E+E Electronics, Austria: Towards a balanced flexibility
E+E Electronics, a developer and producer of electronic sensors and transmitters, employs 180 people at its site in Austria. In an initiative funded by the provincial government, representatives of the employees, the company and the social partners have created a new model of working time, whereby function-related core time has been replaced by person-related core time. It has delegated responsibility for working time organisation to the employees, who appreciate the greater freedom.
E+E Electronics develops and produces sensors for the measurement of relative humidity, air velocity and temperature. Their customers are primarily in the automotive industry, for which the company considers itself the global market leader for humidity sensors; it also has customers in industrial measurement and control technology, and in agriculture. The company, founded in 1979, operates four technical offices – in Germany, France and China. Its head office is located in Engerwitzdorf, Austria.
E+E Electronics employs around 180 workers at its Austrian site and a further 10 in its international offices. The average age of its workforce is 37 years. (The average age of a workforce in this sector in Austria is 36.8 years). Of its workforce, 39% are skilled workers and 42% are unskilled, 10% have school-leaving certificates, 9% are university graduates, 88% work full time, 11.5% part time and 0.5% are marginally employed. The majority (97.4%) hold permanent contracts, while 2.6% are temporary workers. The company has both a blue-collar workers’ council and a white-collar workers’ council. Seven out of nine of its representatives are men. The union density rate is 80%. The company is member of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber.
Description of the initiative
In 2002, E+E Electronic introduced a flexible working time model in two of its departments: the process engineering department (with 10 employees) and the maintenance group (with four employees).
The process engineering department is responsible for providing technical support for production, which operates in a three-shift mode. (Prior to the initiative, the process engineers had been working a stricter flexitime model.) The maintenance group, meanwhile, had been working in a two-shift mode. Over the past number of years, a couple of working practices have developed that went against internal labour time rules, such as working overtime without getting the required permission beforehand. These rules were considered necessary in order to be able to meet production’s requirements for support and maintenance. However, the situation was unsatisfactory for both management and employees.
The works council tried to change the working time model; in the end, the change process was triggered by management. The process was funded by the programme ‘Working time made to measure’ (Arbeitszeit nach Maß) of the provincial government of Upper Austria, which imposed some conditions upon the process.
One of these was that a survey of employees be conducted; this was implemented by the Institute of Sociology at the University of Linz. The analysis of the collected data indicated a desire on the part of the workforce for a change in working times. In autumn 2001, a project team was set up in E+E Electronics, consisting of a works council representative, the area manager, one employee each from the maintenance group and the process engineering department, and a representative of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and of the Chamber of Labour. The composition of the project team was, again, one of the conditions of the funding programme. The key tasks for the representatives of the two Chambers were to lead and moderate meetings, and to provide professional consultancy.
The aim of the project team was to develop a working time model that: a) fitted the actual requirements of production; b) offered the greatest freedom of choice in working times to the employees; c) did not increase labour costs (a condition imposed by the company); and d) did not stray outside of the bounds of the collective treaty (a condition imposed by the works council).
The main feature of the resulting working time model was the substitution of the person-related core time by a function-related core time. Instead of setting the working times of employees in advance, the requirement now exists that certain functions be available and certain tasks be executed during the core time of between 09.00 and 15.00. For the process engineers, this means that at least one employee must be in charge of each process during the specified time. The task of appointing the staff member responsible for each process is delegated to the employees. For the maintenance group, the production, operating in two-shift mode, has to be serviced by at least one worker. The detailed shift plan is organised by the workers themselves.
Employees are also responsible for organising their own holiday plans and their own backups. A scheme exists whereby working time can be saved and used for a sabbatical. In addition, teleworking is permitted and encouraged. Along with the new working time model, the system of payment for overtime was also changed. Previously, bonuses for overtime depended on a small band of period and state of working time (more than 9 hours per day and outside of the time between 06:00 and 18:00 and also the number of hours worked per month); now, band and period of bonuses are wider (more than 10 hours per day and outside the time between 05:00 and 20:00), which means a potential loss of pay. However, both the works council and (after initial hesitation) the employees deemed the development worthwhile, in terms of the freedom gained by it.
One manager involved in the process said that it was not easy for him to give up control as he feared that employees might abuse their new-found freedom; in turn, this might impact unfavourably on production. However, his fears have proved to be unfounded, as no employee has taken advantage of the system.
In the meantime, some aspects of the working time model, such as extension of flexitime periods, have been expanded to four other departments in the company. Although the works council would like to see the working time model applied throughout the entire company, a number of heads of departments are still sceptical (even though the model has proved to be successful for all parties).
The working time model was codified in a written agreement. At first it was limited to one year, and later prolonged indefinitely. A survey of employees in 2006 showed a consistently high level of satisfaction with the model.
Besides the new working time model itself, the process by which it was introduced can be considered exemplary. It was funded by the provincial government within the province-wide programme, ‘Working time made to measure’. While the programme covered half of the costs of the external consultation and the employee’s survey, it also imposed some conditions upon the process – for instance, the requirement that the project team be balanced, and that it include representatives of the Austrian social partners. The participation of the social partners in the programme raised its profile and priority within the company, and as a result was therefore regarded as very beneficial for its impact.
Another key success factor was the conducting of the survey of employee opinion, and the resulting analysis of employee and company needs, by the University of Linz. Both management and works council trusted the methods of this external body, and therefore respected the outcomes, which served as a basis for the change process. Furthermore, the entire process was designed so as to be transparent to all concerned: all meetings were attended by representatives of management and the works council, and no side was excluded from any step of the project.
The new working time model is well accepted among the workforce: this is clear from internal evaluations, yearly appraisals and the wish of the works council to extend the model to the whole company. Initial fears on the part of management that employees might abuse the freedom extended to them have been shown showed to be groundless. Still, managers of other departments remain concerned, and are still hesitant about adopting the model.
Exemplary and contextual factors
This case shows how the development and implementation of a new working time model was facilitated by the formal requirements of a funding programme: these included external consultancy, moderation by social partner representatives and an employee’s survey conducted by the University of Linz. The resulting working time model required trust on the part of management, and the willingness to accept a reduction in overtime pay on the part of employees. After five years, both sides remain satisfied with the model.
Maria Klambauer, FORBA, Vienna