Thursday 14 March 2013

Engaging in Working Time Change

  Today I’m at the second day of Working-Time Solutions’ annual forum where I’lll be presenting on employee engagement.  But first, we’ve got another keynote from John Jeffrey, Head of Waste Management and Street Scene at Cheshire West and Chester Council.


The project John described followed on from a Labour led £50m efficiency programme and has been in response to the then new coalition government’ austerity drive requiring a further 30% budget cut over three years, and a more recent £26m cut over the next three years.  Gulp.  As John suggested, in this environment incremental methodologies salami slicing 3% of the budget are no longer enough,  Instead what was required was a fundamental rethink to maintain a high quality service and current levels of employment as well as to achieve financial savings required.


John’s a fan of Deming and particularly likes this quote: “85% of the reasons for failure to meet customer expectations are related to deficiencies in systems and processes, rather that the employee.  The role of management is to change the process rather than badgering individuals to do better.”


The key to this, and any working time change, is to start by understanding the demand eg what’s the balance between planned and reactive service?  This was done largely through focus groups with employees.  John had thought he already had integrated, mobile teams made up of multi-skilled employees but it became clear that he hadn’t.  The challenge was therefore about matching resources to the demand and work to meet the challenge has included:


  • Optimising routes and productivity - removing over sweeping etc - allowing them to improve services, better allocate resources and save costs, eg they’ve been able to take out one of the six expensive sweeping machines they were using.
  • Removing reliance on agencies, overtime and unpaid goodwill to deliver services
  • Introducing new shift patterns.  For example, mobile teams had been working till 4.30 every day but couldn’t actually continue working in the dark, so now their winter schedule allows them to finish at 3.00.
  • Removing voluntary overtime (street operatives are paid £15 to 18k but could make £31k through voluntary overtime).
  • This has also included rostering in holiday entitlement (which was a big issue for staff used to complete flexibility in scheduling their holidays but was also a show stopper for John.  Always wanting to remove flexibility, his compromise was leaving flexibility for 10 out of employees’ 30 or 25 days holidays.
  • Changes in employees’ terms and conditions.  These dated back to the 1960s with the most recent review in 1974.  Peoples’ personal schedules is now part of their contract of employment.  And these also include the martini clause (‘anytime, any place, anywhere’).  “The lads don’t like it, in fact they absolutely hate it” but it is now becoming an accepted part of the job.



The changes have also required a big mindset change to get people to understand the benefits of this new approach.  That’s not been easy.


John worked with the Council’s HR Director to try to increase engagement.  The changes were supported by extensive briefings, functional working parties, individual area meetings, whole organisation events, service work groups, formal union negotiation meetings.


But it sounds like it was a very difficult process and John wasn’t successful in getting the changes agreed through negotiation.  Instead they had to fall back on Plan B, the ultimate sanction: dismissal and re-engagement.  This applied to the Council’s full 7000 employees as part of a wider requirement for efficiency and harmonisation of terms and conditions, though it’s only John’s 220 people to be working the martini clause in practice.


So there has been industrial unrest including strike action before Christmas.  And there have been in industrial tribunals: one case brought by someone who had said too much in the canteen and needed to leave to keep face - which was lost; and one wider tribunal claim about the process used for the full 7300 employees, which continues.


John also hasn’t been made very welcome in the depots.  More worryingly still, the GMB campaigned against both the changes and John personally - including writing open letters suggesting that John has become mentally ill (he stopped paying his £38/month union fees at this point).


Absence has also increased slightly from 4.45 to 4.54 days per FTE


But overall the project’s been a success.  Eg the national performance assessments (Ni195 ) conducted by the Tidy Britain group have substantially improved.


John also believes the changes have created a healthier working culture and environment.


And yes, it’s delivered £500,000 in savings.


But the approach has not yet being taken up in many other Councils


The obvious question is why not?  I’m not a fan of the government’s over emphasis on austerity, but I guess organisations do sometimes need this type of radical challenge to make them do things which should really have been done decades previously!  Working time change has clearly worked here and it will work elsewhere too.  And it’s far preferable to just about any of the other alternatives I can think of.


I will say that I’m not keen on the martini clause - as I think this shifts the balance of power too far to the employer - or the way it was introduced - as this will have a profound, long-term impact on engagement, but it does sound as if the requirement for this approach was created by the union.  It’s sad to hear that unions still haven’t shifted as much as you’d expect and sometimes read or hear about.



In my session I talked about the need to engage employees in working time changes, and how working time change can create engagement - eg by focusing on the needs of the employee, as well as the business.  But I also emphasised the need to create a positive culture of engagement before embarking on this sort of change.  Given that the age of austerity is going to continue for the forseeable future, and also in light of most organisations’ low levels of engagement, we’ve left doing this a bit late.  But there’s still no better time than now to begin.

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