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Flexible solutions for juggling family and work

Flexible solutions for juggling family and work

Assuming responsibility for a job and a family – it’s nothing short of a Herculean task. As a family friendly employer, the Volkswagen Group helps its employees pull it off. Five examples that illustrate one point: Parents love flexible work schedules.

For some time now, Jack Roca has been surrounded by darkness when he leaves home in the morning: His alarm clock goes off around 5 a.m. He jumps onto his motorcycle soon thereafter and travels from Berlin-Marzahn to the central train station. Shortly after 6 a.m., he’s sitting in one of Germany’s high-speed ICE trains bound for Wolfsburg.

The vehicle technology engineer makes the trip three times a week because he works in Wolfsburg and his wife and the couple’s twins, who are two-and-one-half years old, live in the German capital. Relocating to Wolfsburg is out of the question because the small family has such deep roots in Berlin: Roca’s wife works there. His parents and in-laws also live nearby. Roca and his supervisors have worked out an arrangement that makes the commute manageable: He has spread out his 25-hour workweek over three days. He has Monday and Fridays off. On these days, he will take his children to child care and look after family matters and personal appointments while his wife works in an office.

Welcome to the modern, family friendly work world! Something that was unthinkable 20 years ago is gradually becoming a reality: Mothers of seven children are becoming ministers in Germany’s national government. Fathers watch the backs of their career-pursuing spouses. Men take several months of parental leave. Couples fairly split up the workload for their families and jobs.

This does not mean that family friendly work models are now everyday occurrences everywhere. But they are increasingly making their presence felt. Here are some examples from the Volkswagen Group.

Jack Roca – the commuter

Jack Roca commutes to Wolfsburg three times each week. He lives in Berlin with his wife and their twins, who are two-and-one-half years old

After his children were born, the engineer took 10 months of maternal leave. He has been working part-time for nearly two years now. A sympathetic supervisor has made it all possible. “It’s all about give and take,” says Roca, who works in vehicle body development at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles. If he happens to have a work-related appointment on a Friday, he will take a different day off. The father of twins can also expect to receive support when an important private activity is on his calendar. As the 34-year-old prepares to resume a full-time schedule, he can count on the support of his supervisor and will be able to work some of the time in a mobile setting or at home.

Carmen Theimert – the part-time manager

Carmen Theimert thinks the ability to work independently at any time and place is the biggest benefit for working parents. As the head of the E-Mobility Testing Department at MAN, she works part time (80 percent) and regularly takes advantage of the Flex Work Model, as the program is officially called. Her 15 employees are also welcome to work outside the office. They simply have to submit a request, and Theimert will sign off on it online. An average of one such request is submitted each month by her team. She uses it herself perhaps once every month or every other month.

Carmen Theimert is the head of the E-Mobility Testing Department at MAN. She works part time (80 percent) and takes advantage of the Flex Work Model

“The key issue is not whether I can actually work from home. What matters most is that I have this option when I need it,” Theimert says – particularly those times when private and professional activities collide. For Theimert, this could mean that she has to take her 3-year-old son or 6-year-old daughter to the doctor. The Flex Work Model takes a lot of pressure off her on such days because every deviation from the daily routine does not turn into an emergency, she says.

There are also other times when work does not always have to be done in the office: Theimert, who earned a doctorate in engineering, takes care of important phone calls while she drives to work. Once she has called it a day at 3 p.m. and taken care of her children, she can respond to important and urgent e-mails or talk on the telephone with her superior in the early evening.

“Since the Flex Work Model was introduced about a year ago, it has been much easier for everyone to create a work/life balance,” Theimert says. On the other hand, business trips remain a challenge, she adds. She flies to Scania in Sweden or to suppliers in South Korea every other month. She says she would make such trips more frequently if she did not have any children. Such trips also require extensive organization. Her husband, a geologist who works for municipal utilities in Munich, cannot pick up the children at 3:30 p.m. each day because he has to take care of his project-leadership responsibilities during his four-day workweek. Theimert’s mother then comes to the rescue and takes care of the children.

Fredy Germerott – the weekend dad

Different jobs, a different family situation: Fredy Germerott works full time in production planning for the Volkswagen brand. In principle, his job in Wolfsburg would allow him to see his 10-year-old daughter in the morning or the evening – if, course, she were not living with her mother 260 kilometers away. Germerott and his former wife separated when their daughter was 4 years old. Since then, he travels to Erfurt every two weeks and picks her up for the weekend.

The engineer took 14 months of parental leave after his daughter was born – while the family was still together. Today, he is happy that he took this intensive time off because it helped him form a bond with his daughter. Nonetheless, maintaining a strong relationship under such circumstances remains a challenge. Just how can you maintain an interpersonal relationship as well as nurture and raise a child during a two-day slot every two weeks? “You simply couldn’t do it without an employer like VW,” he says.

He heads off to Erfurt every other Friday when he can after he finishes work at mid-day. Reliability is important to Germerott. After a couple separates, joint care and relationships with children will usually function well only if strict agreements are maintained. You cannot say that you will be a little late today because you cannot make up the missed time. “I frequently don’t have the time when I need it for my daughter,” he says. “Or I am not nearby.”

Germerott was really happy when his daughter had a chance to participate in the coveted vacation program that Volkswagen offers to employees’ children. The girl really enjoyed the activities – and her father felt that he finally had a chance to share something of an everyday relationship with her.

Corinna Blichenberg and Carolin Keubler – the job-sharing bosses

Corinna Blichenberg is all about pioneering spirit, as her career choices show. The woman who holds a doctorate in chemistry took one such step while working almost full time (80 percent) as the head of xKD Quality Management Subdepartment at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles: She decided to give the pilot project Jobsharing a try for herself. Her department head, Andreas Spindler, and she then set off on a search for a manager with whom she could collectively lead her team in the department xKD Small Series & International Logistics. She found Carolin Keubler, an economist who was looking for a management position in the Hannover location after her son was born. She had previously worked in Wolfsburg as a subdepartment head in Group logistics and oversaw bottleneck control for electronic components.

Dr. Corinna Blichenberg (left) and Carolin Keubler share a managerial position at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles

As a jobsharing tandem in a management position, they blazed a new trail. First of all, they had to organize themselves and coordinate with each other. If that were not enough, they also had to introduce their employees and colleagues in other departments to the model – and win their support. “Our aim was and is to bring together innovation and work management,” Blichenberg says.

Shared management positions can be an excellent solution, Corinna Blichenberg and Carolin Keubler say. Their example clearly makes one point: Thanks to their combined background in natural science and economics, they can tackle a topic with a broader range of knowledge and far-reaching experience – and frequently come up with creative solutions that they would not have developed on their own. One can generally represent the other because both regularly speak with each other. Decisions are made by the manager in attendance at a meeting – and supported by the other one. Their employees bought into the idea long ago: They accept both women as their equal supervisors.

Elisabeth Heilmann – the full-time manager with children

Frequently, employees make decisions about their professional futures while on parental leave. This is a conclusion that Elisabeth Heilmann reached on the basis of her own experience – and she thinks that it is the case for other mothers and fathers as well. Heilmann, who holds a doctorate in business data processing, has been working at Volkswagen since the summer of 2010. After her second child was born two years ago, she received strong support from the company during the year-long parental leave she took. The support paid off.

The basis for this assistance was a pilot project called “Career with Children” that Volkswagen initiated in cooperation with the European Academy for Women in Politics and Business for upcoming managers. With the help of counseling, training courses and conversations with a career mentor, the mother of two stayed in close touch with the company, reflected on her situation and formulated career goals. One thing was clear: “I wanted to take on a new professional challenge after parental leave,” Heilmann said.

Elisabeth Heilmann heads a major IT project for digital after sales in the Volkswagen Group

Since January 2017, she has been heading a major IT project for digital after sales in the Volkswagen Group. As the “IT product owner,” she is working with her team to digitalize after-sales processes. Her team now has about 15 members and is expected to grow further. Nearly one-third of its members are women. “It helps to have a team with different types of people,” the digital expert says – and speaks of women and men as well as different cultures and backgrounds.

Heilmann intends to pass on the support that she receives from her career mentor and her current superior. She recently hired a female employee who was just returning from parental leave. Providing the most-possible time and location flexibility is the way to offer the best working conditions for parents with small children, Heilmann says.

She worked out an arrangement with her superior on the basis of the company agreement “Mobile Working.” Under this arrangement, she has to spend just one hour in the office every week. In agreeing on this condition, Heilmann and her superior, Michael Marr, used every bit of the flexibility allowed by the company agreement. Heilmann can react to spontaneous changes – like a sick child – at any time and work from home. “My boss signaled his respect for me by taking this step and has given me a vote of confidence,” she says. In reality, the project head usually works from home just one day each week. What matters to her is the ability to flexibly maintain a work/life balance at any time.

Heilmann says there are many reasons for the good working relationship. Marr has two small children of his own. As a result, he understands her situation and supports her, she says. Her work model is also respected in her own team. At home, her husband pitches in, too. He handles the child care when she has an important appointment that is scheduled outside normal business hours.

Does everything just simply take care of itself? Hardly. “The main problem is the feeling that you are not giving 100 percent to anyone,” Heilmann says. For instance, she will leave the office before her employees do and still pick up her children relatively late from day care. She will also miss meetings and still cannot regularly join her daughter at children’s gymnastics. Marr understands the demands that Heilmann places on herself: “I try to explain to her that she does excellent work and that she occasionally expects more from herself than everyone else does.”