For decades, the name Volvo Cars has been closely linked with safety when it comes to cars. Safety is at the very heart of an enormously strong global brand. But safety is also a crucial factor in the in-house environment and part of a very ambitious and successful global culture that focuses on people in many respects.

“We are a global company, with offices in 35 countries and industries in Europe, North America and Asia,” says Hanna Fager. “People and their qualities and abilities are key to us. We say ‘Made by People’ in our communication, but we also state that ‘People make a difference’. We know we need people in our organisation to feel happy and healthy, who know their strengths and who are confident in the ways in which they can contribute to what the company does. We have to have staff who are healthy and happy so that we can keep them as part of our team and also attract new staff – this is extremely important from both a strategic and a human perspective. So this is fundamental for us..

“Safety is absolutely crucial to us,” states Hanna Fager. “We have always said that nobody should be seriously injured or lose their life when they drive a Volvo. The same is true within the company: we have to have a culture and an organisation that work proactively so that nobody gets hurt or is injured at work. These two perspectives have to be interlinked.”

Proactivity is key

In a global company employing more than 40,000 people, in-house culture and organisation and safety issues always present a challenge and work on them is never-ending.

“At Volvo, we work hard on global standards applicable in all the countries in which we operate. Some countries have governing legislation that we have to abide by, but our own standards and policies usually go further. The big change is that we have focused on proactivity in terms of safety and social health – and in fact, this is something that we have done throughout the entire 21st century. Instead of working reactively – dealing with incidents and events as they occur, that is – we have been able to work with the risks in mind. Identifying and analysing these,” says Hanna Fager.

“One result that became evident fairly quickly was the fact that responsibility among our staff increased,” she continues. “Development and work are not driven from the top downwards for the most part, although our managers have a great deal of important responsibility for health and safety. It is clear that we have managed to build a culture where people naturally take responsibility themselves for predicting and preventing risks, and this is something that we are keen to reward as it is important for our company as a whole.” 

New tools

The emergence of a developed safety culture is also giving the company the opportunity to offer new tools that support and speed up development.

“As we receive information about potential risks from our staff, we can develop various preventive instruments in our proactive work. This may involve introductory programmes for new employees, training initiatives and practice, for instance. One of our initiatives has involved working with short videos produced on site at factories or offices, identifying risks and thereby showing specifically how we prevent accidents or ill health.”

Internal export of culture

It can take time to build up a new safety culture, and of course various obstacles may be encountered along the way. However, Hanna Fager reckons that Volvo Cars is working along the right lines.

“I am really pleased with how the team here have worked with the issue, and it is very clear to us that we are moving in the right direction. Safety is so important to us, and I believe that this insight among our global staff – that we are all part of the solution with our proactive approach, and that this is not something that should be left to the management – has been crucial to the change,” says Hanna.

Globalising the safety approach

Global corporations operating in countries with different safety cultures may appear to face major challenges when it comes to implementing new strategies relating to safety issues and the social work environment, but Hanna Fager reckons that this has not presented Volvo with a major problem.

“We have succeeded in transferring skills from the more mature plants we have to new ones that we built up around the world when we expanded. Our safety approach has been fundamental to establishment of new sites – both when we designed and constructed them and when we recruited employees. Moreover, we have been following up on this throughout by means of regular training initiatives. Quite simply, taking our safety approach out into the world has become an important part of our global strategy, and this has actually helped us to attract new staff globally.”

“Made by People”

A new motto has appeared in Volvo Cars communications of late: “Made by People”. The staff who develop, produce and sell these cars are highlighted as individuals, rather than being referred to as some anonymous collective. And people are placed at the centre of the brand from an internal perspective as well. 

“At Volvo, the people have always been the important starting point – not the machines. This is why our cars have been so intrinsically linked with safety for almost half a century,” says Hanna. “Safety for people travelling in our cars, and safety for other road users. So we have taken things one step further and placed ourselves – those of us responsible for these cars – in the foreground. This is something of a recognition of our culture, a tribute to the way in which we consider safety in all respects. 

“Each and every staff member is an important part of our valuable brand.”

Eliminating sluggishness and obstacles

Digital development is creating both new opportunities and new challenges in terms of both safety and the social and organisational work environment. At Volvo Cars, there is a great deal of awareness of the fact that changes make new demands of the organisation.

“We have worked in a fairly static environment and organisation over the years, but now we are moving towards a much more dynamic organisation,” says Hanna Fager. Customers’ requirements are changing much more quickly than was previously the case. It is obvious to us that we need to go on becoming smarter, faster and better. And we can achieve this by changing something. For us, this has involved focusing even more clearly on people: we say we are ‘human-centric’ and we try to live up to that in everything we do.

“What we are working with at the moment involves various ways of reducing elements in our structure and organisation that make it difficult for our staff to perform tasks with the highest priority. Eliminating sluggishness and obstacles,” she continues. “We want our staff to be able to understand their individual strengths and be given opportunities to use them correctly, where they can have the most benefit. This also means we have to open up the company more, look at the big picture. Digitisation means that as a company, we can identify the strengths of each and every member of staff and give them better tools to work with. The downside, of course, is that becoming faster and smarter means that the pace of work will increase, and this is where we have to be on our guard. The pace must not jeopardise individuals’ capabilities and health.”

New approach to staff appraisals

The dynamic digitised work environment is making new demands of companies and their responsibility for ensuring that staff can keep up with development without risking their health or their enjoyment of their work.

“We have now implemented radical changes in respect of how we work with the staff appraisal process, as we used to call it. In its place, we have introduced regular prioritisation measures and feedback as the primary ingredients in a new approach. Given the pace of change that we are seeing nowadays, the start of the year can no longer be used as a point to define the priorities that are to apply to individuals and teams. Instead, we are now working dynamically with more frequent team meetings and meetings between managers and staff so that we can synchronise our priorities and work regularly with feedback.”

A major change process

The automotive industry is in the middle of a major change process. The spectre of climate change is looming large over the entire notion of cars and car culture as we know it. Our dependency on fossil fuels has to go, global urbanisation is making completely new demands, people’s relationships with their cars as necessities and status symbols is changing. 

“As a company, it is crucial for us to really have committed staff who understand where we are heading as a company and, above all, why. The solutions of the future will come not from the top in the organisation, but from inside. We are working to become a more purpose-based company, which means that the management are there to show people the way, provide inspiration and help them understand why we have to do what we do. This also means that in-house communications between people now take precedence over processes and tools. Tools and processes are on hand to support staff, but we would venture to say that interaction between people at our company is the most important factor, the key point in our development. What individuals contribute is crucial.”

From hardware to software

In an industry that has so clearly been focused on technology, and where technical innovations and hard facts have defined the competition, notions of human encounters as a development force are exciting.

“We usually say that as a company, we are moving from hardware to software. Look at the development of our autonomous vehicles, for example. That is software on four wheels. We are developing a range of instruments that will make life easier for people in safe ways, and we are packaging all this in a vehicle. This is an extremely exciting development that also requires us to be incredibly agile when it comes to perceiving changes in behaviours, needs and habits among our customers. This is a major adjustment. And it requires real focus on people.”

Recruiting new people

We can use figures when summing up the specific results of a global culture shift in terms of safety and organisation and the role of employees. For example, accident numbers have fallen by 95 per cent in the 21st century. But the long-term gains with an active initiative involving change in the in-house culture are crucial.

“We are now building a learning organisation in which we are mixing the faithful team of experienced staff in the Volvo family with the new people that we have had the opportunity to attract to our company. And we can now see that the way in which we work is attracting talented people from other industries to apply to us as well. Everyone can see that we prioritise the well-being of our staff in our company and make sure that individuals can identify and develop their strengths with us. This is important, because we are now competing for the best staff with other industries as well. We are recruiting people with completely different skills and experience than was maybe the case 15 years ago, and would-be staff have to feel that our company is truly a positive environment in which they can grow and appreciate our culture. They must be able to make a difference here,” concludes Hanna Fager.