JOhan Berends worked at Fortis Bank Netherlands, was a member of the works council and lost his job after a reorganization. In 2012, he decided to offer training and consultancy for the works council of his company Metamorfase. JOhan: “I provide advice and training for the works council, but also focus on management and HR, because it’s all about sharing knowledge on participation and understanding each other’s role within the organization. The added value of a works council is not always clear within organizations. At Metamorfase, I already trained over 5,000 people under the Employee Participation Act in all industries, from smaller organizations to large multinationals.
The installation of a works council is mandatory at 50 employees or more within an organization and represents all employees. Members of the works council often have an opinion that is at most fed by some colleagues they know, talk to or work with. That is their own, informal network. Hugely valuable, but too limited to say they represent the opinions of all employees. It now appears that managements and HR heads understand that the voice of all employees must be heard. The works council is a tool for that, but with input from the rest of the organization. The striking thing is also that Article 17 of the Works Councils Act obliges the employer to facilitate the works council amply with resources and budget in doing so, and that the employer must also enable all employees to participate in a constituency consultation of the works council during working hours.
Through regular surveys, it is best to ask open-ended questions and receive many open-ended responses. Then what? Are you going to measure those? Based on what? How many times something has been said? How often something has been said? How often something has been said does not mean that people will stick to that when they hear other people’s opinions: you learn from each other’s opinions and change your own. It is therefore risky to rely on retrieving open answers without asking people what they really think of each other’s answer. Apart from this, it just takes too much time to dive into Excel yourself and peer responses from others. When something is initially often mentioned, does not mean that the whole group is behind it. That is still subjective and dependent on that small group of people so again, not ‘on behalf of everyone’.
It is so much more interesting to explore what all colleagues really think and the solutions they see for certain problems. A professional constituency consultation therefore has two rounds. The first to collect answers from everyone and then to have those given answers weighed by again those same employees in a second round. This is how you determine whether an idea or solution is widely supported in the organization. When you present that result, you can at least be sure that there is broad support for the implementation of precisely those solutions.
Works council dialogue
JOhan has run the dialogue with the works council at several organizations. It is striking that ideas that previously got stuck in work meetings, the suggestion box or in the selection process in the works council are now getting through. Apparently, we still think too much for others while employees often come up with simple and economic solutions. They are incredibly smart, have a lot of experience and often deal with problems on a daily basis. So remove those obstacles (work meetings, hierarchy, selection by a few), the works council dialogue with its two rounds is a very good tool for that.
With the works council dialogue, you ask some open-ended questions in the first round. Employees will answer these and those in the second round, they see a random selection of all the answers given anonymously and rate them with a score. So in the second round, you see that people literally change their minds because they see good answers from colleagues. Don’t we all have that, that you think differently after thinking for a while? Especially when you find out how colleagues think? A surprising top five comes out based on the high rating of employees, which includes answers that no one in the works council could have thought of beforehand.
Broadly supported solutions
There are so many examples from my practice. For example, a question in the works council dialogue about the physical workload among Toyota employees was about: What would you think of yourself to ease the ‘burden’? Mechanics came up with a surprising solution; give each mechanic a wagon, so they can take all their gear to the location they need to go to in one go. This was the highest-rated idea out of a large number of ideas. A simple and cheap solution that came straight from the organization. The idea came from young breakdown mechanics and they helped their older colleagues with it. The older colleagues were now more willing than before to serve as buddies for the just-starting young service mechanics. This was something the young people really needed, the dialogue showed, after the 2nd round.
At a care organization, the works council dialogue probed how the workload could be reduced for employees. Care and district teams wanted a small budget to enable them to do something fun with the team a few times a year. Think of it as a valve function, just taking the pressure off together. Again, a simple solution that was widely supported within the organization regardless of care type and/or location. Neither HR nor the works council had thought of that so far. After the first round, it was not yet clear that this was the very best idea, but in the second round – by means of weighting – this idea came out on top in the top 5. The works council dialogue is actually a very intelligent constituency consultation.”
Participation of 50% or more
People working in organizations always have good ideas and are keen to share them. And in a works council dialogue, these ideas come out well. More than 50% of the people within an organization participate in the works council dialogue. This is only successful if the works council communicates well beforehand. JOhan now has a strict script which he draws up together with the works council. This contains all moments of communication and the content of the messages. In larger organizations, a lower percentage is already statistically valid, but reaching all people and achieving a high response rate is always the goal.
JOhan: “For example, we send an e-mail from the works council a week before the first round of the works council dialogue starts that says: Next week the works council dialogue will start and it will take you about 25 minutes to fill it in, reserve time in your calendars for this in advance. Nobody suddenly has time available; if you announce something on time, it does work out time and again. To conduct a works council dialogue, we have to deal with various departments within an organization; we help our clients with this too. Just recently, in consultation with the head of the workshop, the works council had four desks placed between the machines to enable all employees to answer the works council’s questions.
Good questions deliver quick results
The total lead time of a works council dialogue is 10 weeks. The preparation takes 6 weeks, partly because works councils do not meet full-time and sometimes only meet once a week or 2-3 weeks. The first round then starts, which is open for ideas for 1-2 weeks and then there is the second round which is also open for (over) a week for weighting. The system produces a top 5 which we share with the works council and directors and employees in a presentation. Depending on the outcome, the works council makes a proposal. Incidentally, a bottom 5 is also revealed; what do they reject and why? So there is no support for? That’s what you want to know because that’s where you may find resistance.
Metamorfase offers works council dialogue in three packages and we find that once organizations have experienced the power and originality of this tool, they want to use it for many more topics and themes within the organization. An additional effect is that the visibility of the works council increases enormously. Employees are more aware of why there is a works council and what it does.
It is very important to ask well-phrased questions. I always say a good question is a short sentence with no opinion in it, which proves to be difficult time and again. This is how I help works councils. The questions are also included in the works council dialogue script. Experience shows that a set of 10 to 15 questions in the first round is manageable. Each question offers room for 220 characters to formulate an answer. This limitation is also there to force people to be concise and clear. With this number of questions, we manage to complete the first round within half an hour. And the response does show that most employees feel the same way. We get high marks for dialogues from the participants themselves. This is important because they need to find it fun, relevant and interesting.
Themes and concrete questions
Recurring themes in all sectors are workload, job satisfaction, working from home, working conditions and also organizational developments, vitality, sustainability and employee health, as well as organizational changes in general. This can also be very concrete, such as at a healthcare institution: Do you want the timetables to be made centrally or decentrally? At another organization, a works council had to advise on the appointment of a new director and they wanted to collect the required competences. Through the works council dialogue, they could also ask all employees: What question would you ask the candidates for the position of director of our organization? This resulted in a top 7 of challenging questions that employees would like to see answered by the candidates.
The trend I see in the job market now is that employers and HR are thinking quite reactively about how to be an attractive employer. The most important thing to be just that is to make employees feel that they are truly heard, only then will commitment and loyalty surface. The works council dialogue is a strong tool that encourages just that. It is also very transparent, because in the second round you are allowed to weight the answers yourself. In effect, you tell all your employees that they are allowed to influence the best policy for the organization and themselves. Employees are perfectly capable of doing that and won’t come up with nonsensical or unaffordable ideas. Ask your own professionals what it takes to engage and captivate them, instead of offering a ready-made programme devised for them. Ask them for their opinions beforehand.”
The attached blog offers inspiration for questions you can ask in case of consent, advice or an initiative; questions are ready for each article/member of the WOR. Get tailor-made answers with partners such as Metamorfase and its Works Council Dialogue.