Christoph Kübel wanted to hold the interview at the company’s Stuttgart-Feuerbach location rather than in the company’s headquarters in Gerlingen. Bosch’s board of management member in charge of human resources and director of industrial relations wanted to show us how the new work culture functions at the technology company.
He proudly led us through internal IT advisory services, where employees no longer have a fixed workplace but take an empty desk each morning. Documents are kept in small, personal lockers rather than rolling file cabinets. Speaking with workers during the course of the tour, many said they work from home on average about one day per week.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Kübel, it is a Friday morning in your IT center and almost no one is here. Are things going so well for Bosch that hardly anyone has to work now?
Mr. Kübel: We have been working for a long time on replacing the culture of a strict presence at work with a flexible work culture, oriented more strongly on results. We are convinced that our employees are happier and, thus, more creative through flexible work models. Good ideas don’t just come at the push of a button but sometimes when jogging or while working outside on the patio.
The theory sounds good. But how do you, as employer, control what is work and what is time off?
We want to support our employees more strongly in reconciling their private lives with their work and professional lives. That’s why we are further expanding our flexible work culture. We just concluded a work agreement that says our employees are free to decide when and where they work, to the extent the task allows, and no operational reasons would prevent it. This makes deciding on a case-to-case basis a thing of the past.
What are operational reasons?
Fixed meetings on certain days, for example, or customer appointments. But the essential point here is that the employees now have a basic agreement with their superiors on when and how they work, instead of having to explain each time why they are sitting at home on their computers. If they want, they can take care of their children in the afternoon, or work on a hobby and catch up with their work in the evening. The IG Metall workers union has agreed that in such cases no overtime must be paid.
So the workers on the assembly line gain nothing from this new freedom?
We are already testing out a few things in production as well. There are family shifts in some plants that don’t start until eight o’clock. Or, two workers share a job. And we are testing the use of substitutes, who would jump in when an employee needs to take a half day or a whole day off, to take care of an urgent, private matter.
Can German companies with costly, flexible-time models keep up with Asian ones?
Our guidelines for a flexible work culture apply worldwide, therefore also in China. We are firmly convinced that a triad of an orientation toward results, flexibility and worker respect will make the employees happier and the company more successful.
Thanks to ideas from our employees, our plant in Ansbach, Bavaria, was able to save more than €5 million in 2013.
Can you explain what you mean by worker respect?
For us, commitment to family and work are of equal importance. That’s why for one and a half years we have recognized a timeout for raising children, or caring for a family member, as one of the five career building blocks our managers need if they want to advance further. We equate this social experience with something like a stay abroad.
But Bosch isn’t a charity organization.
Of course not. But we consider satisfied employees to be a competitive advantage. That’s why we concluded another work agreement that also allows the use of computers and smartphones for private purposes, such as booking a vacation during a lunch break.
Why is the subject of compatibility so important?
On one hand, to be innovative, and on the other, because we want to remain an attractive employer. Each year we receive over 200,000 job applications from Germany alone and 20,000 for our apprenticeship slots, so we are still able to fill our job vacancies. But 40 percent of industrial companies are no longer able to do that because the competition for the most talented people is increasing. Particularly since just now the Generation Y wants to achieve, but they want to do it as flexibly as possible.
Some companies prohibit email traffic on the weekend or give employees the option of having emails deleted during their vacations. Is Bosch planning something similar?
No, quite the opposite. We want to reinforce self-determination and especially not dictate that they can only answer their emails between eight and six. Fathers and mothers with small children, particularly, prefer working through their emails in the evening, in exchange for having time for their family in the afternoon.
The head of Bosch’s works council said in an interview that larger personnel cost reductions are under discussion. How does that fit in with your plans for a flexible work culture?
The European automobile industry could build 20 million vehicles, but is currently producing only 16 million. This situation also is a challenge for us. It is our goal to keep the number of employees stable. To do that, we must be creative.
What does that mean?
Take the employee suggestion program. Thanks to ideas from our employees, our plant in Ansbach, Bavaria, was able to save more than €5 million in 2013.
Is that enough to lower costs?
It helps to strengthen our competitiveness. All company plants and offices must constantly work on their competitiveness. Reducing personnel costs can be an element of that.
So after all, like other companies, you are moving toward permanent jobs becoming obsolete?
No, on the contrary, less than one percent of our employees are employed as temporary workers. Work contracts are not a personnel cost-cutting instrument for us. In 2014, we will hire 9,000 employees worldwide and create new positions in areas such as research and development. Our employees have a deep tie to Bosch. And it should stay that way.
Mr. Kübel, thank you very much for the interview.
Martin Buchenau has had a long career at Handelsblatt based in many German cities. He currently reports on the economy in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Stefani Hergert reports for Handelsblatt mainly on education topics, with a focus on executive and higher education. To contact the authors: Buchenau@handelsblatt.com, Hergert@handelsblatt.com