As we discussed in How Does Aging Impact Our Career?, our bodies change as we age. The impact of these changes can be reduced by modifying the workplace. BMW is one example of a business that has implemented workplace modifications.
In 2007, leaders at a BMW power train plant in Germany were concerned about declines in productivity as their workers aged. They anticipated the average age of workers would rise from 39 to 47 by 2017. When sick, older workers were gone for longer periods of time. In addition, older workers had to work harder to maintain their output. Moving older workers into less physically demanding jobs was not an option because there were not enough younger workers to take their place.
What did BMW do?
They developed a pilot project for one of the most labor intensive production lines in the factory. The goal was to staff the line with workers to reflect 2017 workforce projections.
How did employees respond?
The project was not well received initially. Younger workers feared working alongside less productive workers. Older workers feared they would become less productive if they were assigned to a production line outside their comfort zone. In addition, the project was seen as just another top-down initiative.
How did leadership respond to employee resistance?
The plant’s Workers Council was consulted. They recommended reviewing an earlier study conducted on worker productivity at BMW that offered a basic framework for change, including, health management, skills, the workplace environment, retirement policies, and change processes. While theoretical, this framework greatly informed the pilot project. More importantly, they found declines in productivity are not an inevitable part of aging.
They also had conversation with many workers, explaining the pilot line was not a soft assignment. They assured workers they has the same production and quality standards as other lines in the plant. In the end, they secured assistance from 42 employees, creating a mix of workers that reflected 2017 age projections (average age of 47).
How did leadership launch the project?
Leadership organized a kickoff workshop. Workers were asked to describe their aches and pains and what changes they would make to the production line. Employees were encouraged to write down ideas and pin them on a board.
Each worker was told to prioritize five items. While no single idea came out on top, the information gathered during the workshop greatly informed the project team. One of the first ideas that was implemented was the installation of a wood floor. Workers reported at the end of the day their knees did not hurt. This success propelled workers to provide additional suggestions.
What changes were made to the production line?
Many of the changes were ergonomic modification to the workplace that reduced wear and tear on the body (approximately 70 changes to workplace equipment). Other changes include job rotation to balance the strain on individual workers. The goal is to reduce the amount of time individual workers spend on the most physically demanding stations. Finally, strength and stretching exercises were incorporated each day.
Examples of Ergonomic Equipment Changes
- Wooden flooring
- Barbershop chairs
- Orthopedic footwear
- Angled Monitors
- Magnifying lenses
- Adjustable table
- Large-handled gripping tools
- Stackable transportation contains
- Larger typeface on computer screens
- Manual hoisting cranes
What were the results of the pilot project?
BMW invested approximately $50,000 in this project. The line achieved a 7% productivity improvement in one year (equal to lines staffed by younger workers). The defect rate was reduced to zero. Finally, absenteeism dropped to 2% by June 2009. What’s more, workers were so satisfied with the project that they did not want to leave the pilot line. Additional pilots have been conducted in other BMW plants, yielding similar results.
What is the take away message?
Design of the working environment plays a role in a person’s capacity to remain productive when faced with age-related changes to the body, chronic disease, or disability. Perhaps more exciting, workplace modifications reduce the risk of work-related injuries. For example, adjustable worktables reduce physical strain to the back while performing work related duties.
Not only does workplace design include the tools and space workers use to perform duties, it also includes task design. For example, BMW incorporated task rotation to reduce time spent by employees on more physically strenuous stations.
Chronic disease is one of the leading predictors of withdrawal from the paid workforce. Sedentary lifestyle and obesity are linked to risk of developing chronic disease. BMW incorporated health promotion by adding a stretching station and implementing daily strength and stretching exercises.
While not practical for all businesses, the BMW project provides insight we can use to modify our workplaces. For example, BMW increased the typeface on computer screens, helping to reduce eye strain and minimize sorting errors.
Stay tuned for our next article in the series that will provide practical strategies for implementing workplace modifications. In the meantime, please visit Workforce Shortages: Beyond the Retirement Crisis to read other articles in the series.
- Loch, C.H., Sting, F.J., Bauer, N., & Mauermann, H. (2010). How BMW is defusing the demographic time bomb. Harvard Business Review, 88, 99-102.
- Video: How BMW deals with an aging workforce
- Four Ways to Adapt to an Aging Workforce
- Work Ability Index (WAI)
- Fox, R.R., Brogmus, G.E., & Maynard, W.S. (2015). Aging workers and ergonomics: A fresh perspective. American Society for Safety Engineers, 60(1), 33-41.
- Weyman, A., Meadows, P., & Buckingham, A. (2013). Extending working life. Audit of research relating to impacts on NHS Employees. London: NHS Employers.