Thursday, July 10, 2008

Engaging with the future

The swirls from life's counter-phase flows are everywhere now.

A wave of folks has washed in from the US to learn what was done here and to take what they need to continue the product. They are meeting a outward current of Dutch headed out to new assignments, garden leave, or vacations. Inevitable eddies form, trapping issues large and small in swirls of accountability.

I've kicked job-hunting into high gear: HR had asked me to wait until the Plan was complete and then to work with my US rep. Our first meeting was yesterday: it's early in the process, so neither of us had any concrete options to offer. That was a bit frustrating, I would have liked to have gotten some specific interest, but we were able to toss a few ideas back and forth. I can see that the biggest sticking point will be my desire to stay in Europe: it's just not something that most Americans ask for.

Ideally, I'd like a position where I can build a new business from an innovative technology for a significant clinical need. These opportunities are few and far between, so there might need to be a 'bridge' role of less than a year where I can do some broadening or seasoning while I wait. I'm casting around to see what might be going on in our other centers outside the US, but they don't post openings at my level, so I have to hear about them second-hand. Alternatively, I could happily move towards a technology scouting or incubator management position, or into a role where I could work with talented clinicians to create the experimental and clinical evidence portfolio or health economic simulation to justify entering a new market.

Something entrepreneurial. And outside of the US.

A friend questioned whether a large corporation will have positions like that; another said that I have to look for 'small-in large' opportunities within functional departments rather than projects.

It's also becoming apparent that global economic and transportation factors have caused our company to pull functions back towards the center. It may be a "sign of the times": although an international firm may retain local sales and support functions, the era of networks of R&D and manufacturing centers may have yielded to outsourcing and "local operational leverage.

I haven't pursued external opportunities yet, but I've established a hard mental deadline where there has to be progress or I need to pull the trigger. I've had calls from a few friends with small businesses, and I'm trying to understand what it costs to live here if I were completely self-supporting. I'll meet with my relocation person tonight to sort out the questions of work visas and immigration. If it seems logistically practical, then I'll try to see if there in money behind the interest, and if the parts add up to a living whole.

Its getting harder to sleep as this all starts to rumble forward. I wake at 2 with a head full of thoughts...one leads to another leads to sunrise. I know that my mind has to exhaust its worries and alternatives, filing each and constructing a plan, but I wish it could do it subconsciously.

Anyway, closing with some bits and bobs:

  • Relief: William called from Air Force Basic and seems to be off to a good start. Bald, but good: he wants us to send news magazines since he's feeling cut off.
  • Irritant: My car lease company called and reclaimed by car on half-day notice: their supplier went bankrupt and they had to retrieve the car before the police arrested me for driving it (can they do that?). They've tossed me a Ford Mondeo family station wagon: I'm bummed: it's literally replacing the Batmobile with an Ice Cream Truck.
  • Wistful: I'm realizing that my US severance package would be about 10% of the Dutch severance. Maybe I should have taken a local contract, but probably wouldn't have been eligible anyway.
  • Resigned: I have been trying to help my team to organize their data and submit manuscripts so that they have published credit for their work. That's running up against US policy, and now that they run the business, it's their call. Disappointing.
  • Looking forward to: 'driving my daughter to college on August 17. It's still good to end with a happy thought.

Photo credit: e-fluids.com

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Dutch Social Plan process

imageOur Dutch workforce voted in favor of the Social Plan proposal at our company last week, officially kicking off the transfer of the business back to our headquarters in the US. Events will move quickly now, and the entire process should be complete within a few months.

For me, it has been an education. I don't think that our US folks really understood the process when we began, highlighting the importance of taking time to learn the cross-cultural differences early in the planning process.

So, for context, here's my personal perspectives on the Dutch Social Plan process (a good overview is also given at EIRO).

The Dutch Works Councils Act mandates that any business with over 50 people will establish a Works Council "in order to ensure the proper consultation and representation of the persons working in the enterprise".

I think that this is a good thing. In my observation, it promotes dialog and the free flow of authoritative information between management and the workers, aligns and involves everyone in the operation of the business, and assures that issues and opportunities get discussion and agreement. Excesses by both management and the unions in the US might be prevented if both were forced to be more open and consultative about their actions. The current alternative, demonization and marginalization of unions rationalized by "trickle-down" and globalization promoters, is, in fact, the greatest threat facing the US worker today.

When Dutch management wants to make a major change in the way that the business is being run, it needs to solicit the advice of the Works Council. During that consultation, the workers need to be supplied with "a summary of the grounds for the decision, its expected consequences for persons working in the enterprise, and the measures proposed for dealing with such consequences." A major action like a shutdown triggers two responsibilities for the Council: to approve the advice (or to reject it with appeal to a court), and to negotiate the severance terms (the Social Plan) on behalf of the workforce.

Severance agreements are much more generous in the Netherlands than in the US: a month of salary per year of service vs. a week for each year in the US. The Social Plan also includes provisions for outplacement and education assistance, continuation of health and pension benefits, work-to-work assistance, and perhaps hardship bonuses. The goal is to provide a consistent and fair treatment of all people affected.

Our Works Council, although new to the process, acted well in their role on behalf of the workforce, and seemed trusted in return. They gathered appropriate advisors, organized subgroups to make recommendations on specific issues, and held regular meetings to communicate progress and to take suggestions form the team. There was disagreement and doubts. But the representatives were able to keep the discussions constructive and effective without getting loudly adversarial with either side throughout the negotiations.

The biggest factor in the negotiations is the structure of the Cantonal Formula, which governs the magnitude of the severance payouts. The formula multiplies corrected years of service (older workers get a multiplier for their years beyond age 40) times gross monthly salary times a correction factor. The correction factor, usually between 0.25 and 2.0, varies depending on the state of the business and tradeoffs with other parts of the Plan. It is closely watched and diligently negotiated by both sides, and is the main indicator of the quality of any settlement proposal.

Once a proposal is finalized, it is presented to the workers and put to a vote after a week's consideration and discussion: 50% + 1 is required for approval. Once passed, the terms of the settlement are distributed to each worker, the agreement is individually signed, and the terms take effect over a subsequent three month period.

The system seemed to work well, allowing for discussion of the event and securing a fair settlement which gives each employee a boost towards continuing their life after the company is gone. There is still emotion about leaving and dispersing, uncertainty about what the next job will be. But people are starting to talk about how they can use their settlement to start businesses, provide for retirement, or relocate to find new work. A substantial number are taking this chance to start over in a new field; many are finding jobs at equivalent or greater salary in the tight Dutch labor market.

There doesn't seem to be the bitterness and individual divisiveness that seems to characterize labor / management negotiations in the US. I like to think that this is a result of a balanced allocation of power and a structure of mutual consultation.

Giving labor a voice doesn't have to be 'bad for business'.

Disclaimer: I am sharing my own observations, which may be incorrect or incomplete in some particulars. As a US employee working under an expatriate agreement, I do not have any stake in the process or the Plan. This essay does not contain any proprietary details of our Social Plan Agreement.

Photo credit European Commission

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The family road trip

road-trip1

It's been fun driving a big triangle of seven-hour trips across Germany this week, first from Arnhem to Berlin for a conference, then Berlin to Zurich to spend a day with my brother and his family, and finally Zurich back to Arnhem for work Monday morning.

The Dutch only drive long distances when there are three week's vacation waiting at the far end of the road: then they will drive 30 hours straight-through to get there. But for me, the journey is the joy. Once out on the road, I settle back into a familiar rhythm of automobile travel: the changing topography and scenery, the evolution of light and weather, the chance to carry a thought end-to-end (or not) amidst the whoosh of wind past the window.

I also catch up with podcasts. This trip, Tom Ashbrook had a good discussion of "Summer Vacation's Golden Age: The American Family Road Trip". It was nostalgic: my family faithfully took a three week road trip every summer as I grew up. The stories people told brought it all back, reminding me again of how I came to resonate with this as my preferred vacation.

Every spring there would be a dinner declaration of where we would be going for the summer: always a big loop of about 3000 miles, generally out to the Rocky Mountains. My mother would order the TripTik from AAA, a flip map of detailed directions accompanied by Tour Guides. In June we would organize a mountain of clothes, camping gear, kitchen implements, and campfire supplies in the living room. The children each got to buy some magazines, pick some books, and agree on a couple of games to take along.

ShastaIt was all cached in a 1962 Shasta Astroflyte trailer, "Henrietta", that my father pulled behind a big station wagon. When it was all packed, there would be a big sendoff with the neighbors, and then we'd turn west out of Cleveland towards the distant plans. The road to the Rockies was always a grind of hot, 8-hour days across flat, monotonous interstate highway. My father used to play "How Far Is It?", pointing out a distant bridge and letting us guess what the odometer reading would be when we got there. Days were broken up by lunch at schoolyards, afternoon ice cream, and fierce competition to see who got to sleep in the overbunk each evening.

It was always exciting to catch the first glimpse of the mountains, the peaks hardly distinguishable from the clouds. It meant that the trip would slow so that we could linger in national parks and forests, hiking or boating during the days and going to ranger talks at night. There were always other kids to meet and nearby woods to explore. Each year produced a new bear story, as someone got surprised by a brown bear while stepping out after breakfast or returning from the toilets. And every evening ended with a campfire, burning marshmallows, writing names in the air with smoke from "fire sticks", and a sing-along.

And then, in the fall, the trip's albums would be finished. My father would have painstakingly edited the movie film into a travelogue of the trip, with alphabet block titles filmed while we pulled wooden cars across the frame beneath the words. My mother would unveil her scrapbook featuring daily journal entries, pictures, and all of the tickets and brochures collected along the way. I haven't seen any of it in decades, I hope there are big boxes with these treasures stashed away.

imageI carried on the tradition in my family: we criss-crossed North America every summer until the kids were about ten, visiting relatives, parks, and cities. We didn't camp as much and never kept a journal. The pictures fill drawers back home, still waiting for the day we would sort, organize, and mount the galleries. I abandoned TripTik's in favor of a good atlas.

But it was great experiences for the kids and time together as a family when they were growing up. And I think that it did establish my predisposition for enjoying a cross-country automobile journey. Whether Germany or Wyoming, I still feel most 'on vacation' when there are 80 miles until lunch, four small towns to choose from, and an hour to decide among them.

Photo credits edmunds.com, vintageshastas.com, and kayak.com