Die Continentale, Germany: Comprehensive approach
The insurance group ‘Die Continentale’ has its headquarters in Dortmund and is a company rich in tradition. At present, the company comprises seven insurance companies and offers insurance and investment products. It is led by two mutual benefit societies, one offering health insurance – Continentale Krankenversicherung a.G. – and one offering life insurance – Continentale Lebensversicherung a.G.
About 3,000 office-based employees work for Continentale and approximately 50% of these are women. In addition, the group cooperates with around 8,000 customer representatives working offsite. Overall, the company’s workforce shows a relatively balanced age structure, although the very young (under 20 years of age) and the older (over 57 years of age) age groups are underrepresented. Currently, about 21% of the staff is aged over 50 years. The various company departments, however, present quite different age structures.
All of Continentale’s employees seem to appreciate the company’s personnel policy, as is evident from the extremely low staff turnover rate combined with a high average job tenure among staff of more than 14 years. To enable its employees to achieve a better work–life balance, Continentale offers teleworking and individual working time arrangements, as well as other employee benefits. For this approach, the Federal Ministry for Families awarded the company with the ‘family-friendly business’ prize in 2000.
Both management and the works council describe their mutual cooperation as good and trusting.
The original initiative
In 2004, Continentale looked at impact demographic change would have on the company as an employer. As an insurance business, Continentale has been investigating issues related to an increased life expectancy, the ‘longevity risk’, for a relatively long time. However, discussion about the expected adjustments in terms of staff demography was new for the company.
The question about the effects of demographic development processes, in particular with regard to workforce ageing, has come to the fore because the institutional framework has been changing over the past two years. Such changes include, for example, the phasing-out of partial retirement in 2009 which represents one of the most important paths to early exit from the labour market in Germany, as well as the raising of the standard retirement age to 67 years, which will be carried out from 2012 onwards. It is assumed that the current average retirement age of 60 years will increase by three or more years, and that the workforce as a whole – due to demographic changes – will age. On this basis, Continentale estimates that, by the year 2020, the proportion of employees aged over 50 years – if the relevant parameters are defined – will have risen by 15% to a substantial 36% of the company’s workforce.
In view of this development, Continentale has participated in the European project ‘active@work’ (www.activeatwork.net) since 2004 with the active support of the management of the human resources (HR) department and of the works council. The active@work project aims to take a closer look at the effects of demographic development processes at company level. In doing so, the project determined the following objectives for German enterprises:
- developing concepts for alternative work arrangements, with due regard for mixed-age workforces;
- implementing such alternative work arrangements by means of pilot projects in participating enterprises;
- carrying out evaluations during the implementation process.
- defined a total of seven areas concerning a company’s HR policy that require action in the context of an ageing population, namely:
- personnel recruitment;
- knowledge preservation;
- maintaining productivity levels;
- developing innovativeness;
- organisational culture;
- sales development;
- managing staff turnover.
Continentale regards the active@work project to be part of the process that was initiated in the company and that will continue in the coming years. The company is particularly interested in looking at the areas of personnel management that are affected by an ageing workforce.
To begin with, Continentale carried out a differentiated age structure analysis. Following this analysis, the company prioritised three areas of action needing further analysis, those which relate to ‘developing innovativeness’, ‘maintaining productivity levels’ and ‘managing staff turnover’. These areas were then analysed in terms of the expected consequences of an ageing workforce and a long-term decline of the working age population. In Germany, the empirica Society for Communication and Technology Research Ltd in Bonn (empirica Gesellschaft für Kommunikations- und Technologieforschung mbH) coordinates the active@work project and monitors the implementation process in participating companies, such as Continentale.
Good practice today
In all three of the top priority areas for action, Continentale has developed or implemented alternative work arrangements, while paying particular attention to creating awareness among the executives working in these areas.
In terms of this initiative, Continentale considered the following questions to be particularly important for the company:
- What will happen to the innovative capacity of the company, if the age structure of the workforce shifts and jobs have to be filled with workers from older age groups?
- To what extent can graduates introduce new knowledge into the company, despite the rise in the number of older employees?
In relation to these questions, the company envisaged the following measures.
Creating awareness among executives
Continentale regards creating awareness of an ageing workforce among executives as the most important measure, in order to better cope with its effects on individuals and on the different company departments concerning data processing, personnel, sales or customer services. Within the active@work project, the company organised a workshop on ageing to discuss this issue with the executives. As a result of these discussions, it appears that the challenges in the individual departments turn out to be varied and require tailored solutions in each case. Therefore, Continentale will develop these workshops further in terms of content and will gear the content to the specific needs of the respective department. For instance, the data processing department will deal with the issue of ageing at its annual executive workshop. This, however, will serve more as an event to create awareness of this issue among the executives, as suitable solutions to specific problems cannot be expected so soon.
Continuing education programmes
Continentale’s centre for education, responsible for general training and continuing education, was asked to look into the possible impact of workforce ageing on its continuing education activities. It appeared that no major changes were expected for the conceptual framework of the centre’s work. However, the situation is different in the individual work areas, in which on-the-job learning mostly takes place. The management now pays greater attention to the ways in which the different groups of employees learn and how to successfully impart knowledge to employees. For example, the learning speeds of younger and older employees are more carefully considered when planning continuing education programmes.
So far, appraisal interviews have only been obligatory for employees up to the age of 55 years, after which time appraisal interviews are rarely conducted. This was and is still stipulated in the company agreement. However, due to the changed demographic situation, employees will in future have to remain in the job for a longer period of time than has been the case thus far. For this reason, possible development paths should also be discussed with employees older than 55 years.
Furthermore, appraisal interviews for older employees can serve as a platform for jointly organising the transition to retirement in good time. A guideline for these interviews is already available but needs to be more clearly defined. Simultaneously, the company agreement is being amended in cooperation with the works council.
Maintaining productivity levels
The issue of maintaining productivity levels is closely linked to innovativeness but focuses on different problems. Continentale thus considers the following questions to be of particular importance to the company:
- Do productivity levels decline with an ageing workforce or do they grow as a result of the increasing experience of older workers?
- How do the absence rates among staff develop in view of an ageing workforce?
Furthermore, greater awareness of an ageing workforce and continuing education also play a significant role in maintaining the company’s productivity levels. In addition, aspects such as health promotion and work–life balance must also be taken into account.
Employees at Continentale have a low sickness rate, due primarily to good working conditions in the company. Moreover, in the context of behavioural prevention measures, Continentale is planning to offer its employees the same health promotion programmes as its customers. In addition, the company offers several assistance measures to employees in occupational rehabilitation following a period of illness, such as gradual rehabilitation, teleworking and transport services. Moreover, older employees, including women over the age of 50 years and men aged over 60 years, in particular were given the opportunity to determine their heart disease and stroke risk.
Care of elderly people
There has been a company-supported agency for childcare since 1996, which is funded by companies from the city of Dortmund. The employees of the participating companies can make use of the agency’s consultancy services on childcare free of charge. As caring for elderly people is becoming increasingly important in light of an ageing population, the companies are thinking about also cooperating with the agency on this issue. Alternatively, they consider offering these services internally in order to relieve employees’ worries.
Managing staff turnover
For Continentale, managing staff turnover centres on the use of partial retirement. The company’s employees make use of partial retirement to a great extent, with many staff members feeling the need to leave the labour force before they reach the current statutory retirement age of 65 years. This partial retirement arrangement may, however, expire in 2009, and Continentale wants to assist employees if in future they also wish to leave the labour force prematurely. The company plans to realise this objective by means of lifetime working time accounts. Remuneration, for example in the form of special payments or paid overtime, could flow into these accounts. Employees could then in a flexible way use their account in later stages of working life, for example for early retirement, for reducing working hours prior to retirement or for enhancing pension benefits.
As far as developing an age-friendly personnel management is concerned, Contintentale considers that it is still in the concept phase, although first steps have been taken and first measures implemented. The concepts developed in the course of the active@work project were due to be evaluated at the end of 2006, after which the issue would be addressed within the company based on the findings of the evaluation.
Volker Hempel, Head of Human Resource Management
Company website: www.continentale.de