Windesheim, the Netherlands: Flexible working practices
Windesheim is a school for higher professional education in Zwolle. The school is part of the Association for Christian Higher Education and Scientific Research. At the end of 2004, the school employed 1,351 workers, 1,064 of whom are full-time equivalents (FTE). Some 768 of these are in the teaching profession and 583 in administrative and support functions. A total of 294 (22%) employees are under 35 years of age; 638 (47%) are between 35 and 50 years; and 419 (31%) are over 50 years of age. Almost half (45%) of the teachers work full time (0.9 FTE and higher), another 45% work between 0.3 and 0.9 FTE, while 9% work less than 0.3 FTE. Administrative staff and support workers work more hours overall. Half of the workforce (50.2%) is male. In all, 14% of the FTEs are on fixed-term contracts.
Originally, the age-sensitive personnel policy was strongly based on (partial) early exit arrangements. This policy was part of the Collective Labour Agreement made by employers and trade unions. Recently, however, a pilot project implementing flexible working practices has been started in response to the perceived inadequacy of the existing policy and more stringent government regulations on early retirement. The financial means for the new arrangement are being made available after union consent. Responsibility for implementation lies with line management, supported by the human resource (HR) department.
The original initiative
Until recently, the Windesheim age-sensitive personnel policy was limited to various flexible or partial retirement arrangements. A total of three options existed: compensated reduced working hours for ageing workers; full early retirement; and partial, financially compensated, early retirement. These arrangements were included in the Collective Labour Agreement and, therefore, were subject to negotiation between employers and trade unions. The Collective Labour Agreement for the higher professional education branch is signed by the HBO (higher professional education) council, representing employers, and by the main trade unions in the higher education field.
However, the growing infeasibility of these arrangements prompted Windesheim to undertake a pilot project on workforce ageing in order to determine whether the company should develop a life course-oriented personnel policy. An experiment was initiated that centred on issues of transferring experience between older and younger workers, adjusting task requirements and job design, introducing flexible working practices, training and development, and job changes. The main aim of the experiment was to find ways to change, rather than simply reduce, work requirements.
The transferability of such a course of action to other projects is high. Where existing policies reach their limits and new policies are not yet developed, undertaking an experiment is a useful way of gaining insight into different areas of work. It is important to make consistent efforts to evaluate the experiment and to take into account the views of both employees and line management. At Windesheim, the individual employees and their line managers positively assessed the adjustments that were made.
Good practice today
In the 2004–2005 school year, a pilot project was started at Windesheim on life course personnel policies, due to increasing disapproval of the existing age-sensitive policy that focused on early exit. Alternative policies were not readily available, however. Thus, the central aim of the experiment was to find ways to change, rather than simply reduce, work requirements. A strong evaluation effort would enable the development of a systematic life course personnel policy.
All 258 employees aged over 55 years were asked to submit proposals for the adjustment of their work. Any plan considered to contribute to prolonged employability could be submitted, provided that the respective line managers agreed with the proposals. The implementation of the arrangement was the responsibility of the individual employee and the unit manager. The HR department supported the implementation and the design of the plans.
A budget of €120,000 was available for the project, which came from the fund for personnel policies aimed at specific target groups. The Collective Labour Agreement for the higher professional education branch regulates this fund. Deployment of the fund is, therefore, subject to trade union consent.
A total of 15 plans were submitted and approved by the respective line managers, of which 10 were implemented because of the limited availability of finances. The plans addressed issues such as the sharing and exchange of tasks between younger and older workers and the coordination required for sharing, knowledge development and the development of educational instruments, and the appointment of work coaches.
An example of the plans is the case of an older teacher who wanted to reduce his teaching hours. He was linked to a younger employee. While the older teacher invested time in knowledge transfer to the younger one, the younger teacher took up some of the former’s teaching obligations. In another plan, an older and a younger teacher shared the teaching obligation for a single group of students, so that they could share responsibilities, which were onerous at times. In a third case, the available funds enabled a teacher to transfer to a different department.
The pilot was regularly evaluated. Reports were sent to the trade unions and the central works council. Line managers, employees and the central works council and trade unions positively evaluated the experiment. Line managers believed that work quality and productivity had increased. Furthermore, although no conclusive figures are available, the impression exists that the level of sickness absence among the pilot group declined, and the pilot group members report declining work stress and other complaints.
In the current year, 2005–2006, a new pilot project was started. Again, all employees over 55 years of age were allowed to submit a plan. An additional sum of about €200,000 was made available. In order to increase participation in and support for the project, the positive experiences with the first pilot project were made public.
While the first project was positively evaluated, participants were critical of the follow-up to the project, feeling that they were abandoned after the project had ended. They had to return to work as usual, which was difficult after a year of much appreciated work adjustments. This aspect of the pilot project was strongly criticised by the central works council.
The lack of follow-up seems to be related to how the financial costs are structured. While the direct costs of the individual work adjustments are easily visible as part of the pilot project expenses, the outcomes are not translated into financial terms, e.g. the possible decrease of sickness absence or productivity increases are not calculated. After the project ended, the work adjustment costs had to be covered by the employee’s own department, while the benefits remained invisible. Therefore, line managers had to stop the work adjustments.
While the use of an experiment and the strong evaluation effort in order to develop a life course policy are highly transferable aspects of the policy, the lack of follow-up of individual work adjustments limits the positive longer-term effects these work adjustments may be expected to have. The lack of follow-up seems to be partly related to a financial accounting structure in which the direct costs of the project are made visible, while its results are not. The development of a general life course policy, also based on the pilot project, is currently under discussion.
- van Keulen, Personnel Advisor, previously responsible for age-related personnel policies
- Bos, Personnel Advisor, currently responsible for age-related personnel policies
- Kerremans, Central Works Council ChairSources:
- Jaarverslag 2004 [Annual report 2004], Zwolle, 2005.
- arbeidsonvereenkomst voor het hoger beroepsonderwijs [Collective labour agreement for the higher professional education branch], Utrecht, 2005.