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Making flexible working at Roche even more attractive

The way we work is changing. The days in which all employees arrived at the same time every morning are long gone, to give just one example. But what can a company do to offer its employees even better, flexible working conditions while at the same time treating everyone as equally as possible?

At its Off-site Meeting in the summer of 2017, the Roche Employees’ Association (AVR) decided to address this topic. A six-person working group was formed with the aim of gaining an overview of the current situation at Roche and using it to develop specific suggestions for improvement. Among other things, the members of the working group looked at statements by more than 100 employees that had been collected by Diversity & Inclusion that same year. “However, these only reflected the views of the employees, so we decided to interview line managers as well,” says Petra Welter, head of the AVR working group. In total, 16 line managers from various departments, hierarchy levels and sites were interviewed.

At the request of the AVR and Simona Starzynski from Diversity & Inclusion (D & I), the FHNW also began looking into flexible working at Roche from June 2018. The procedure was the same as it was with the AVR working group. Dr Anne Jansen and Selina Eble from the School of Business reviewed existing documents and conducted interviews with line managers. The project was financed by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).

“The goal of both studies was to promote flexible working,” Welter says. “It was about utilising synergies and giving the whole process a scientific foundation.”

The results are now available, and the conclusion is this: Roche already employs various flexible working models such as annual working hours, part-time work, working from home, job sharing and flexible working for the over-sixties (“the Age Project”). The IT and other infrastructure needed for this is effective and the HR department supports flexible working by providing information. However: “The individual models are implemented very differently,” observes the head of the AVR working group. The annual working hours system is very well established, for example, but only 19 percent of the Basel and Kaiseraugst workforce has a formal working-from-home agreement. Seventeen percent of staff work part-time, but only 7 percent have a degree of employment of less than 80 percent. Job sharing is not very well known, and only two percent of employees take advantage of the option to continue working until the age of 70, albeit one which was only introduced two years ago.

Reasons why many employees do not work flexibly include concerns about having to do additional work in their free time, worse career opportunities and resentment from colleagues and line managers because they are not present in the office. Negative attitudes of line managers towards flexible working, inconsistent interpretation of regulations and a lack of attractive job offers also prevent more employees from using these models.

The reasons cited by line managers include the fact that part-time working, working from home and job sharing necessitate a completely different understanding of leadership. More creativity and flexibility are required when it comes to distributing tasks and structuring the workload, which in turn increases the organisational burden. Furthermore, for the many jobs which require employees to be present, such as laboratory and shift work, the limited options for flexible working are not yet sufficiently well known. “Yet laboratory technicians could just as well analyse results or take training courses in Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on their computers at home,” Welter explains. Further obstacles facing line managers are a lack of role models and the fear of losing manpower in their departments in real terms if staff reduce their degree of employment (headcount versus full-time employee planning (FTE)).

Both studies also emphasised the advantages of the flexible models, however. Staff are more motivated, efficient and committed as they can better adapt their work situation to their private lives. As a result, companies are perceived as attractive employers on the labour market and are able to retain their talented employees for longer. “In times when skilled workers are scarce, this is a very important argument,” says the head of the working group. Flexible working also makes rejoining the company easier.

Both studies therefore give recommendations about how Roche can implement flexible working even more effectively in the future. They can be summarised in three points. Firstly, awareness should be raised of the various options, and prejudices and misinformation eliminated. Secondly, line managers and employees should be informed and coached in a targeted manner with regard to how flexible working models can function specifically in their everyday setting. Thirdly, the introduction of FTE for staff planning and a better range of jobs such as part-time and job-sharing positions would also be desirable.

That is not all, however. The AVR working group and D & I jointly decided on the two most important support measures. One is a set of guidelines for employees which shows how staff can work flexibly even if they are employed in non-office settings such as laboratories. The other measure agreed on is a workshop format for line managers that enables them to share their views and experiences with one another and will be linked up with existing management programmes. Human Resources was very receptive to these proposals when representatives of the AVR, D & I and the School of Business submitted them at the beginning of March. “We were given the green light to go ahead,” says Simona Starzynski from D & I. The AVR and D & I have already formed two mixed working groups. They will develop the guidelines for employees and the line manager workshop by the autumn. After that, the various elements will probably be piloted in order to gather experiences on a smaller scale and make any necessary improvements. Welter is convinced that Roche has an opportunity to take a leading role in this field, pointing out that the results of the FHNW study will be published throughout Switzerland. One thing is clear for Welter: “We at the AVR will persevere in order to make the urgency of this matter clear to Roche – including at higher management levels.”