Working Time and Work Organisation

Digital advancements are already disrupting traditional concepts of work environment and working time, by allowing for greater workers’ flexibility and autonomy in time and place. These developments, potentially satisfying individual orientations, are coupled with increasing organisational requirements for working time flexibility, spurred by fluctuations in demand. Moreover, there is a consensus in the literature on the complementarity between lean manufacturing (in its turn, linked to working time optimisation and efficiency) and Industry 4.0. By drawing on socio-technical studies, various authors sustain the idea that a lean environment (supported by a culture of continuous improvement, which makes workers not only accept changes but also actively drive changes sustainably and efficiently) is an enabler of Industry 4.0, which in turn provides the technological infrastructure (in terms of greater availability of data, interconnectivity, real-time elaboration, etc.) to potentially enhance the lean/six sigma capability of an organisation. As a consequence, flatter hierarchies, workers’ active engagement and empowerment, as well as managers’ efforts to collect and share workers’ knowledge, are expected to grow.

To deal with this challenge and pursue a 360-degree innovation from a technological, organisational and social viewpoint, workers’ reps cannot be excluded. In fact, they should have a say in and lend their knowledge to the configuration of new work environments and working time arrangements which 

secure job quality. They should have a role, along with management, in the definition and management of continuous improvement projects, in order to make sure that workers are not simply used but do benefit from the increasing managers’ reliance on their cognitive skills and expertise; in so doing, workers’ reps are expected to enable concrete participation and shared decision-making starting from the operational level.

In the steel industry in Sweden, the so-called Job Security and Flexibility Agreement is in force since 2013. Its purpose is to handle market fluctuations in the industry without laying off employees or hire temporary labour. The system functions as a working hours account, where each year employees set aside a part of their wage corresponding to 34 working hours, and the employers put the same amount. The agreement gives companies the opportunity to reduce working hours in periods of economic slowdown, without affecting workers’ income. For example, in crisis times, it is possible to reduce working hours by 20% without redundancies or wage reductions, whereas in periods of economic expansion when the company needs overtime work, the employer can put aside the remuneration of 2 working hours for each extra hour worked, without paying any bonuses. The system is limited to 150 hours of flexibility and can be activated through a simplified collective negotiation. Conversely, when major changes are needed, normal negotiations are required.
Since 2016, a regional structure of FIM-CISL based in Brescia has promoted the development of a number of organisational innovation projects in local companies. To do so, they have relied on the expertise of a few external consultants that though have a long history of collaboration with unions and are regarded as trustworthy. The costs of consultancy have been born by companies, that sometimes have also accessed the resources of bilateral funds. The launch of these projects is usually mentioned within collective agreements, but their implementation is more carefully detailed 14 in actual action plans. These plans are generally articulated in different phases corresponding to the initial analysis of the business environment (e.g., via focus groups and workshops with employees as well as interviews with managers and workers’ representatives): the identification of main intervention areas and critical issues and the establishment of continuous improvement groups (composed of both workers on the shop floor and supervisors); the assessment of the overall project and the possibilities for its continuation. A steering committee is usually built and composed of managers, workers’ representatives, local trade unionists and external consultants; it is in charge of coordinating and monitoring the activities as well as proposing possible changes. Sometimes, training courses targeted to the overall workforce or just to the members of work groups are organised before the start of the project. Through the development of these projects, the Italian trade union wants to play a proactive role in company innovation and ensure that direct employee participation practices, which are increasingly backed by local management, can represent an opportunity for employees’ professionalisation and self-emancipation at work.
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In 2005, IF Metall and the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries (Teknikföretagen) contributed to the development of a comprehensive national programme, named Productions Lyftet. The programme is now led by a research institute, in collaboration with 7 universities and other critical industrial players; it is financed by Vinnova (the Sweden’s Innovation Agency), the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) and by participating companies. The programme is aimed at promoting organisational change and renewal in Swedish companies (mainly SMEs), by applying lean production principles. Approximately 240 companies have already taken part in the 18-month change programme; some of them have also participated in the 9-month advanced programme. The programme’s success is partly attributed to its 7 guiding principles (Help with self-help; Long-term approach; Diversity is an asset; Openness and experience exchange; A standard way of working; Learning by doing; Practice that we preach) and its long-term perspective, oriented towards a long-lasting and sustainable development. More recently, the programme has expanded its scope to accompany companies also in their digital transformation. Today, both IF Metall and Teknikföretagen sit on the board of the programme.
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In July 2020, the employers’ associations for the chemical and pharmaceutical sector, Federchimica and Farmindustria, and the sectoral trade union organisations, FILCTEM-CGIL, FEMCA-CISL and UILTEC-UIL, signed a collective agreement aimed at introducing an ‘additional and more developed’ way of remote working: the so-called ‘F.O.R. (Flexibility, Objectives and Results) Working’. The goal underpinning the agreement was to promote a modern employment relationship, emphasising organisational flexibility, autonomy in working time and place and the definition and achievement of shared objectives and results, while complying with traditional legal provisions. Following this agreement, such innovative way of working has been regulated by collective bargaining in some chemical and pharmaceutical companies. For instance, in January 2021, at Sasol Italy, the Italian branch of the homonymous South African chemical group, business and labour representatives have agreed that ‘F.O.R. Workers’ would perform their activities without restrictions in place (they would not be endowed with an assigned workstation at the company headquarters, yet they would be able to access them, exclusively upon notice or if invited by management itself) or time (they would be entitled to freely determining the duration and schedule of their daily working time). On the contrary, ‘F.O.R. Workers’ activities would be organised according to the objectives agreed by workers themselves and their direct supervisors and notified to labour representatives. In order to facilitate the development of this new way of working, the parties have also agreed on the launch of a training path for ‘F.O.R. Workers’ with the aim to provide them with all the necessary technical (related to the use of digital technologies) and soft (related to the effective management of working time and the sharing of corporate objectives) skills. Finally, to offset employees’ physical distance, the company has committed itself to providing not only online platforms for corporate meetings and remote group activities, but also virtual coffee rooms within the corporate intranet, where colleagues who do not work together could exchange ideas and talk to each other about any issue.