Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Network Weaving: Using Organizational Strategies for Work-Life Integration

by Mindy Fried and Mindy Gewirtz)

Jobs Vacancy, Employment, Employment Jobs

Organizational development strategies can be powerful drivers of the deeper organizational change that work-life practitioners and policymakers are trying to achieve in the workplace. And OD practitioners who partner with senior leaders and become trusted advisors are well-positioned to weave work-life into the culture of the team or organization.

We strongly believe that organizational change within the work-life field requires the kind of deep collaboration and culture change that emerges from OD interventions. We propose that work-life practitioners, OD practitioners and researchers collaborate to identify ways to strengthen practice and outcomes.

Here's a case study of a work-life intervention conducted by Mindy G., followed by our analysis of lessons learned. Ultimately the intervention benefited hourly, supervisory, and management human capital and resulted in a positive, measurable business impact.

From Child Care planning to a successful 24/7 operation

This story begins like many do in the business of work-life consulting. A $500M global manufacturing company with 3,000 employees, which we will call TexTech, hired Mindy G. to help them develop an on-site early childhood education center. The CEO believed workers were the company’s most valuable intangible asset, and he had a deep belief in corporate social responsibility to the community.

Mindy G. began her work with the company by weaving an informal collaborative network across levels of management, HR and union leadership, charged with designing and implementing the initiative. Members of this work-life initiative developed trust and collaborated closely throughout the action research process, laying the groundwork for future network weaving. The process consisted of evaluating employee need, assessing the availability of community resources, deciding together on a course of action, and choosing providers.

Through the collaborative engagement process, union leadership grew to appreciate management’s interest in responding to employees’ work-life issues, and management better understood the depth of the work-life struggles of employees. Community providers appreciated being approached to capitalize on a need they hadn’t recognized.

The CEO was interested in moving forward, and was seriously considering how to implement these work-life initiatives, including subsidies for families. Then an unpredictable natural disaster occurred that wiped out $500K in profits, money that could have been used to address the child care needs of workers. The plans literally went up in smoke.

Several months later, management proposed to turn the company into a 24/7 rather than 5 days-plus overtime shop in order to remain competitive in the marketplace, and avoid the outsourcing of jobs. The immediate response from union members was negative. They feared losing their seniority, their overtime pay, and most critically, they worried about the potential negative impact this restructuring would have on their work-and personal lives. As a result, talk of a union strike made for a tense situation.

By now considered a trusted advisor to the CEO, Mindy G. drew upon the trust and social capital gradually earned with union leaders, management and HR professionals. Though everyone had been disappointed that the child care initiative didn’t materialize after a great deal of effort, the strong bonds had remained. Working under the radar screen, empowering others in the organization, Mindy G. facilitated a process that ultimately resulted in a positive business impact for the company and improving the work-life of employees.

OD practitioners work with leaders to understand the implications of change for all key stakeholders, and get them engaged in honest dialogue and joint action. Representing the perspective of the workers, Mindy G. expressed concern to the CEO that a shift to a 24/7 operation would negatively affect workers’ already fragile child care arrangements of employees. Having conducted focus groups with workers on different shifts, and spoken to many union workers and leaders during the child care initiative process, she knew there were many financially-challenged families, including recent immigrants, who relied on both parents working at the company to survive rather than depend on public assistance.

As researchers, we know that when both parents in a two-parent family work at the same workplace, they often arrange their schedules to meet their child care needs. Clearly, a 24/7 schedule can potentially aggravate an already stretched situation. In a study she did on child care for shift workers, Mindy F. found that very few companies invested in solutions to the challenges of shift work in the manufacturing industry.

At TexTech, management argued that it was better to change the work structure than downsize the company to stay competitive. The CEO expressed concern about the potential impact on workers, but said he did not know what else to do. Mindy G. helped him understand that people feared the unknown, especially when they weren’t part of creating the solution.

The roadmap for successfully restructuring the company and honoring people’s work lives had to involve employees in selecting and implementing the best shift work structure that would affect their work lives for many years. This meant working with every individual employee that needed help through the transition.

Despite the senior management team’s initial resistance, the CEO agreed to hire an internationally acclaimed shift work consulting company to work together with management, HR and union leadership to choose the optimal 24/7 shift work structure. The CEO asked Mindy G. to develop a group to help employees through the transition. Ultimately, the 24/7 schedule was implemented with support from all the stakeholders in the company.

Analysis: What were major success factors in the restructuring?

In reviewing the strategic advantage of OD interventions, we suggest that an external thought-partner trusted by stakeholders could influence and manage resistance from the CEO and union members. The following stages were critical to achieving the goals of both the workers and management.

Phase One: Employees choose the best organizational design for work-life integration, with management's support of this inclusive process.

Working with union leadership and HR, with the support of the shift work consultation firm and Mindy G., management chose three shift work structures with union approval. Management worked with the union to present these choices to workers for a vote. The CEO participated in many shift work meetings, providing a compelling business case for the change in structure, while emphasizing that workers would be involved in the process of choosing the best structure. The shift work option that garnered the most union votes was chosen for implementation. Employees valued being part of the process for choosing the shift work structure.

They were further reassured when the CEO announced the first ever joint union-management Social Hardship Committee, comprised of managers, supervisors and union members/leaders and facilitated by Mindy G. Many Committee members had participated in the child care initiative and were eager to make a difference. The CEO chartered the group to proactively resolve any unintended negative consequences to work-life integration that arose during the implementation of the structural shift changes.

Phase Two: Joint Union/Management collaboration during implementation

The cross-border members of the informal collaborative network developed during the childcare initiative formed the core group of the Joint Union/Management collaboration. Members worked hard to resolve the social hardship difficulties that arose during implementation of the new shift work schedule. Mindy G. worked with the Committee to create an engagement process in which she and supervisors “walked the floors” to elicit feedback from workers to identify any social hardship consequences of the proposed shift change.

The union members of the Committee participated as equal partners in the process. The union agreed to flexible implementation of job placement, so that people with special work-life hardships could be accommodated. For example, the Committee considered the special needs of single parent households who could not work the night shift schedules over the weekends because of childcare issues. The union leaders/members were creative when it came to solving difficult problems regarding seniority and crossing machine classification lines and providing training. Together, Committee members implemented the changes required to help every individual worker through the transition.

Capitalizing on Tangible and Intangible Business and Work-Life Outcomes

We have described how this OD intervention contributed to significant structural changes, while attending to work-life needs of all of the key stakeholders, including union members, supervisors and management. Following are some of the positive business and work-life outcomes.

Business outcomes

First and foremost, the union chose at the last moment not to strike, so there was no work stoppage and productivity did not suffer. Significantly, both from a morale and financial perspective, especially in a manufacturing environment, not even one union grievance was filed throughout the process. This was considered an important tangible metric of success. Employees experienced management as working together with them to improve the quality of their work and personal lives, contributing to loyalty and commitment among workers, a more intangible, nevertheless positive impact on the bottom line (that proved critical in getting the company through the next business crisis, but that’s a different story).

Work-life outcomes

Though the comprehensive child care solutions proposed were never implemented, the company did take action that led to tangible results. Information and Referral resources were provided through the HR department regarding community-based programs for childcare and after school care. The company offered employees dependent care vouchers, and a special hotline was set up for employees to discuss individual issues related to the 24/7 schedule. Many employees chose to individually meet with Mindy G., and/or attend (sometimes with their spouse and on company time) half-day workshops she conducted on positive strategies for managing a shift work lifestyle.

The structural changes created compressed work schedules, which became quite popular with workers. This relieved the pressure for child care services (on days off), and allowed for more time with families and leisure pursuits. Some employees chose to take on outside contracting or other work they couldn’t do before, and augmented their income.

Lessons we learned

In part, the success of the initiative hinged on the active engagement of middle management and supervisors with the union. This is where real work-life integration occurs. Senior management championing of policies and initiatives is a good first step. Effective implementation, however, is tied to the engagement of management on the front lines responsible for the consequences to design the initiative to integrate into (and influence) the unique culture of the organization.

As network weavers we reinforce a tapestry of change that sustains the organization’s capability to integrate work-life policies into the fabric of the organization.

Creating a collaborative network of learning and action among internal and external resources strengthened the internal change capabilities of HR folks and the system. Strategic coaching helped build the capacity of HR, union and management to sustain the changes.

What evolved, as we have described, was deeper, systemic and sustainable organizational change which benefited both the company and the people. These changes produced a positive, measurable impact on the business and promoted work-life integration within the organizational strategy.

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