Germany

Coping with an ageing workforce

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elderly_man_holding_a_custom_text_sign_12871Many companies with an ageing workforce worry about declining productivity.

BMW decided to do something about it. They set up a programme which has been so successful it is now being rolled out in Germany, Austria, and the USA.

BMW realised that the average age of workers would rise from 39 to 47 by 2017 (that doesn’t seem that old to me but then I like the definition of middle age being someone older than me). Because older workers tend to have longer periods of sickness and need to work harder to maintain their output, BMW worried that this would undermine their strategy of enhancing competitiveness through technological leadership and productivity improvements.

Of course this is a trend all across the developed world. Comparing over-65s now with 2020 shows that in the USA that group will grow from 12.5% to 16.6%, in Japan from 17.1% to 26.2%, and in Germany from 16.4% to 21.6%. In the UK the figures are 18% rising to just under 20%. Another concern is that healthcare is three times as expensive for over 65s than for 30 – 50 year-olds.

In the past older workers were either dismissed or forced into early retirement but this was not an option for a company like BMW which prides itself on being a dependable employer – vital in a world where employee engagement is at an all-time low. This is also bad for the country. Past waves of early retirements has increased the numbers of retired workers leaving fewer people in the workforce supporting retirement costs.

Moving older employees to less physically demanding jobs is also not an option if there are no younger workers coming in to replace them, and in many countries this would also be seen as discriminatory.

So BMW chose a production line as a pilot and staffed it with a year 2017 mix of workers ie with an average age of 47. Then the foremen, supported by senior managers and technical experts, developed changes to improve productivity including managing health care, enhancing workers skills and the working environment, introducing part-time policies and change-management processes.

Initially there was resistance to the “pensioners’ line“: from the younger members of that team (42 people) who thought they would suffer a drop in productivity because of the older workers, and from older workers elsewhere in the factory who thought they might become less productive if they were moved from their comfort zone to the new line.

Even the foremen were worried that BMW might reduce work-speed rates and dumb down the IT systems to accommodate perceived deficiencies of older workers (See “Old doesn’t mean Stupid”). So they referred the project to the Workers Council who in turn referred them back to an earlier study that identified a basic framework for change on 5 dimensions.

These were: health management, skills, the workplace environment, retirement policies, and change processes. (I’m not sure why they didn’t know this before they started the pilot programme).

They used a standardised questionnaire, the Work Ability Index (WAI), to assess the fit between a worker’s ability and the demands of the job. They found that whilst productivity decreased on average there were wide variations with some workers suffering a steep decline whilst others remained fully productive. The foreman explained that the pilot line was not a soft option and also appealed to the workers’ pride, telling them that their experience was needed to secure the future of the plant and save jobs.

In the end 20 of the 42 workers stayed on the line and they recruited 22 more with a promise they could return to their old jobs after a year. So in 2007 the line was finally staffed with an age mix reflecting the projected 2017 demographics. They piggy-backed it onto a health initiative and introduced a self-diagnostic tool that awarded positive points for good habits like regular exercise and negative points for bad habits like smoking or being overweight. They also asked the workers about their aches and pains and what they could do to improve things.

To facilitate this they also simplified communications. Rather than using the old “continuous improvement” paperwork, people wrote ideas on postcards and stuck them on a notice board. These ideas were then allocated points by the team so they could be prioritised and the managers and foreman didn’t intervene in this process – it was bottom up and this increased buy-in from the workers.

After the introduction of a wooden floor – which dramatically decreased aches and pains – sceptics were won over and the workers took charge assisted by an ergonomists, a safety officer, and process engineers. Most of the work however was done by the workers themselves, often in their own time. In addition to the wooden floor they introduced special footwear, seating, flexible magnifying lenses, and adjustable height tables which reduced back strain.

They also changed work practices. Work was categorised and, depending on how physically demanding it was, was time-limited for each worker and job rotation was also introduced to balance the load on the workers’ bodies. And a physiotherapist developed stretching and strengthening exercises for them to do each day.

The end results? £40,000 of investment including workshops and expert input produced a 7% productivity improvement in one year, the same as achieved by other lines with younger workers.The target output was increased from 440 gearboxes per shift in 2007 to 500 per shift in 2008 and to 530 in early 2009. 4 workers were re-assigned but no-one wanted to leave.

They achieved a 10 defects per million quality target within 3 months and currently the target is zero defects.

Sickness related absenteeism in 2008 was the highest in the plant at 7% but typical of that age range but has since dropped to 2% which is below the plant average.

BMW now promote this 2017 line as their model for productivity and quality. Perhaps management took a risk letting the production managers experiment and allowing line workers to create the solutions. But it paid off for them and may be the answer in a world where the demographic time bomb is really ticking.

Source: HBR March 2010

Erotic Capital revisited

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P1020328Dr Catherine Hakim was the closing keynote speaker at the 4th international Delta Intercultural Academy Conference on Global Leadership Competence: Personal Qualities, Culture, Language held in Konstanz, Germany.

She was a sociologist at the LSE when she achieved a degree of notoriety with her book “Money Honey: The Power of Erotic Capital” which was published in 2011. I blogged about it at the time and that blog has been one of my most popular so obviously of interest in the wider world.

She now works as Professorial Research Fellow at think tank Civitas Institute for the Study of Civil Society but still holds the same views.

She believes that just as we have Human Capital and Social Capital we also have Erotic Capital. This is a mixture of things including appearance, and charisma.

She quoted economist Daniel Hamermesh who found that better looking managers earned more money and CEOs of large companies were more attractive than CEOs of smaller companies.

And companies that employed attractive people were more profitable. (Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful by Daniel Hamermesh. Princeton University Press)

She pointed out that despite a world-wide recession people were still spending money on luxury items and in particular things which made people look good.

In a competitive job market appearance is important and people work hard at impression management because the social benefits of attractiveness are worth about 15% more pay.

Excluding the effect of IQ attractiveness is as good as having qualifications in many jobs.

She took some criticism from certain participants but stood her ground. “I’m a social scientist and just telling you how it is” she responded at one point.

And she’s not the only person to have researched in this area and found similar outcomes.

I liked her quote from Aristotle: “Beauty is the best letter of introduction“.

And she made her presentation without a Powerpoint in sight – a welcome change.

I first attended one of these conferences – dedicated to intercultural issues – with my colleague two years ago and we enjoyed it so much we resolved to return to this beautiful resort on the Bodensee (or Lake Constance).

It was another excellent conference – thank you Peter Franklin for organising it.

Originally posted on SGANDA in 2014

Technology only adds to your stress

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no_cell_phones_PA_3777Smartphones, tablet computers and other digital devices are a mixed blessing.

Having portable data can be useful when you are working off-site but these devices also blur the boundaries between home and work.

No wonder companies are happy to give staff the latest smartphone or tablet that they can take home with them. There is an expectation that they will use them “after hours” for work.

Researchers at the University of Surrey examined 65 large studies involving around 50,000 employees.

Few companies actually spell out what is expected of staff, Is there a cut-off time after which it’s not OK to ring someone on a work-related matter? What about during holiday?

In the absence of a policy written down … employees tend to take guidance from their managers or colleagues. If managers send e-mails late at night, staff feel they are required to answer them” according to one of the researchers at Surrey.

Employees might be happy at first to receive a new piece of technology but they soon realise there is an expectation that they will always be available and it then becomes a burden. They lose a sense of self-control which can lead to being less able to cope with stress.

The researchers believe that having technology such as smartphones has led to white-collar workers working the equivalent of an extra day a week and two day for managers. In other words 24/7.

Family life suffered the most from these distractions as you might expect with not even weekends and holidays protected from digital intrusions.

So technology is contributing to longer working hours, worse work-life balance, and more stress.

We have to look to Germany, the powerhouse of Europe with a strong union involvement in companies, for examples of good practice. Volkswagen, BMW and Puma stop their servers sending out e-mails 30 minutes after the end of the working day and make it clear that employees are not expected to answer e-mails at weekends or when on holiday.

Daimler actually gives its employees the option of automatically deleting any e-mails sent to them when they are on holiday so they don;t come back to a bulging in-box.

And last year France banned interruptions after 1800 and before 0900.

Sadly in the UK we don’t seem so concerned about employees’ well-being,

 

Are Germans more psychology-minded than the rest of us?

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Mike the Psych's Blog

In Konstanz recently I couldn’t help notice two whole racks of psychology-related magazines in the shop at the station. Perhaps they’re confused being on the border with Switzerland. Is it a coincidence that so many psychologists have come from this part of the world?

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Autism Valued in the Workplace

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autism_single_ribbon_1600_wht_11808German global software company SAP has said it intends to gain a competitive advantage by actively employing people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

It will employ 650 people with autism by 2020, approximately 1% of the workforce reflecting the proportion of people with autism in the general population. They will be working with a Danish company Specialisterne which employs software testers and programmers who have autism.

The move follows a pilot scheme employing people with autism in India as software testers and is now expanding the scheme into Ireland, Germany and the USA. In India they found that they could do repetitive tasks with excellent speed and accuracy.

A finance company in the USA called Freddie Mac has also been hiring interns with autism for the last two years with a view to creating permanent posts. They say that they have had to work out how to adapt the working environment to suit the needs of “this uniquely talented group of people”.

Auticon, another German company, which employs consultants with autism as software testers found that they had to make some adjustments in an autism-oriented office. For a start they don’t have things which make noises or interrupt them or have bright lighting. You have to be very direct with instructions and not use simile or metaphors. Some consultants don’t like shaking hands. They tend to be very honest with their feedback as well which probably takes some getting used to.

Apart from the concentration and attention to detail researchers at the Californian Institute of Technology have found that people with autism are better than “neuro-typicals” at making rational decisions as they are less swayed by emotions. People with autism can also handle large amounts of data as they found at the University of Montreal in Quebec where one person could summarise and compare 8,000 documents on her computer.

Autism exists on a spectrum and not everyone who has the condition will find this kind of job suitable for them but SAP says that “people with autism tend to be really good at identifying mistakes and sensing patterns – a very good match for software testing”.

The President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Washington DC believes this the start of the rise of autism in the workplace.

Source: New Scientist 1 June 2013 “Have autism, will travel”