EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Case study on a comprehensive approach: Polyfelt Geo-synthetics, Austria

About

Case study name: 
Ageing workforce
Organisation Size: 
Medium
Sectors: 
Chemicals
Target Groups: 
Skilled Manual
Initiative Types: 
developmentetcTraining
Scope: 
All

 

Organisational profile

 

Polyfelt AG is an international stock company and a 100% subsidiary of the Austrian oil company OMV (Österreichische Mineralölverwaltung). Its headquarters, largest production unit, and research unit are all based in Linz, Austria. The company’s other production sites are located in France, Malaysia and Australia. Polyfelt produces, distributes and researches natural geo-textiles and geo-synthetics, for example, tarpaulins and foils to stabilise supports for roads, railways and dams. Polyfelt is the world market leader in geo-textiles.

The Polyfelt group employs more than 400 people. Of the 135 working in Austria, 25 are female and 60 work in production.

For 10 years, Polyfelt has had consistent growth in profit numbers, product range, locations and staff numbers. Its corporate culture is characterised by clear strategic management and a focus on process quality through cultivating creativity and professionalism among all staff, including production workers.

In the last decade, the company has strengthened its effort to retain workers in the company by improving working conditions. This effort is incorporated in its overall human resource policy, which emphasises equal treatment of all employees, including older staff. This is backed up by a clear ‘management-by-objective’ strategy, which sets specific goals and strategic tasks so that all employees can define their contributions and ask for necessary resources and tools. The works councils take responsibility for company and employee development.

The original initiative

The company’s training and development initiative began by reforming shifts to reduce night work and weekly working hours and by introducing a health promotion week. It developed, for older workers, a process of generation management that included the following features:

  • generation-specific evolution of human resources management (HRM) culture and methods;
  • shift-plan reform with fewer weekly working hours;
  • health promotion training;
  • knowledge management between generations;
  • continuous evaluation by means of a Human Work Index and human indicators.

The initiative resulted in economic growth, better work skills, more productive workers, and less early retirement, as shown by the following results:

  • The proportion of production hours grew by more than 15% to a total of 93%.
  • Better knowledge of processes and flexibility was reported within teams.
  • No early retirements were recorded in the first four years, while the average employee age increased from 40 to 44 years.
  • In 2004, the first four workers since 1999 retired at regular pension age.
  • There was a reduction in sick leave by an average of three days a year.

The initiative also resulted in the following transferable measures:

  • focus on co-leadership by management and the works council;
  • change in values and attitudes of the management towards sustainability;
  • lectures in productive ageing and generation-balance;
  • a participative process for shift-plan reform;
  • ongoing evaluation by external advisers;
  • developing a specific HRM culture and methods for each generation of workers;
  • knowledge management through handbook training.

Good practice today

Polyfelt’s corporate culture is characterised by clear strategic management, co-leadership by management and the works council, and a focus on process quality by cultivating creativity and professionalism among all staff, including production workers. Its generation management policy started by reducing night work for older workers and is still developing towards enhanced competency levels. Good practice today focuses on knowledge management based on the following phases of the initiative:

  • Phase 1 1999–2001: Improvement of working capacities by shift-plan reform;
  • Phase 2 2001–2003: Development of human resource tools and management practices that take account of an intergenerational workforce;
  • Phase 3 2004–2005: Implementation of knowledge management for high team quality.

As management became aware of the importance of intergenerational differences, they were more willing to use the experience of older workers to help benefit younger colleagues, thereby enhancing process quality. It was expected that this would enhance productivity, reduce expenses, and lead to fewer machine stops and mistakes. In 2002, knowledge management was implemented to enable the transfer older workers’ experience. This included teaching experienced workers to create manuals and training programmes designed to transfer their practical knowledge to younger workers.

Other features of the company’s current good practice include:

  • identifying the hidden abilities of successful older workers to improve processes;
  • workers becoming aware of their own implicit knowledge and intuitive procedures;
  • transforming implicit knowledge to explicit verbal knowledge;
  • training in writing a solutions manual for workers;
  • training in the design of training courses for colleagues;
  • training of younger workers by older workers.

These measures aim to enhance and standardise the knowledge transfer process for all staff and to secure the company’s intellectual capital. They give older workers meaningful tasks and individual recognition, and reduce physical demands on them. They also help younger workers to develop competencies faster and with less stress. The intergenerational exchange enhances worker integration and cooperation and improves staff morale.

In recent years, cultural initiatives have accompanied efforts regarding human quality management and helped support the retention of older employees at work. These initiatives have included avant-garde art, experimental music featuring electronically synthesised production sounds performed in the production area, and constructivist trance workshops for workers. Cultural events like these have helped to involve every worker by offering a creative experience based on dignity and social inclusion. Older workers were particularly appreciative.

The economic and value-adding effects of the initiative are highly significant. Retention of older workers has enhanced productivity as follows:

  • Machine operating time increased to 93%, as did output.
  • Better knowledge of processes and flexibility was reported within teams.
  • Enhanced productivity, fewer mistakes, and higher turnover resulted.
  • Three new jobs were created.
  • There were no early retirements from 2000 to 2004, and the average worker age increased to 44.
  • In 2004, the first four workers since 1999 retired at regular pension age.
  • There was a reduction in sick leave by an average of three days a year.
  • A job satisfaction rate of 1.5 was recorded on a scale of 1–5.

The Human Work Index shows improvements in several measurements for 2000–2004: a significant increase in ‘co-work’ and ‘meaning’ (controls significantly reduced) and constant ‘work ability’ (controls significantly reduced). The effort towards sustainable organisation of work will continue.

Another positive result has been an improvement in the perception of the company as a more attractive place to work in the region. Polyfelt is seen as a leader in offering shift work guided by human principles. At a political level, Polyfelt is seen as a model of productive synergies for trade unions, government and employer associations.

In mid-February 2005, it was announced that OMV is looking for a strategic partner, strong in synthetics, for its subsidiary, Polyfelt. While a change in ownership could affect the process negatively, neither management nor the works council expects this. The investment house, Goldman Sachs, included the external adviser’s evaluation on the effects of generation management into their due diligence report and rated them expressly as ‘adding value’.

Further information

Contact:

General Manager: Dr. Matije Andreas – Tel: 0043 732 6983 5350

Works council chairman: Manfred Lüftner – Tel: 0043 732 6983 5350

Occupational physician: Dr. Manfred Faux – email: m.faux@ibg.co.at

Company website: www.polyfelt.at

www.arbeitundalter.at

 

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