Sätra Brunn, Sweden: Towards a balanced flexibility
In the service sector, personnel costs form a large proportion of total costs, so matching staff numbers to customer demand is vital. At Sätra Brunn, a health spa in Sweden, the management and the local union have reached an agreement including a high degree of flexibility and increasing the influence that employees can exert over their work schedules.
Sätra Brunn is a health spa facility dating from the 16th century. It was owned by Uppsala University, but since 2002 it has become a privately owned hotel, conference and spa facility. The company has 45 employees – 33 on permanent contracts and 12 paid on an hourly basis. Staff turnover is low, and most employees live around Sätra Brunn. The facility is located in a rural area, 30 kilometres from a major town.
The company is organised in three departments: hotel, restaurant and spa; another unit deals with accounting and marketing. The annual turnover is around EUR 3 million. The hotel has 160 beds in winter and 260 in summer. The Sätra Brunn complex itself has 110 buildings, most of them very old and some not adequately heated for winter use.
The major problem from an economic point of view is to adjust the staff levels to the varying number of clients. Sätra Brunn has substantial seasonal variations: more visitors come in the summer, around Christmas and other major holidays than at other times. Vistor numbers also vary during the week, with few guests at the beginning of the week, conference guests coming Wednesday to Friday and spa guests over the weekends. Traditionally, the company management have dealt with staff scheduling by having each head of department make a two-week plan for the permanent staff and hiring extra hourly staff to fill any remaining gaps. This system often led to recurrent overstaffing, high costs and the problems caused by staff who were not familiar with the company’s practices.
Description of the initiative
Working time at Sätra Brunn is regulated in the collective agreement between the employer organisation Swedish Hotel and Restaurant Association (SHR), and the main union in the industry, the Swedish Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union (HRF). The company management was not satisfied with the flexibility of the standard agreement, and turned instead to a computer-based time-planning system called Time Care.
In Time Care, the management registers staffing needs on an hourly basis for each planning period. Each employee then chooses their preferred working hours, for each day, within the constraints of the agreed 38-hour week and the local working-time agreement. When all individual preferences are registered, the system indicates any mismatches and an adjustment is made, either by a manager, by a staff planning meeting or automatically by the system itself. The system ascribes different value to different hours, according to the preferences of the staff (hours late at night or at weekends have a higher value). This means that an employee who has chosen to work the preferred working hours during the first scheduled period is given their less favoured hours during the second. In the case of Sätra Brunn, the adjustment is done by a department manager in consultation with the employees.
The local agreement on using Time Care at Sätra Brunn was reached after several rounds of negotiations. The agreement included a shorter working week (38 rather than 40 as in the industry agreement) and gave more flexibility for the management to vary staffing to meet the needs of the company. Planning is done well in advance, but the management can vary the schedule up to two weeks before the start of a planning period. Individuals may veto certain hours when they have important commitments to meet. The veto is, however, not definitive and can be overruled by management in case of pressing needs. The Time Care system can be accessed over the internet, which means that the employees can sit at home and plan their working schedules with their families. The working-time agreement at Sätra Brunn allows for work shifts lasting from four to 13 hours, with a maximum of 120 hours over two weeks and 720 hours over 16 weeks. The individual may vary the weekly rate of 38 hours and build a time bank of up to 112 hours (either in credit, or deficit).
The management is enthusiastic about Time Care, as it has resulted in reduced personnel costs and less need to hire extra staff. The system does mean more work for the middle manager who does the planning, but that is compensated for by the overall reduction in costs.
The local trade union representative has a mixed view of the system. She acknowledges the positive elements: more permanent staff, a shorter working week and more opportunity for employees to influence their work schedule. However, this freedom is limited as the number of employees in each department is small (between three and six persons). The new planning systems have meant more weekend work, which is a problem for employees with families and small children. Some staff like to have the opportunity to work long hours and get more time off between shifts; others are less enthusiastic about this. In the old planning system, each employee worked every other weekend. In the new planning system, it is common in some departments to work two weekends out of three.
It costs EUR 5,150 to use the Time Care system, in terms of investment and training of staff. The cost for operating the system is set in relation to the number of hours planned: in the case of Sätra Brunn, this means around EUR 352 Euro per month. According to management, the investment is recouped within a year.
The use of Time Care and the local working-time agreement at Sätra Brunn has been successful from a number of perspectives: the company has been able to reduce the total number of hours worked; the number of full-time permanent staff has increased and the number of hourly extra staff has been reduced; and the management has noted an improvement in quality of service for the guests as a result of the higher proportion of permanent staff in the workforce.
Individual employees can influence the work schedule, and the local agreement includes a shorter working week (38 hours, rather than 40). However, the system results in more weekend work, with the result that over the year employees have to work when there are customers and get compensated for the extra time in quieter seasons; this has obvious disadvantages for some employees.
The cost for the system is more than balanced by reduced costs both in terms of hours worked and of general savings; permanent employees are in a better position to watch costs than are hourly staff.
The Time Care planning system places greater responsibility and a larger burden of work on middle management. Instead of making a basic plan for the staffing needs, which they then supplement with extra staff, they need to make a more comprehensive plan in advance. They also need to lead the sensitive adjustment meetings, when an individual’s preferences must be accommodated to the needs of the company.
For the individual employee, the Time Care system means having a greater influence on when they work. It also means an increased personal responsibility, as it is no longer possible to blame only management for inconvenient working hours. The union delegate acknowledges the advantages of the system, but feels that Sätra Brunn is too small to handle the system. In a larger company, with more staff, there would be more individual freedom to choose working hours.
The new work scheduling agreement at Sätra Brunn has meant that management has a better opportunity to match the working hours of the employees with the demand from customers. For the employees, it has meant more work on weekends and holidays; in turn, that means that more of their free time must be taken in periods when there is less activity at Sätra Brunn.
The time-bank system, which permits employees to work more in some parts of the year and less in others, is appreciated by some employees, but not by others: some employees find having a deficit in their account stressful.
Exemplary and contextual factors
Sätra Brunn is an example of a local working time agreement that gives management the flexibility to balance the number of staff with the number of customers, in a situation where customer numbers fluctuate considerably. As with many other service institutions, personnel costs form a large proportion of the total cost in hotels and restaurants. Furthermore, profitability is very dependent on having staff available when customers turn up. The working time agreement at Sätra Brunn, and the use of the computer-based scheduling system, is a good example of how management interests and individual interests can be reconciled.
Olle Hammarström, National Institute for Working Life, Stockholm