the U.S. and Canada.
The company also provided online training to all employees on security and technology, and it supplemented safety training with online programs, Bowersox says, adding that the increasingly digital nature of work is affecting all roles at C-P Flexible Packaging.
“Everything we do and operate is connected and requires a need to interact digitally. Employees are entering real-time data into our systems right on the floor,” he says. “We are dependent on digital systems being up and running.”
TC Transcontinental Packaging also is increasing the use of a learning management platform to provide a variety of safety, quality, process, and leadership training, says Cindy Bauman, senior vice president of human resources at the company. “Digitalization is a key component to modernization in our plants and requires a combination of digital, operational, and process knowledge,” she says.
But despite the growing reliance on digital tools, companies still recognize the value of human interaction, particularly when it comes to career development and mentoring.
Sealed Air, for example, is building out a program that pairs employees with leaders in their departments. “This gives them face time—virtually or in person—with peers, which allows them to make connections, get advice, and give feedback on their experience,” Thomsen says.
Shifting Shift Work
Employee scheduling is another area undergoing reinvention.
While office staff was largely able to work from home during the pandemic—and move to a hybrid model over the past year—production workers are usually needed on-site.
Nonetheless, they are increasingly interested in more flexible scheduling and a better work-life balance. Flexible packaging companies are responding to the demand while keeping in mind their business needs. “Managing staff, working both remotely and on the production floor, has been a challenge for manufacturing companies, requiring innovative solutions—including virtual workspace, remote supervision and management tools, timely digital work tracking systems, etc.,” Žebrauskaitė says.
C-P Flexible added multiple shifts to accommodate employee interest in flexibility, Bowersox says. The company’s flagship plant in York now offers 30 different schedules. They vary in terms of shift length, workweek, and rotation options. “This helps with flexibility for the employees and the company’s needs, as well,” Bowersox says.
TC Transcontinental Packaging, meanwhile, is creating digital tools to build employee schedules, as well as to manage time off and request shift trades, Bauman says. The company also is adopting alternative work schedules and shift arrangements, particularly for entry-level positions. In addition, the company is looking for employees from nontraditional sources, including students, teachers, part-time workers, and retirees. “Reshaping the way we work in our production environments to attract and retain team members has been—and continues to be—a priority in our manufacturing facilities,” Bauman says.
Indeed, flexible start times and the opportunity to swap shifts lead to greater employee satisfaction, says Žebrauskaitė, citing the example of a manufacturer in New Hampshire.
The company allowed employees to start between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. About 80% stuck to a 6 a.m. start time, she says. “Yet, employees felt better about having a chance to decide by themselves.”
Given the sudden twists of the current economy, companies also see a need for better communication outside of traditional training channels.
“We’re using digital signage in our plants and virtual platforms to host events such as ‘town halls’ and plant tours—connecting employees with leadership, information and experiences that we couldn’t before,” Thomsen says. Sealed Air also is using its communications channels to highlight and show appreciation for the work of its employees, he adds. “It’s a way to recognize the hard work that’s going on across our company, and reinforce the caring, inclusive culture that we’re building on.”
Manufacturers have been improving online communications between managers and production workers to ensure any problems are addressed quickly, without involving long chains of command, Žebrauskaitė says. “Manufacturing companies working on a hybrid basis stress that the reduced need for physical visits to factories, production sites, and other business-related travel not only cuts costs, but also allows them to make faster decisions, deal with issues, and improve overall communication,” she says.
The digital transformation is affecting what skills and qualities flexible packaging companies seek in new employees, even for production roles.
For Sealed Air, the baseline is comfort working in a digital environment, Thomsen says. “That means being able to work independently and in groups, being self-motivated, and having the initiative and curiosity to be successful—whether that means working remotely, a hybrid of home/office, or in one of our plants.”
The company also is working closely with local colleges and universities to help educators grasp the ins and outs of a modern manufacturing job. “We’ve found that more visibility at the college level is helping us fill those critical roles,” Thomsen says.
Sealed Air’s digital investments include the launch of a new digital packaging brand called “prismiq,” a portfolio of solutions for design services, digital printing, and smart packaging.
TC Transcontinental Packaging shifted its hiring practices to include assessments not just on the required skills and aptitude, but also on leadership skills. The evaluations gauge a candidate’s ability to adapt and act as a change agent, collaborate cross-functionally, promote diverse and inclusive teams, and embrace opportunities to engage in experiences outside of the defined job, Bauman says. “While digitalization increases the need for advanced technological skills, it also requires that our leaders shift,” she adds.
TC Transcontinental Packaging is keeping an eye on the potential need to reskill operators and technicians, as the company invests in new equipment, Bauman says. The company formed a manufacturing excellence team in 2021 to support its existing capabilities and new capital projects. “Several of our manufacturing sites are actively engaged in identifying the right technologies and systems to automate,” she says.
Looking further ahead, TC Transcontinental Packaging is rolling out four projects to change the way it attracts and retains workers. The ideas for the projects emerged from a companywide workshop and will require leadership from cross-functional teams that include hourly employees. “Incorporating a flexibility mindset in our leadership teams, our manufacturing sites, and our production schedules while at the same time providing employees a chance to have more control of the hours and jobs they work—along with opportunities to con-tinually develop their skills—will differentiate us in the manufacturing talent market,” Bauman says.
“These past few years have shown us that we are in this together,” she adds. “Inclusivity of thought is critical, and we believe our openness and willingness to share ideas that are heard provide us a competitive advantage.”
The workplace has changed dramatically over the past three years, and the changes are not over, particularly given the value companies see in digital tools.
“Digitizing work creates more efficiency and optimizes effort, letting employees work on things that are bringing a higher level of contribution to the company,” Thomsen says. “These critical activities are the ones driving business results.”
Joel Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pennsylvania.