Regaining control from unions

Regaining control from unions, Chemical production company, Antwerp, workforce of 250.

  • Tense social climate and repeated social crises have totally ruined the working atmosphere
  • Employees are demotivated by recurring internal problems
  • Absenteeism is increasing month after month
  • Investment budgets are severely limited by the crisis
  • Still, the factory must be run more efficiently to stay competitive
  • The challenge: demonstrate to employees, but also to management that they can change/improve a lot themselves
  • Management needs to “take back” the factory to avoid downsizing


Listening sessions at all levels (individual) and in group for the teams to get to the bottom of a number of trouble spots from the recent SD Works survey (no duplication of effort)

Action points formulated around the following themes:

1.Sustainable trust of directors/management/employees

2.Increase future-oriented leadership N-1, N-2, N-3

3.Productive time management with efficiency improvements and coordination arrangements

4.Develop more efficient work organisation for 2 sub-activities

5.Develop stimulating communication, coordination and consultation throughout the company

6.Cascade inspiring and motivating strategy throughout the plant

7.Renewed dialogue with the social partner: move on from the past, make new agreements in consultation


  • Step-by-step plan over 3 years
  • Year 1: focus on strengthening trust by making better use of the N-3s
  • Organisational structure redesigned and responsibilities clearly defined.
  • Initiative to start with a fixed monthly communication
  • Monthly consultation of management and N-3s started, to keep a finger on the pulse and to be able to work with a more anticipatory approach
  • Tackling absenteeism with a clear policy Addressed recurring disruptions with a major budget impact to free up existing resources for investments


  • After six months, positive signs of “peace process” were already detectable in terms of industrial relations.
  • A whole series of problems have been addressed that were previously swept under the rug or concealed.
  • Many actions have led to “quick wins” in terms of cost savings and have made more room for investments that boost competitiveness.
  • A number of trouble spots in terms of inadequate management have been addressed and permanently resolved.
  • For the first time in 30 years, the 3-yearly shutdown was carried out on time and within budget
  • The factory has learnt that a lot of intrinsic added value can be tapped into to remain competitive.

Implementing European restructuring

Implementing European restructuring, Pharma group, Europe, 3500 employees.

  • Integration exercise after a takeover, at European level
  • The European HQ in Belgium are moved to Switzerland
  • There will also be a restructuring in 6 support services
  • The group management has no experience at all with such an exercise
  • 12 countries are involved in the restructuring
  • All legal obligations must be strictly observed
  • Synchronization of the announcement is a critical success factor


  • Several work sessions with the integration team show that the company has no experience whatsoever with an integration process and all the related legal and social aspects.


  • Square Circle is appointed as the driving force of the entire integration plan at European level (12 countries involved) for industrial relations, communication, people, change and crisis management.


  • Preparation of a Road Map Masterplan based on our Road Map tool for restructuring.
  • Allows you to prepare and monitor all aspects of the integration exercise.
  • On this basis, we involve the local HR to draw up their own Road Map under the supervision of Square Circle.
  • Organised approx. 80 work sessions to draw up and monitor the entire plan.
  • Gave approx. 30 trainings on dealing with change, communication in difficult times across Europe and communicating convincingly.
  • SQC organises the Social Crisis Masterclass in 3 potentially critical countries.


  • Announcement went perfectly according to plan
  • Social relationships have not been harmed. Much care has been taken to ensure transparency and to maintain confidence in the preparation of the restructuring.
  • Information and consultations with trade unions went smoothly in all countries where these procedures had to be followed.
  • The integration team and management have identified the approach as the main success factor in the successful integration.
  • The integration went according to plan.
  • Uncertainty among employees is kept to a minimum.
  • Management has also emerged stronger.

Instilling new culture

Instilling new culture, Brewery group, Europe, 2000 employees.

  • Under pressure from Europe, breweries are asked to raise awareness among employees about (excessive) alcohol consumption.
  • Message needs to reach the entire company.
  • There are specific “risk groups”.
  • Distribution, carriers, …
  • Catering vendors
  • Production
  • In our case, also 5 countries


  • A traditional campaign (e.g. with posters) will not have the intended effect
  • The choice is made to involve the managers in the campaign as well as the Fund that is already responsible for the well-being of the employees within the company.
  • A “model” of the approach is drawn up and tested in 3 countries. The findings lead to the definitive approach.
  • Before the campaign starts, managers are informed and “trained” (sessions).


We worked on 3 levels:


  • 8-minute video (broaching the issue)
  • Group discussion according to specific guidelines with the help of an external facilitator
  • Closure by manager: concrete action points and follow-up + information about what the Fund can do for people who need it.


  • Entire campaign took 18 months
  • Very positively received by managers and employees
  • Problems with alcohol use were discussed in various work sessions
  • Team discussions: a whole series of recommendations were given to sales and distribution people to better deal with the social pressures of customers.
  • Recommendations came from the colleagues themselves, which makes them very concrete and applicable.
      • The brewery group realised that there was no uniform policy on alcohol consumption and that the internal rules (and sanctions policy) on alcohol consumption were not really known or consistently applied.

      Creating new future

      Creating new future, Travel agency, 30 people in Brussels.

      • CEO and CFO are fired (breach of shareholder’s trust)
      • New CEO is appointed but the team in Brussels refuses to accept it and threatens with a split
      • A split-off would mean the end of the office


      • Atmosphere is very hostile to change.
      • CEO and CFO have “agitated” the people against the shareholder and had already started organising a split-off in secret.
      • New CEO is very professional, has been working in the group for a long time but in a different travel segment. Employees are reluctant to accept him because he allegedly has no experience in their luxury segment. In fact, they would like to run the office themselves.
      • Employees have drawn up a document with their requirements for the recruitment of a new CEO. Many requirements are unrealistic.


      • Proposal: not a “frontal” attack but involving employees in the “new” project, building the travel agency of the future.
      • As a result, gradually gaining the confidence of the employees in the new CEO.
      • At the same time, using the expertise and talents of employees to take the business to an even higher level of customer loyalty.
      • Harvard methodology used to determine the company’s vision and mission together with employees.
      • Based on this, draw up a strategic plan for 3 years.
      • Involve all employees in the implementation of the plan.


      • Created a very strong shared vision and mission, which employees and shareholder support 100%
      • Trust in the CEO has grown.
      • Willingness to work on the future can be seen in the daily improvements (work organisation, follow-up of customers, etc.).
      • Shareholder agrees to give employees shares.
      • A crisis has been avoided.
      • Survival is assured.
      • Implementation of the strategic plan: using SEAM for this as well is currently being considered.

      Improving overall performance

      Improving overall performance, Temp agency, Belgium, 600 employees.

      • In a declining market (economic crisis) staying profitable by making maximal use of the internal potential of the company.
      • Involving employees in this as a driver of creativity and added value.
      • Proving to the group that the Belgian subsidiary is able to evolve, even in a difficult market.
      • This will allow future investments to flow from the group to Belgium in order to strengthen the position of the company.


      CEO came into contact with socio-economic (SEAM) approach at another company where he was an independent director.

      Horizontal and vertical diagnostics provide the following analysis:

      1.High potential for hidden economic performance

      2.Structural trouble spots between Sales and Support services that are paralysing

      3.HQ employees lack commitment

      4.Management is not really managing the employees

      5.Training courses are of good quality but are not being used

      6.Available tools and software could be used much more efficiently

      7.Much enthusiasm among employees to participate in changes if management evolves


      • Approach in steps
        Step 1: 2 business units + HQ
        Step 2: the 2 other business units
        Step 3: Agencies.
      • Calculation of the economic potential of energy optimisation
      • Action plans by and for employees to tackle energy loss step-by-step
      • SEAM tool used to activate the implementation of the strategy to all staff through priority action plans at all levels
      • Provided training on management tools to better manage employees
      • Training of internal “operators” to perpetuate the SEAM approach within the company


      • Year 1 after the approach: company grows 8% (profit) while the market performs -2%, higher sales thanks to better and closer collaboration between teams and employees
      • Hidden costs (energy loss) converted into economic added value: € 4.9 million
      • Approach has led to a new organisational structure to better manage BUs
      • Renewal in the management of the BUs has brought a breath of fresh air
      • Company now has a management approach for continuously adapting to market evolutions
      • Decision to further leverage SEAM to develop future potential

      Improving plant performance

      Improving plant performance, international production unit,
      1500 people.

      • Increasing quality problems having a negative impact on productivity and delivery agreements.
      • Difficult to mobilise people to do something about it because the union is blocking everything: status quo is the only option for them.
      • Occupational accident rate is too high.
      • Factory was taken over a year earlier.
      • New management needs to bring in a breath of fresh air because the conversion costs are too high and there is too little flexibility.
      • If not, the future of the factory is at stake.


      Listening sessions based on volunteers (union imposed). More than 250 people.

      10 specific critical issues emerged from sessions.

      1.Lack of credibility and trust of supervisors

      2.Lack of willingness to listen to the staff on the part of the management

      3.Fragmented responsibilities on the lines

      4.Inadequate production planning

      5.Holiday planning scheduled in a way that leads to production loss

      6.Insufficient application of safety regulations

      7.Poor communication across the production lines

      8.Need for a new mode of consultation with the unions (paralysis)

      9.Better “mobilisation” of employees on the machines to improve quality

      10.Problem with some persons


      • Choice to present full report, unedited and in detail, to the entire plant (transparency) through group sessions.
      • Executive Team coached to implement the 3-year strategy and involving every level down to the operational staff
      • Action taken to not only tackle the problems top-down, but also bottom-up by involving and showing appreciation for the supervisors and employees.
      • Plan drawn up to gain the trust of trade unions step by step through a transparent policy and to make them aware of the importance of changes to ensure the future of the factory through a “didactic approach”..


      • Cascade for the implementation of the strategy has been introduced.
      • Communication of the content from the listening sessions has worked as a catharsis. Employees have finally been able to make their complaints public.
      • The approach of the unions was critically examined by employees who are open to improvements (future).
      • 10 areas have been addressed with concrete proposals and actions (3-year step-by-step plan)
      • Personal problems among Executive Team members have been fixed.
      • Quality has improved, will be continued.
      • Relationship with unions is less tense.

      Greater transparency ensures a better climate in the factory. Employees are more involved in the change processes. Major trouble spots in the work organisation have finally been thoroughly addressed.