Opinion: Aerospace Workforce Agility In Response To The Pandemic

Credit: CPI Aero

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept in an unprecedented period of crisis and uncertainty for the global aerospace & defense (A&D) sector. As it has evolved and adapted, the industry has responded swiftly. Perhaps the most profound and innovative change involves workforce agility. As challenges vary in different parts of the sector, leaders in both the commercial and defense sectors have focused on their most critical asset: their people.

A&D companies have achieved greater agility through accelerated decision-making and by purposefully executing on those decisions. They have implemented immediate and contingent safety measures, remote work arrangements (when possible), revised production schedules and, in some cases, leaner organizations. To make those changes, leaders have had to swiftly embrace new ways of working and deploy digital productivity tools in an accelerated fashion. 

Other sectors are also experiencing increased agility. According to PwC’s COVID-19 CFO Pulse Survey, cross-industry finance leaders say their companies are drawing strength from the forced adaptations and workarounds they have experienced during the past few months. The majority of respondents (72%) believe their companies will be more agile going forward.  

Disruption has triggered organizational—and individual—agility. Businesses have been quick to introduce enhanced safety measures and flexibility policies across the enterprise—from the shop floor to the warehouse to office facilities. For many A&D companies, the pandemic has not only sped up decision-making but also changed the nature of how decisions are made, including a shift from the traditional top-down hierarchy to a more distributed decision-making model. 

Examples of such delayering of decision-making include ones focused on working environments. Historically, such decisions were made by high-level business-unit leaders, but they are now being made by team managers. Companies, particularly those in commercial aerospace, have also navigated a set of difficult decisions regarding rightsizing their workforce to preserve overall organizational health and sustainability. 

The pandemic has forced companies to become more agile as well. For example, policies about benefits, flexible work arrangements and remote working are a few initiatives that were fast-tracked—and they have accelerated future ways of working for a significant portion of the A&D workforce. 

The phenomenon of “worker preference” has also been introduced by the pandemic: What can a company do if a worker does not feel comfortable returning to work on-site? 

As entire workforces become more digitally savvy, companies are discovering that the digital divide among cohorts is starting to narrow, making for a more collaborative and productive workforce—regardless of whether they are working remotely or on-site. With so many employees tethered to screens, some businesses have found this to be a prime opportunity to improve employees’ digital fitness (e.g., upskilling in digital technologies that introduce data modeling, design thinking or quantum computing). This enhancement of digital skills can add greatly to an employee’s capacity for change and opportunities for growth.

In some cases, employees working in Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF) have been allowed to work remotely—an action that was largely unheard of before this crisis. SCIF work environments also have been quickly redesigned to allow employees to return to work safely.

Many A&D manufacturers have moved quickly to innovate new ways of working such as changing shifts and revamping worker movement on the floor to keep employees safe and production going. 

Given the shift toward more remote working arrangements, companies have had to reconsider their physical footprint strategy going forward. 

Moreover, this new era has made human resources all the more critical, and the rise of HR is powered by data. New workforce strategies are being marshaled by chief human resources officers and other “people leaders,” which has widened their leadership role and spheres of influence. Deploying the right HR technologies has been and will remain crucial in managing the workforce. Equipped with data analytics teams, real-time dashboards, contact-tracking capabilities and workforce modelers, organizations can make scenario-driven decisions around workforce safety, capacity and cost management. 

As A&D companies continue to redefine work in the era of COVID-19, they will be looking closely at which of the changes they have experienced during these past few months are worth making permanent. To do this, they will need to encourage and incentivize all employees to innovate their ways of working that not only align to their personal and professional preferences but that also contribute to the business’ agility, productivity and recovery. 

Now, equipped with comprehensive workforce data and scenario-driven analytics tools, organizations are able to demonstrate a new, powerful level of agility. Ongoing examinations of workforce policies, rightsizing opportunities and “people” analytics tools from the entire organization-—from the C-Suite to the shop floor—will help perpetuate and foster even greater agility than many A&D companies are experiencing during the COVID-19 crisis.

Miguel Smart is Partner, U.S. Aerospace and Defense Operations Strategy at PwC and specializes in strategy, transformation and change across the A&D value chain.

John Karren, People and Change Partner at PwC, is a people and finance transformation specialist who focuses on leading the change and structure of related initiatives of programs and technology implementations.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.