SBB Services, Belgium: flexible work practices
In 1969, SBB (then called the Fiscal Service) was founded within the Boerenbond farmers’ union group. In 2000, SBB’s services – with the exception of its accountancy services – were merged with VKW services to form a new group, ACERTA. Within the former group, SBB accounting had become one of the biggest accountancy firms in the country and this division of the company continued to work autonomously under the name SBB.
Today, SBB’s 27 regional offices in Belgium have evolved into a corporate consultancy with over 16,000 clients. The core service provided by the company consists of advice concerning accountancy, taxation and business administration, as well as legal and environmental advice. Apart from farmers and horticulturists, the clientele mainly consists of people from the construction industry, retail and wholesale businesses, communication and transport industry, as well as professional service providers and self-employed people.
In total, SBB employs 235 white-collar workers in 27 locations and in its head office. Since 2000, the company has grown significantly. Around 100 employees have been with the company for less than five years, therefore, SBB is a relatively young company. The average age of employees is 38 years and approximately 60% of the employees are men and 40% women. SBB’s staff turnover rate is very low and the educational level of its employees is high.
Employees are represented in the works council, and they are informed about and involved in different organisational matters.
The original initiative
In 1995, the SBB Services Group employed around 440 people. Following the partial merger with VKW in 2000, however, the SBB that exists today is a leaner version of the original company.
Each year, performance appraisal interviews have been conducted with all staff members. Older employees have sometimes found it difficult to keep up with their job, as responsibilities continue to grow with age. If an older staff member encountered problems with the work, an attempt would be made to find a change of responsibilities. When it was not possible to change the job content and responsibilities, a change of job within SBB would be proposed.
As SBB is a flat organisation, with flat career structures, many older staff members have also experienced a lack of challenge in their job and burnout is a phenomenon to which ageing staff members are subject to. Also, because of the regional structure of SBB, it is not always easy to cater for all individual career aspirations.While job rotation was a possible and frequently applied solution before the merger, the organisation is now too small to provide job rotation opportunities as a solution for the problems of ageing staff members. Thus, in 2005, ageing staff members have either had to to keep up with their job or leave the company. Although it is possible to work part time, only a few staff members have so far made use of this option.
Good practice today
In 2005, performance appraisal interviews indicated that some ageing staff members still experience difficulties in keeping up with their present job, particularly in view of technical and legislative changes and the continuously changing ICT applications. Others find their job too stressful, as each staff member has his or her own clients and therefore can have many different files at any given time. At different points in the year, there is a peak in the workload because all the different files need attention, e.g. for taxation deadlines.
Also, most of the functions are not very challenging and because of the lack of internal career possibilities, some older staff members have shown signs of burnout. Approximately 10 older employees have developed some problem during the last couple of years.
As job rotation is no longer a possible solution due to the smaller organisational structure of the company after the merger, other solutions offered are part-time work and early retirement. Anyone aged 50 years and over can choose to work part time and every application for part-time work among older staff members is granted. At this time, two employees aged 57 and 60 years are working 80% of the normal working week, and their role has also changed so that their expertise is optimised. Staff members aged 55 years and over can also choose to work half time. Their expertise is valued in the organisation, as client bonding is very important. Therefore, their tasks are limited to their areas of expertise while the additional tasks are assigned to other, younger employees. It is also possible to work half time on a yearly instead of weekly basis, where the older staff member is present full time during some periods, but has time off during other periods. However, only a few staff members seem interested in this option.
Early retirement is also possible and the company makes use of the ‘Canada Dry’ arrangement in operation in Belgium, which is primarily granted to older employees who do not fulfil the legal requirements for a conventional pre-pension. Under the Canada Dry system, instead of receiving a pre-pension, the employee is dismissed by the organisation, but the employer pays a lump sum on top of the unemployment benefit for a certain period.
Older staff members are occasionally allowed to retire from the age of 52 years. This is only allowed when no other solutions, e.g. job changes, changes in working conditions, part-time work, etc, are possible. Most people retire, however, from 60 years of age onwards. When people want to work longer, and are still performing at a high level, it is possible for staff members to stay at work after 60 years of age.
According to the personnel manager, additional training is not necessarily the answer to the problems of ageing staff members. There is not much variety involved in the tasks to be performed; thus, the problems are usually more complex than purely a lack of knowledge. The seasonal peaks, work pressure and lack of variety are often the most significant reasons for problems among ageing staff members.
The atmosphere between younger and older staff members in the company is good. Because promotion is mostly granted on the basis of years of service, most management jobs are traditionally filled by older workers. An older employee is rarely obliged to work under a younger manager. This contributes to a favourable atmosphere between young and old employees. Nevertheless, it is anticipated that this typical age structure will change in the ensuing years. Also, the selection, evaluation and promotion procedures have been reviewed.
In the near future, SBB is planning some projects regarding knowledge recording and transfer. Due to the close client relationship, it is also important to record all the informal aspects of the different files. Therefore, the company plans to involve older employees in in-service training. Also, it has been decided to involve older employees in ad hoc working groups, as their implicit and tacit knowledge, as well as experience, is valued by the organisation and by other employees.
Early retirement arrangements are agreed on by the works council. Worker representatives and the works council are also informed about all individual cases. The discussion at governmental level concerning the discouragement of the Canada Dry arrangement is being closely followed by the works council.
Contact person: Johan Schevernels
Company website: www.sbb.be