How to communicate with manufacturing workers about new tech

Practical tips from The World Economic Forum, University of Cambridge and the Manufacturing Workers of the Future initiative.

Communicating with front-line manufacturing workers is always tricky. Not tied to desks and devices, these vital employees take extra finesse to reach consistently and with an understanding of the challenges of their roles.

But one of the most critical moments to consult, consider and communicate with manufacturing workers is when rolling out a new technology that will impact their day-to-day activities. From an expensive new piece of industrial machinery to something as simple as a new phone installation, laying the foundation before, during and after rollout can be the difference between a successful implementation and tech gathering dust in the corner.

The World Economic Forum, the University of Cambridge members of the Manufacturing Workers of the Future initiative collaborated on an in-depth report, “Views from the Manufacturing Front Line: Workers’ Insights on How to Introduce New Technology.”

The excellent report is worth reading in full for its in-depth insights gleaned from interviews with 85 frontline manufacturing employees in the U.S., Europe and Asia who work for large, multinational organizations. But here are a few highlights to consider the next time you’re tasked with a new tech rollout.

Preparing workers before the new tech

One of the most important – yet most overlooked – moments in the launch cycle is preparation. Without laying the groundwork for the new technology, workers may not understand the purpose of the tools being implemented – or even fearful that they can lead to job loss.

The report stresses the importance of “explaining the why.” Rather than focusing just on how new technology will be implemented, it found that workers “were especially appreciative of employers who were able to communicate tangibly the benefits of adopting new technology – for example, by making workers’ lives easier or facilitating the identification of errors or faults.”

In fact, simply having honest, open conversations with employees can alleviate many of the pressure points before they arise. Taking the time to explain how the decisions to change technology were reached can foster trust and build buy-in for technology by creating a transparent, rather than opaque, process. Critically, this should involve conversations with at least some of the workers who will be using the technology before it’s implemented.

The report focuses on a case study of new phones that were installed on a manufacturing line. The phones included Microsoft Teams – something the workers would never use – but removed a useful call-forwarding feature. Bringing in an office-based solution for these front-line workers made them feel unheard and disregarded. More conversations before the rollout would have made them feel involved and ensured they kept a valued feature in their toolbox.

It can also help prevent costly but ineffective investments. The report details another case where tablets were purchased for use on a manufacturing line, but spotty internet connectivity made them all but useless. Talking to workers ahead of time during a risk assessment could have helped management see why this idea needed to be taken back to the drawing board.

Finally, ensure that these pre-rollout conversations include a diverse group of people. Diverse, in this case, can mean many things. It means workers who perform a variety of roles on the floor, from supervisors to the person who sweeps the floor. It should also include people of a variety of ability levels, not simply the strongest workers, who might skew results. And finally, diversity in age, gender and geography are also important to ensure all bases are covered and all voices are heard.

Take your time on this phase. Good prep will make every other step along the way easier.

Making rollouts work

After you’ve laid the initial groundwork comes time for training and implementation. There are pitfalls and opportunities here, too.

For more information on how to access the full story and become a member of Ragan’s Communications Leadership Council, reach out here.

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.