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Why Volkswagen is introducing family-friendly policies for shift workers

The German automaker recently moved its last evening shift of the week from Friday to Sunday so that workers at the Chattanooga plant can have a fuller weekend with family.
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· 4 min read

Volkswagen (VW) employs more than 4,000 employees at its plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said SVP of HR Burkhard Ulrich, who admits it can be complicated implementing workforce changes.

Likening VW to a “big tanker,” Ulrich said that “with so many people, it takes time to change stuff.” He spoke alongside Shireena Avery, VW’s advanced specialist of diversity and employment engagement, during a panel at the Best Place for Working Parents national summit in Nashville on May 9.

Nevertheless, the German automaker has tweaked a number of policies recently with the goal of making shift work at the Chattanooga plant more flexible, and better supporting workers with families. Ulrich said these policies have been guided by three principles: “flexibility, ease of access, and planability.”

Additional time-off for emergency situations. A few months ago, VW increased the number of days off employees can take for emergency situations from three to five, according to Ulrich. Previously, these days off had to come out of employees’ PTO, but now they can also choose to take excused unpaid days as well. “This significantly increased the flexibility for our team members, especially in emergency situations,” Ulrich said.

A “bridge-to-work” program. VW offers a “bridge-to-work” program that allows employees returning from maternity leave to work reduced shifts of 20 hours a week for up to six weeks. “This gives them the opportunity to have enough time to organize and balance their professional and private life,” Ulrich said.

Streamlining maternity-related requests. Pregnant and postpartum workers can request different types of accommodations from VW, including maternity wear for their uniforms, closer parking, and access to the “mothers’ room,” Avery said. They used to have to file these requests on VW’s intranet, but after realizing accessibility was difficult for manufacturing workers—many of whom don’t have access to company-issued computers—the HR team streamlined all the requests on a mobile platform called Typeform. On this new system, which the company just launched, employees can use a QR code to request these accommodations from anywhere on their mobile devices, rather than having to rely on a supervisor with a company-issued computer to facilitate them.

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Making shifts more predictable. Even though VW publishes shift schedules in an annual production calendar each year, “supply chain disruptions and customer demand fluctuations” mean employees are sometimes asked to work overtime on Saturdays, Ulrich said. In order to make these shifts more predictable, VW now announces overtime shifts at least nine days ahead of time (the previous standard was two days). The automaker also moved its last shift of the week from Friday at 10pm to Sunday at the same time, so employees can have a full weekend with their family. They made this change four weeks ago after a survey found 80% of employees were in favor of the new schedule.

Evaluating efficacy. To measure the efficacy of its policies, Ulrich said VW relies on regular employee satisfaction surveys, as well as surveys on specific topics (i.e., moving a shift from Friday to Sunday, or getting a pulse on childcare needs). They seek feedback from employee resource groups as well, Avery said.

Ulrich credited its move toward family-friendly policies as part of what has contributed to its below-average turnover rate of 17% (he cited a 35% industry standard in the Southeast). And while female representation at the Chattanooga plant dropped during the pandemic, Ulrich said these statistics have improved over the last three years. Keeping women in the manufacturing workforce as they start families, he added, is “always a challenge.”

Some of these policy changes come on the heels of a successful vote by VW’s Chattanooga factory employees to join the United Auto Workers union in April. In a letter published ahead of that vote, workers who were voting “yes” cited concerns about “unfair PTO policies,” as well as sick leave policies.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.