Human machine collaboration

How industry can unlock the potential of a four-day week

Image credit: BiancoBlue/Dreamstime

By reassessing how fundamental tasks are allocated and automating those that are dirty, dull or dangerous, manufacturers can change how they operate and increase efficiency.

The Covid-19 pandemic has spurred a massive transformation in our approach to work, with terms such as ‘flexible working’ and ‘work-life balance’ rising to prominence in our general lexicon. As our focus remains on improving employee wellbeing and quality of life, in June 2022 more than 3,300 workers at over 70 UK firms began a historic six-month trial of a four-day working week.

Much has been discussed about this change: will it improve productivity; how does it affect mental health; will it be a long-term change? But by and large, these conversations have centred around office workers, suggesting that they will be the ones most able to reap the benefits of such a change.

We must, however, make sure that traditionally ‘blue-collar’ workers, in particular working in the manufacturing sector, do not get left behind in conversations around employee wellbeing and work-life balance. The industry is facing skills and labour gaps, all while trying to improve productivity and redress supply chain issues, meaning a reduction in working hours may currently seem impossible. In fact, by embracing automation, manufacturers may well find more solutions to their problems than expected, while supporting their employees along the way – and even unlocking the possibility of the four-day week.

It is no secret that UK productivity is lagging behind that of its G7 counterparts. This was only heightened by Brexit which ended the UK’s access to a seemingly unlimited pool of labour. On top of this, the industry faces an ageing workforce – an issue 75 per cent of manufacturers are concerned about

With a diminishing workforce managing a growing workload, increasing efficiency and productivity is one of the industry’s primary goals. The answer to this problem lies in collaborative automation technologies. By reassessing how fundamental tasks are allocated, and automating dirty, dull and dangerous jobs, manufacturers can change how they operate and increase efficiency.

The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, technology will create at least 12 million more jobs than it destroys. Robotics and automation are no different. 

While the traditional fear in manufacturing is that robots may replace human labour, this introduction of automation may well be the key to retaining staff. Human labour will always be the single biggest asset a manufacturer has, and if ongoing recruitment challenges have shown us anything, it’s that these employees must be valued more than ever before. 

Automating menial factory tasks will let employees dedicate their time to more stimulating and fulfilling roles. In theory, this would reduce time spent at work and even get rid of the night shift, which is known to have adverse effects on employees’ health. In turn, this could allow for more flexible work patterns and even the possibility of a four-day week, with productivity shortfalls offset by automation.

By implementing these changes, manufacturers will be able to improve the overall perception of these roles and attract more young people into the industry. We will then see the effects ripple out as companies expand their capacity and increase their output.

After all, what could be more appealing to prospective employees than the opportunity to be a part of a pioneering company, leading the way in valuing its workers’ work-life balance? The path to a four-day working week is not as black and white as automation being the easy answer, but what’s clear is that it does present benefits to the workplace which would enable more time off for employees.

Mark Gray is UK and Ireland country manager at Universal Robots.

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