EXPLORING WORK ENGAGEMENT OF THE FRONTLINE MANUFACTURING SECTOR

Breen, John (2019) EXPLORING WORK ENGAGEMENT OF THE FRONTLINE MANUFACTURING SECTOR. Doctoral thesis, Waterford Institute of Technology.

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Abstract

Work engagement has captured attention in recent decades as a key organisational metric to enhance and sustain employee performance (Wollard and Shuck, 2011). It has also been identified as a critical factor for an organisation’s success and competitive advantage (Macey and Schneider, 2008; Rich et al., 2010). Despite the clear advantages of having a highly-engaged workforce, annual global engagement surveys show very little improvement in engagement levels over the past decade (Saks and Gruman, 2014). This issue of low engagement is particularly acute for frontline staff, as Anaza et al. (2016) reported that disengagement among frontline roles is alarmingly high due in part to the failure of the service provider to manage the emotional requirements of their position, thus leading to emotional disengagement. This study is focused on engagement levels of frontline operators in a manufacturing organisation as such a staff group can offer a competitive differentiation to organisations (Menguc et al., 2016) due to their direct impact on the customer experience (Popli and Rizvi, 2017). For such a group of frontline manufacturing staff, three main drivers of work engagement are proposed – leadership style, followership and autonomy. The focus on leadership style is linked to its ability to influence behaviours of subordinates in work (Sarti, 2014); the focus on followership supports Kelley’s (1988) findings on the quality of followers that subordinates may not follow leaders who employ directive approaches to managing a business, and finally, the inclusion of autonomy recognises that a frontline operator must be given a considerable degree of discretion in order to demonstrate high levels of engagement (Harter et al., 2002). The main research question to be addressed is how these three factors influence work engagement levels of frontline operators in a standardised manufacturing operation. An exploratory case study approach in a manufacturing organisation where the author is employed was chosen to address this question, and the research methods included an initial survey to establish baseline levels of engagement followed by semi-structured interviews with managers, supervisors and frontline staff. This approach answers the need for more interpretive methods when studying who people are and what they do in work (Jenkins and Delbridge, 2013) and the mixture of a survey combined with interviews allow a check on Kim et al. (2013)’s claim that subjective data based on personal experiences may be difficult to measure. Initially, the survey findings suggested that a relatively high percentage of operators believed that they were engaged; however, a deeper investigation through the semi-structured interviews concluded that approximately one third of the cohort (34%) can be considered to be engaged in a manner consistent with Kahn’s view of engagement. Most of the remaining operators are viewed as being engaged within boundaries – with group norms frequently cited as a reason for a ceiling on engagement levels. Finally, there were a group of disengaged operators who had high levels of self-awareness; this reinforces May et al., (2004) who linked lower levels of self-consciousness with less availability to engage in work tasks. The interviews also explored the influence of the three key drivers on engagement levels, and variations were noted; for example, those frontline workers who considered themselves to be engaged believed that they were in control of their job, and supervisors were largely adopting a supportive, shared leadership approach. This contrasts with the disengaged operators who feared a negative reaction from co-workers if engaging with management; these workers tended to be managed on a transactional basis by supervisors. In terms of a theoretical contribution, the role of followership emerged, offering a new perspective on work engagement levels; for example, those who are engaged within boundaries fit into the passive / conforming roles outlined by Kelley (2008). Furthermore, it was found that while there are limits to the extent of autonomy in this manufacturing environment, very few viewed this as an impediment to engagement levels. These findings have implications for a range of stakeholders in the manufacturing organisation (managers, supervisors and frontline operators) which are considered at the end of this study. From a management perspective, this includes embracing a more transformational approach to dealing with frontline staff while recognising that the mature age of the workforce in this organisation would make it difficult to expect big changes to engagement levels due in part to the considerable tenure with the organisation – with many coming towards the end of their careers. For the frontline operators, it highlights the positive aspects of improved engagement levels such as greater ability to work independently and a greater sense of job enrichment while acknowledging that there may be negative aspects if one is seen to be violating group norms. The study concludes with suggestions for future research and an acknowledgement of the research limitations. Keywords: Work Engagement, Leadership Style, Followership, Autonomy.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Work Engagement, Leadership Style, Followership, Autonomy
Departments or Groups: *NONE OF THESE*
Divisions: School of Business > Department of Management and Organization
Depositing User: Derek Langford
Date Deposited: 01 Oct 2020 12:18
Last Modified: 01 Oct 2020 12:18
URI: http://repository.wit.ie/id/eprint/3464

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