Business

$19 billion Land O’Lakes is halting churn by offering factory workers flexible schedules

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The least flexible jobs, historically, are in manufacturing. But a recent white paper from industry nonprofit the Manufacturing Institute found flexibility is a top priority for most factory workers—sometimes more than wages. 

Factory workers—who skew older than the average American worker—are in high demand, because AI is not yet sufficiently advanced to do much of their physical labor, and because an aging workforce that retires en masse could hollow out the employee base. In order to retain and snap up talented workers, famed dairy producer Land O’Lakes is reorganizing its business to put flexibility at the very top. 

In February 2022, the company revamped its shift system, allowing its thousands of workers both on the factory floor and in corporate offices to designate their own start times, shift lengths, and days-on-days-off schedules.

Land O’Lakes, No. 213 on the Fortune 500 with over $19 billion in revenue, has seen double the number of applicants and significantly improved retention since implementing its new system, proving flexible work need not be saved for white-collar desk jobs. Mirroring white-collar job application stats, the company is seeing twice the volume of applicants for its flex-role listings as compared to traditional full-time listings. 

So far, flexible work is the official approach at nearly half of Land O’Lakes’ 140 factories nationwide, and the company plans on expanding it to every location over the next few years. Management believes it’s a win-win approach because in a cooling labor market, it’s critical to source talent from often underutilized populations: parents of young children, aging workers, students and part-timers.  

Yone Dewberry is one of the key executives overseeing the shift to flexible work, but he’s not chief people officer, or a future of work manager; rather, he’s the chief supply-chain officer at Land O’Lakes, a position he doesn’t think is at odds with the task. 

Why supply chains need flex

“After Covid, a lot of organizations had trouble figuring out how to deal with labor shortages,” Dewberry told Fortune. “What became clear to me was, we had labor issues with not just our staff workers, but at our production facilities.” 

There are limits to flexibility, however. For the company to continue churning, 4,000 production employees must be in Land O’Lakes plants and warehouses each day. Desk-job workers have significantly more leeway, but Dewberry remains committed to extending opportunities outward. “I worked in a plant for 10 years, so it became evident that we had to do something for them as well,” he said. 

That experience makes him uniquely suited to oversee the rollout. “Factory jobs really require being there,” he said. “The work needs to be done all the time, there’s no putting it aside. Someone’s gotta run that production line.” 

Before the flex plan was enacted, leadership’s perspective was “we have jobs, and we have to fit people into those jobs,” Dewberry recalled. “That’s the way things get done.” 

Now, the flex program rewrites that playbook. 

“It says, we have workers who want to work, but can’t work the normal hours,” he said. “But cows get milked every day, and we have to take in that milk. Our premise asks what employees want to do and when they want to work. How do we redo the work so it fits their lifestyle? It’s a 180 from how we used to think of it.”

The flex plan, Dewberry acknowledged, can never be quite as easy or straightforward as the old, cookie-cutter 12-hour shifts. “But my aspiration is that this works for most of, if not all of, the workers we have.” 

As it stands, some plant workers prefer a four-day workweek, replete with 10-hour days. Others—such as college students—work just three days a week because they’re in classes on the other two days. 

“In the past, we’d have said, ‘that doesn’t work, it’s not how our operations work,’” Dewberry said. “Today … it’s a real matching process.”

And it comes with a real bottom line: luring more workers in during a time when industry peers are struggling to fill out their production line. Flexibility, Dewberry maintains, is “the one thing all the people can rally around.” 

The way of the future

Though staffing every Land O’Lakes factory in accordance with employees’ personal desires may seem insurmountable, Dewberry is undeterred—even if it takes years. 

“We have to revamp what we do,” he said. “Now that we have twice the number of applicants as normal, how are we intaking those? If we need to train more than before, how do we do that? What are the processes, support, and infrastructure changes we need to make to continue on this trajectory?”

There’s no perfect answer, he acknowledged, and different problems will arise at every site. But perhaps the rollout with the firm’s white-collar employees can be a starting model. (Office workers at Land O’Lakes are currently expected to show up around two days per week.)

Dewberry is also committed to the rollout because he sees firsthand how little blue-collar workers have been able to enjoy the newfound flexibility given to office workers. 

“One of the things that makes the two groups common: Both want to have more of a balanced lifestyle than they did prior to Covid,” he said. “Every study tells us that’s the common denominator. As we think about the frontline workforce, we as leaders should continue to be more open about how we could change.” 

The future will require constant new iterations, and constant questioning of entrenched workplace structures. “In the future we have to say, can it be different?” Dewberry said. “There is no going back; it’s all going forward.” 

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