Gering, the Netherlands: Flexible working practices
Gering Hout en Beton (Gering Wood and Concrete) is a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) in the construction sector. The company manufactures and installs wood and concrete fencings, sheds and other occasional constructions in wood and concrete. Gering employs 28 workers: two workers (7%) have fixed-term contracts and three (11%) work part time. Most of the workers are aged between 20 and 35 years; three (11%) are between 35 and 50 years; and four, including the owner-director of the company, are between 50 and 65 years (14%), one of whom is partially disabled. All workers in manufacturing and installation are male, and two female workers are employed in company administration, one of whom is aged between 50 and 65 years. The average educational level is low. About six months of work experience is required for the installation of fences. The assembly of other constructions requires a higher level of work experience. The older workers are valued because they already have the necessary experience.
Age-aware personnel policies include flexible working practices and job profile. Different worker capacities are taken into account in the day-to-day planning of tasks. More complex tasks are assigned to older, more experienced workers, while younger, less experienced workers are assigned the more physically demanding tasks.
The social dialogue is informal. The owner-director plans the work and addresses employee needs and requirements; employees inform the company about possible work limitations. The company complies with the sector’s Collective Labour Agreement, which is the result of bipartite negotiations.
The original initiative
The role of external actors in the implementation of the age-aware personnel policy is limited. The owner-director makes it his personal aim to implement human resource (HR) policies for the good of both the individual worker and the company. He believes in the value of ‘good employership’, which implies that he considers himself obliged to care for the well-being of his workforce as much as possible, provided that the workers show an adequate commitment to the company. Such a role for the employer and the workforce is feasible in a small organisation.
However, the introduction of wood-concrete fences and other constructions resulted in company growth from 1995 onwards. The number of employees grew from 12 in 1995 to 30 in 1998, reaching a peak of 35 in 2002. This precluded the continuation of the informal, personal mode of policy implementation.
Therefore, despite favourable market conditions, the owner-director decided to reverse company growth. Since Gering’s owner-director defined internal organisational issues as his core interest, he did not fully pursue a strategy of profit maximisation.
Good practice today
Gering promotes flexible working practices and is guided by an ergonomics policy. Regarding ergonomics, the company introduced a new type of concrete in 1998–1999 that is 25% lighter than the previously used material, so that a single fencing pole now weighs 55–60kg instead of 80kg. Presumably, this explains the observed decline in backache complaints.
Flexible working practices mean that the different requirements and capacities of older and of younger workers are taken into account in work assignment planning. Work planning starts with the assessment of precise work requirements. The owner-director visits the site where the construction is to be made, measures the required dimensions and determines other work requirements. While fences entail relatively simple work requirements, sheds, garages and carports are more complex. Non-standard dimensions may cause problems. Further work requirements may be related to customer preferences concerning the speed of delivery and other demands.
After the assessment of work requirements and customer preferences, the owner-director plans the work. As individual worker capacities are considered in the day-to-day planning of on-site tasks, work is assigned depending on the complexity of work requirements. This generally means that the more complex tasks go to older, experienced workers, while physically demanding tasks go to younger workers. Fence installation teams consist of two to three workers, depending on the requirements of the work. One worker is assigned the task of driver, while another worker takes the lead at the site. The driver’s tasks also include most of the lifting work. While the driver unloads the material, the other worker starts planning the implementation of the assembly. This includes a further specification of the work and may require additional customer contact. This is carried out by an older, more experienced worker.
Currently, two such workers are employed at Gering. One of them is 60 years old, the other is over 40 years. There are six trucks and, accordingly, six work teams. The two older workers are assigned the more difficult jobs, e.g. the construction of sheds or carports, and do not accompany teams conducting less complex, but more physically demanding, work, e.g. demolition. In this way, the older workers are relieved of the more physically demanding work, while the company makes maximum use of their experience.
Since the role of external actors and social dialogue in the implementation of the company’s personnel policy is limited, the owner-director acts as a patron, personally implementing HR policies. This enables a mode of work planning that takes account of workers’ individual capacities and conditions, and also allows for individual attention to sickness absence. The owner-director visits absent workers if he suspects that broader issues than sickness alone are keeping them from their work. This results in a low level of sickness absence, and cases that arise are mainly due to easily identifiable physical conditions.
These practices became less feasible when the company started to grow after 1995. Limited size enables the work planner (in this case, the owner-director himself) to identify the individual capacities of all workers, and is an integral part of the informal mode of policy implementation that is chosen at Gering. The practice reached its limits in 2002, when the company employed up to 35 workers. At that stage, it became clear that the preferred method of work organisation had become unsustainable. The owner-director had the option of hiring an additional coordinator, but decided to retain his independent role as a patron-employer and chose not to allow further growth of the company, but instead to downsize. Currently, Gering employs 28 workers. Apart from the workers in manufacturing (six), administration (two) and the owner-director, they work in six installation teams. The planning practice applies mostly to these teams.
Thus, despite favourable market conditions, the owner-director decided to reverse company growth and to withstand market conditions for reasons of internal organisation. This may be a viable strategy for SMEs, which at times have more trouble organising the work than making a profit.
Future prospects show further changes in work organisation, since one of the older workers will leave the workforce within a few years. Gering plans to further adjust the job design in order to cope with the exit of an experienced employee, by minimising the supply of the more complex constructions.
Contact: Mr Gering, Owner-Director, Gering Hout en Beton