How BMW Created a Better Workplace For Employees of All Ages

When 100-year old luxury German carmaker BMW realized that roughly half of the 18,000 workers in one of its most productive plants will be over age 50 by 2020, it reacted in an unusual way.

 

It invited laborers, representatives from work councils, and technical experts to brainstorm about how to redo the plant with people of all ages in mind.

Based on the input, BMW’s “Today for Tomorrow” program led to 70 changes, including laying new floors that are softer on the knees, outfitting workers with special shoes, installing easier-to-read computer screens, letting laborers sit instead of stand, and piping in more daylight. “Today for Tomorrow” led to BMW receiving AARP’s international Innovative Employer Award for Best Practice in Age Management twice (in 2009 and 2011).

Today BMW has implemented similar ideas on most of its assembly lines in Germany and around the world. One of them is to have workers rotate jobs during a shift so they no longer repeat one task all day. Another is to have physical trainers on the factory floor, posters reminding workers about the importance of stretching and nutrition, special ergonomic chairs, and expansive exercise rooms equipped with mats and wall bars.

In recognizing and listening to the concerns of its experienced but aging workforce, BMW turned a probable decline in productivity into an opportunity for innovation.

“What they were driven by was the idea that we really want to keep our workforce,” says Fabian Sting of the Rotterdam School of Management, coauthor of Harvard Business Review’s “How BMW is Defusing the Demographic Time Bomb.”