WHSmith, France: Towards a balanced flexibility
WHSmith France is a bookseller with 50 employees. In 1998, the company concluded a collective agreement that reduced working time to 35 hours a week. Work organisation resulting from this agreement is based on the versatility of workers and on a direct and informal dialogue between workers and management regarding working time organisation. The organisation that has been put in place has allowed the company to extend the shop’s opening hours and days and thus deal better with its competitors.
WHSmith France is the French subsidiary of the British bookseller. It is located in Paris and distributes a wide range of books, newspapers and magazines in English. Classified as a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), the company employs 50 staff – 10 men and 40 women – most of whom are sales staff. The company has ten managers: a chairperson, a general manager, a financial director and several managers in charge of the different activities and product areas of the company. However, key decisions regarding company policy are taken by the British parent company. There are no trade unions in WHSmith France, as is quite common in French SMEs. According to the employees, trade unions are necessary in large companies; in SMEs, the most important task for unions would be to support any labour inspection. The company has currently one workers’ representative: a workforce delegate (délégué du personnel). In compliance with French labour law, this delegate was elected by all workers; he is responsible for presenting individual and collective grievances to management and ensuring the implementation of laws and agreements.
Description of the initiative
The company initiative is a collective agreement, concluded in 1998, that was aimed at reducing working time to 35 hours per week. Due to the lack of trade unions in the company, the collective agreement was negotiated according to the national legislation introduced in 1998 that reduced the length of the working week. Under the terms of the legislation, collective agreements at company level could be concluded by an employee having received a special mandate from a trade union (in case of a lack of trade union representatives,). These terms, which depart from standard terms regulating collective bargaining in France, were intended to permit the concluding of as many collective agreements about working time reduction as possible. Thus, the company’s agreement was negotiated and concluded in the name of the employees by a representative authorised by the trade union General Confederation of Labour (Confédération Générale du Travail, CGT). It is important to note that CGT validated the agreement but did not provide specific support to the employee representative during the negotiation of the agreement.
Before the agreement was concluded, the working time of each employee was assessed. In a number of special information meetings, employees were consulted on their wishes regarding the organisation of working time, on the basis of different options: seven hours per day over five days, or the same length of working week, but concentrated in four working days. (The shop is open seven days a week). An agreement was readily reached:
- working time has been reduced to 35 hours a week, spread over four working days per week;
- the working day has lengthened by 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening;
- work is organised in rotation in order to ensure that sufficient staff are always in place to allow seamless working;
- each employee can choose which days of the week they want to work;
- despite the reduction in working time, wages remained unchanged.
This working organisation has allowed the company to expand the opening hours to better satisfy its customers. The agreement also authorises the creation of five new jobs, which, under the terms of the working time legislation, entitles the company to benefit from public financial support. In addition, the company employs 13 part-time workers who work over the weekend. Overtime is only used exceptionally, as the work organisation usually enables the company to meet customers’ needs during normal working hours. However, part-time employees sometimes work more hours than planned in their employment contract. The company does not employ workers under fixed-term contracts; it does, however, have trainees on two-year placements, who are often recruited once training is finished.
It is worth underlining that the company decided to implement a reduction in working time before French law made it compulsory in 2000; this anticipation of statutory law is very unusual among French SMEs. The company has included working time reduction as an element in its overall work organisation. Being open seven days a week is crucial for WHSmith, as it faces competition from online booksellers, especially Amazon. With that in mind, it is notable that WHSmith is the eighth leading bookseller in France. The financial impact of the reduction in working time to four days per week is balanced by the longer working day, which enables the company to extend the opening hours of the shop. In addition, the use of part-time workers has made possible the opening of the bookshop seven days a week. A work team is posted to each activity of the shop; one of the main reasons the work organisation functions well is that each employee can work in different teams. This means that staff can work a four-day week, while full working teams are always available. The work organisation takes workers’ interests into account: each employee can choose which days of the week they want to work, according to their own personal needs and subject to management’s agreement. The organisation of working time is flexible and the informal, direct dialogue between management and workers seems to work very well. Cooperation between the different working teams ensures that the rotation process runs smoothly. Each day, in each area of activity, a notebook is filled in: this enables information to circulate within the company and means that a worker can be posted to any workstation.
Exemplary and contextual factors
Working time has been a major issue in the political debate in France since 2000. Both previous and current governments have, in particular, implemented measures to expand the opportunities for companies to use overtime. In that context, the extension of working time has been seen as a way to improve companies’ efficiency. The example of WHSmith France shows that a balance can be found between reduced working time and greater economic efficiency. A balanced flexibility is possible in this case, thanks to the informal dialogue between management and workers and to a work organisation that is based on the versatility of workers. This is a key difference between WHSmith and some other major booksellers as Fnac, where the flexibility of workers is not a principle. It should also be noted that the agreement has not been amended since 1998, demonstrating that the work organisation matches the company’s needs.
Christophe Tessier, Université européenne du travail, Paris