Guillaume Leenhardt has been working for more than 15 years in the field of personal assistance and is the founder and manager of the company A Vos Côtés. The company currently has over 200 employees and is based in Montpellier. In order to remedy strong recruitment difficulties, he has set up a work organization that goes against the grain of the sector's norms, notably by focusing on the autonomy of the life assistants. According to him, this is an imperative to enhance the value of essential jobs that are in short supply. Indeed, it is estimated that in 2030 France will have one million more elderly people to help.
On the program:
Social utility as a compass
"The issue was not so much finding customers as finding employees"
"If our industry doesn't change, the situation ahead of us is unfortunately dramatic."
Autonomy to enhance the value of the professions
Guillaume Leenhardt : I studied to become a trader, in a trading room. At the end of my DESS, during my last internship, I finally understood that it was not for me. I wanted to give more social utility and meaning to my job.
So I changed direction and worked as an auditor for three years at PwC, a firm that introduced me to business management. Not wishing to make my career there, I explored several avenues. I was looking for ways to have more impact in my work, but I didn't really know where to start.
Following this experience at PwC, I volunteered abroad for a year as part of an international solidarity program. When I returned, I became interested in demographic issues and the "papy-boom". These subjects appealed to me, I really wanted to work in this sector. In addition, the Borloo law on programming for social cohesion had just been passed. This law aimed to develop the personal assistance sector.
With this in mind, I moved to Montpellier and created A Vos Côtés to help the elderly in 2006. Naively, I had overlooked the question of employees. I think that this is quite common for business creators! Many don't anticipate this issue enough and can quickly find themselves exhausted with the management of employees. I quickly discovered that my job consisted of helping elderly people and supporting employees at the same time.
It made sense for me to accompany this population of employees, often fragile and precarious. Even if it is complex, it is very stimulating on a daily basis.
In 17 years, A Vos Côtés has gradually grown. We now have 220 employees and we operate within a radius of 20km around Montpellier. We work mainly in the field of assistance to the elderly, but we also accompany people with disabilities. More incidentally, we carry out cleaning missions for families.
G.L : 15 years ago, when I started the company, I foolishly thought that I had to "supervise" employees to get the job done. But I quickly realized that this was not the right posture to attract and keep motivated employees. In fact, the problem quickly became clear to me: the issue was more about finding employees than customers.
Our sector suffers from a lack of means and is today in a complete impasse. To give you an idea, the proportion of people over 65, which is currently 20%, will reach 29% in 2070 and France will have more than one million more elderly people to help by 2030. Last summer, 25,000 home care workers were needed. At the same time, we will have to face the retirement of a large part of our workforce.
So I asked myself: how can I make people want to work in this sector? How do you attract people who will flourish in this profession?
G.L : I was inspired by a Dutch company that offers home care - Buurtzorg. I discovered their very empowering organizational system in 2018.
In our sector, the organization is generally very pyramidal, with the agency manager, the sector managers and their assistants, and the armies of caregivers who carry out orders without asking questions.
Buurtzorg offered a very different model, with autonomous teams, no leader and strong inter-team cohesion. So I tried to adapt this model to my company.
From now on, our employees can organize themselves as they wish as a team, as long as they respect a certain framework and rely on the structure for all "back-office" matters (billing, payroll, training, HR, etc.). The teams are led by coaches who accompany them and act as facilitators.
If they find it necessary, our caregivers can also call on "family advisors". These are "Care Managers" who can, for example, propose to the beneficiaries a reorganization of their home. Few structures in France have adopted this type of organization, although it is becoming more and more common.
G.L : We launched our first teams at the beginning of 2021, we are now halfway through the process I would say. It's a job that takes time because it upsets the whole structure. For example, this change is not easy for the caregivers who have always been used to being executors and not having to question the decisions taken for them by the hierarchy.
For me, the objective behind this new organization is to attract people who are not yet considering becoming lifeguards. It is a profession that can interest employees who are wondering about the meaning of their work because it has a strong social utility. It can also attract people whose skills are becoming obsolete with the emergence of AI.
G.L : It's very concrete for our employees! They can choose their clients, the colleagues they want to work with, their working methods...
For me, this autonomy is really aligned with the new expectations of today's employees, but also of tomorrow. This is particularly important to attract the new generations.
This may seem utopian, especially in a sector that has not been recognized at all until now. But that is precisely why it is so important to revalorize the job of the caregiver because their role is essential for our beneficiaries. The caregivers help them to carry out essential tasks or do them for them when they can no longer do so: preparing meals, shopping, washing, dressing, getting up, lying down, eating, moving around...
When I ask myself the question "who do I want to be helped by if I find myself in a situation of dependency?", I would prefer to have autonomous, properly trained and motivated caregivers by my side. Every time teams organize, review their operations or ask themselves a question, we systematically ask them to respect a three-dimensional framework:
Respect for the beneficiary, his or her life plan and satisfaction
Respect for the team and the general interest before the individual interest
Respect for the financial balance of the team
If these three dimensions are taken into account, then the decision will be the right one. I leave everything else up to the employees.
This is very different from the way most other organizations operate. Their system is very disempowering and ultimately leads to a lot of absenteeism, sick leave and work-related accidents.
In our company, the caregivers are autonomous in their decisions. They can even choose whether or not to go to a beneficiary's home. However, they know that they will have to take their responsibilities and find an alternative solution as a team.
The management of vacations has also been considerably simplified. Before, we used to ask our employees to choose their days off a year in advance, while we got organized. Today, as long as they can replace themselves and are satisfied with the way things are done, they have a free hand over their leave.
G.L : Before we implemented our new system, my organization was very unbalanced between the managerial positions and the rest of my employees.
About 10% of my payroll was made up of supervisors, or 20 positions for 200 other employees. This was clearly not sustainable: our "non-productive" fixed costs were getting higher and higher, to the detriment of the salaries of the caregivers who were asking for increases - and rightly so.
For example, Buurtzorg has 15,000 employees and only 50 people working in the headquarters. The system there is much more horizontal and fairer to the employees who produce the work.
I aspire to this type of model, which sometimes puts us on the edge of the law. But I think that innovations always precede the law. The important thing for me is that the employees decide for themselves as a team, respecting the framework and the life project of the beneficiary. They take control of their professional life!
G.L : We are still at the very beginning, it is still too early to say.
I also think that it will take time. First we have to see if all our employees are capable of working with this system, which is not obvious.
But I can already see an effect on recruitment. When we are at job fairs, we see that people are interested in our approach based on autonomy.
I am personally convinced of the value of this strategy. If our sector does not question itself and does not change, the situation that awaits us is unfortunately dramatic. We risk witnessing real social dramas with a very large number of people who have become dependent and who will be without any support and assistance.
To remedy this, we need to change the image of the caregiver's profession from top to bottom. Otherwise, we won't make it.
Afterwards, I am aware of the difficulties of our sector in moving towards an "à la carte" organization of work. This adaptation is complex, because we have to take into account many constraints with regard to our customers but also with regard to the regulations.
Our business is highly regulated, in particular by the supervisory authorities and by service continuity obligations. We are therefore caught between the desire to offer more personalization to our employees and the very strict regulatory framework that is imposed on us.
G.L : I have summarized the project succinctly, in the form of a roadmap.
I agree that we are not very good at employer communication. This is one of the major difficulties of our sector.
Our margin is very low, as our payroll represents 90% of our revenue. We therefore have very few resources to allocate to communication or employer brand projects. Nevertheless, we are going to rework our website in the next few months.
G.L : Yes, the State puts a lot of means on the table in many sectors (health, education, ...) but we can see that it does not work. I deeply believe that the individual evolves differently according to the organization of the work which is proposed to him and that we will be able to greatly improve the situation of our sector by working on that.
By necessity, I think that the job of life assistant will be better taken into account because what is rare has value. I think that their status will improve, both in terms of image and salary. Society will finally have to show its appreciation for these jobs, which have been little valued until now, because of their indispensable nature.
G.L : I am part of the founding team of the Trophées des Services à la Personne en Occitanie.
The objective is twofold: this event serves to promote our businesses and to communicate.
This is not an inter-company competition, we don't just hand out trophies! We are supported by the GRETA network, which gives our employees written and practical exams. This creates a sort of emulation among the structures, culminating in an awards evening that highlights our employees. We also take advantage of this moment to communicate with the general public, on social networks, on the radio, in the press...
We see more and more similar initiatives being set up all over France. We are going to standardize all of this in the near future to set up a national event. This will be a good way to draw attention to our professions.
The idea is to put the spotlight on our professions, as has been done for the culinary professions. Until now, they have been very devalued, but competitions and television programs have succeeded in restoring their image.
G.L : We have recently seen a boom in personal service platforms, connecting freelancers with clients. This is competition that I am not particularly afraid of because their model is not adapted to the regular services that are offered in our sector. Indeed, the client and the caregiver have no interest in going through these platforms because they can organize themselves directly.
On the other hand, we are today in real competition with mandated structures. Unlike companies like ours, which have employees and regulatory and legal obligations to respect, these structures do not take on employees and benefit from the collective agreement of the private employer. The caregivers are hired by the individuals. Their hourly rate seems to be more interesting but they are not protected in the same way.
For example, in case of an accident at work, if one of our employees, who has 15 years of seniority, is declared unfit for work by the occupational medicine, he is entitled to a very comfortable compensation to make up for the loss of earnings. With an agency structure, his compensation would be much lower because it would be indexed on the little seniority accumulated at the private individual, where the accident took place, and not on the global seniority.
This is just one example, but it is important to point it out because our sector accumulates a lot of work-related accidents - more than the construction sector.
However, the difference between an agent and a service provider like us is still difficult to make clients understand, but also our employees.