19 December 2022

Sticky workforce: sustaining the speed of innovation in VUCA times

by Afera President Evert Smit, who is also director scouting at Lohmann GmbH & Co. KG. for DICHT! Magazine

If today you ask employees and management—not only in the adhesive industry—what are the top 3 problems that their companies are most concerned about, I am sure these topics or questions will come up:

  • Supply chain problems: What do you get, when, of what quality, and at what prices?
  • Commodity price trends: When you get them, how much more expensive are they than yesterday?
  • Energy crisis: Will we have enough energy this winter at a price we can afford?

Unfortunately, however, this consideration forgets—as usual—the 2 longer-term issues that will determine the success or failure of our industry in the coming years. These are issues of which their implementation cannot be postponed. In my last column, I highlighted sustainability and the circular economy as driving forces for the future. This time I want to focus on the "drive" itself: Who is starting the journey with us? This is particularly relevant for the adhesives and tapes industry because, although we represent a technology of the future, we are—let’s face it—not really "sexy" per se.

Retaining and attracting employees should actually be the top priority of management in the regular issues they deal with. Because without committed employees, a company is just an empty shell. And we should stop looking only for talent. Today we have an employee market, i.e. young people choose from the multitude of potential companies. And we should also beware of making the increasingly complex professional life easier than it is, just to keep people. What we need is a truly sticky workforce - consisting of people with an open mind and a "young" mindset. The ones who can and want to make the necessary changes are important.

At Afera, we chose to focus the 2019 Annual Conference on the workforce of the future to emphasise this importance. Mind you, these people can be 26 or 61, as long as they can deal with the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) of today's world. Many are slowed down, however, by "4 modified Ps", and here we are not talking about the "marketing Ps" but by processes, procedures, protocols and old-fashioned management. Even more so in our industry than in many hipper and bigger industries, affecting our competition in the labour market. This requires new strategy.

Management today is far too much about processes instead of content. Beautifully designed processes, fantastic Gantt charts, impressive charts and a whole range of well-thought-out KPIs are often more about appearance than reality. And then all the controlling bells and whistles, as if we were looking for employees for accounting jobs in the future of gluing.

But please don't misunderstand: Careful protocols are important to ensure that nothing goes wrong. But they never ensure that new directions are pursued or that things are going right. For example, time tracking and registration are no longer just tools, they have become goals—soon, unfortunately, to be regulated by law. Let's just be aware of one small fact: our salaries are paid per hour worked. We have salary scales based on position. So we are not paid for what we do. This strange mechanism probably started at the beginning of the 20th century when (attendance) time = money. Everything was and is monetised. What a pathetic view of (working) life.

Even considering people as the "most valuable asset" of a company is misleading, because people are not a commodity. And especially with regard to the younger part of a workforce, we have to become aware of another fact: In the hierarchical cultures their parents grew up in, monetisation and shareholder value thinking led to layoffs when profits did not meet arbitrary targets. Many experienced this in their families. As a result, there is very little trust in employers—I wonder where that comes from.

This all leads me to the 4 P's I mentioned. They are not used to change a course, they are used to maintain a course or at least to slow down the changing of course. This makes them obsolete today, because the future is no longer an extension of the past and never will be again. VUCA—this is what we have to deal with: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Bob Johansen proposed a great alternative in 2007: vision, understanding, clarity and adaptability. Unlike "my generation", the younger ones see all of the above and are less inclined to "do whatever it takes to get the job done" or "give 110%". They know what the world can offer them elsewhere. They will either not come, take it easier ("quit quietly") or leave. Which of these is worst, everyone can decide for themselves.

So we need to rethink how we keep people in our important industry and how we make it "sexy". Less management and bureaucracy, an end to neo-feudalistic management pyramids, more trust and less supervision are key levers. We practised all of these during the pandemic with good results. But that also means an end to the insanity of time tracking, spreadsheet management and managing projects solely on the basis of KPIs. No dashboard leads down an unknown road to an unclear destination, imagination does. We need to give staff the freedom to solve the challenges in their own way, create the appropriate framework and make them enjoy their respective jobs in the glue sector more. If the news spreads, more people will come to work with us on the necessary developments. This is how the future is created—and in our industry. And finally, you can choose a song for the soundtrack to the future*:

  • Road to Nowhere (Talking Heads)
  • Highway to Hell (AC/DC)
  • Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)

*Note: Only the titles are significant; the contents of the songs can be misleadingly understood and are sometimes discussed controversially.

Visit https://www.isgatec.com/artikel/sticky-workforce-innovationsgeschwindigkeit-in-vuca-zeiten-aufrechterhalten/34930 to read the article in the original German.