In Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the fifth movement is called “Joyful and grateful feelings after the storm”. It tells how life returns to nature after a violent storm. That’s exactly what I felt a few weeks ago on the board of directors of an association where I’ve been a volunteer for several years. You can start the music.

For the past twenty years, the “Régie de quartier in the 19th arrondissement” of Paris has been employing people from a working-class neighbourhood on integration contracts, with the aim of leading them into long-term employment. Over the years, the association has grown and increased its activity by taking on more and more people. The year 2020 was a trying one, with the outbreak of COVID, but the association held firm thanks to the commitment of its employees, its governance and the support of its partners. In a sort of backlash, the association ran into difficulties in 2021, with a number of staff departures and a significant financial loss, the first in the organisation’s history.

At the beginning of 2022, the situation was not looking good: we had just lost several contracts and wages were set to rise sharply due to inflation. We were anticipating a further, more substantial loss, which could ultimately threaten the association’s survival.

After the shock of this new situation, two priorities emerged: understanding the origin of the financial difficulties to prevent the situation from continuing, and drawing up a precise budget to anticipate the 2022 result.

The loss in 2021 was mainly due to a new phenomenon: after several years of growth, revenues had not increased, but recruitment had continued to cope with the increased workload.

We were faced with a seemingly insoluble enigma. If incomes – and therefore benefits – were stable, why did we need more people?

The culprit was quickly identified: the workload. Everyone had more work. The volume of overtime was skyrocketing. It felt like an anthill with bugs running around because someone threw a pebble on it.

But where was the workload coming from? Where was the rock? A number of hypotheses were put forward: the COVID had disorganised operational activities, the fall in unemployment was forcing us to recruit employees who were further and further away from employment, the rise in anti-social behaviour was increasing the need for cleaning at our customers’ sites, the increase in the number of employees on integration programmes was requiring more support, and the dispersal of activities was increasing travel time….

What all these explanations had in common was that they were subjective. It was difficult to determine exactly what was responsible for what, and above all how to remedy it. It was absolutely essential to work on this before going out to find new customers. There was no question of adding workload to workload. We concluded that we needed to work on organisation. We had to stop working on small sites that were too far apart, set up schedules to help us plan ahead, buy a vehicle to make it easier to transport equipment, improve tools and maintenance products, organise checks on activities… My personal obsession was to set up a system for monitoring working hours, to understand exactly which activities were taking up more time and take the necessary decisions.

As is often the case, circumstances dictated otherwise: several people had to be replaced, a major contract had to be renewed, and a detailed budget had to be put in place, all of which led us to postpone the organisation project several times.

Until the end of 2022, when the situation became very critical. Our estimates showed a very high loss for the previous year, and an even higher one for the following year. This led us to consider a hitherto taboo solution: reducing the number of employees on integration programmes by not renewing certain contracts. It meant giving up part of the association’s raison d’être, but it was perhaps that or not doing any work-integration at all, like a number of organisations around us that were going bankrupt at the same time. The Board of Directors agreed to wait for the final figures before deciding on integration. But if we had to reduce the volume of integration to stem the losses and guarantee the future of the organisation, the Board was prepared to go along with us.

Then one day in February 2023, we received the accounts for 2022. There was a loss, but much smaller than expected. Expenses had fallen, we’d recruited slightly less than expected, and above all sales had increased. We had therefore provided more services with fewer employees. In other words, the exact opposite of the previous year. How was this possible? We had only just started working on the organisation, and we were already starting to turn things around! In a way, we had hit rock bottom without realising it, and we were already rising to the surface.

When we presented these elements to the Board of Directors in March, I could hear Beethoven’s music. As in the movement that begins at 3:55, the emotion rises, you almost want to cry. The storm has passed, the sun returns, life is reborn. The emotion of rebirth is always there in the background, supporting the resumption of life and the new-found energy.

Explanations could be very long and, above all, hazardous. Everything to do with time is subjective, diffuse and elusive. I’m convinced that the explanation is precisely subjective. If things have started to get better, it’s because people have started to get better. As we enter 2023, there’s an air of change. Like spring. The storm has passed, you can feel it in a multitude of small signs, just when you thought it would never end.

What led people to get better? A lot of things have gone together to bring about this improvement. For me, it’s above all a question of desire and confidence. A desire to get better, which enabled us to implement a series of small changes, gradually. And confidence that one day things would get better, that the good weather would return. Intuitively, I told myself that we were doing the best we could, that there was no point in forcing things and that everything would sort itself out.

How did we do it? It’s hard to say in a few sentences, but I can try to sum up our state of mind.

We said to ourselves that things weren’t going well. The COVID period – which was very trying for the association’s employees – revealed problems that had been present for a long time but had not been articulated very clearly. The feeling of work overload was a symptom of these problems. We decided to explore the conflicts, to stop keeping things to ourselves and to take a step back to understand what was going wrong. The starting point was a coaching assignment with Matthieu Daum from Nexus, which brought the difficulties to light.

After avoiding conflict to protect the association, we started talking about the problems and trying to resolve them. We developed a culture of listening and speaking out, which had been weakened by the increase in staff numbers. Listening, for example, enabled us to discover that some people were taking on a growing number of tasks that were not being done by others. That employees were regularly performing services requested by certain customers but not provided for in the contracts, and therefore unpaid. That many people did not know their timetable in advance and had the impression that they were running around everywhere, that the cleaning products they used were not very effective…

We looked for solutions within the association rather than outside. Our first reaction was to recruit someone to go out and find new customers, to launch new activities. Our reflex was to add things to solve problems. But if we wanted to change things radically, we needed to work on our behaviour and beliefs.

We took the decision to say no. An association is designed to help and it is helped. So it’s difficult to say no, particularly to partners. Over time, the association had accumulated a range of projects and activities without necessarily having the human and financial resources to match. This has created recurring human, financial and organisational difficulties. The crisis we went through enabled us to say no to certain projects that were putting us in difficulty. We questioned certain activities in terms of our objectives – integration and community outreach – and decided to stop some of them. This enabled us to focus our energy on our core activities while maintaining good relations with our partners, who were very understanding.

We rethought the decision-making framework. Decisions were based on a “family” way of working and dated back to a time when the structure was smaller. Some processes didn’t exist, others were no longer applied. As a result, certain decisions were not taken, and when they were, they could be resented. Discussions between the office and management on certain recruitment issues could last for months, ending in a compromise that didn’t work very well. With the Nexus consultancy, we worked on the roles of the various bodies (board of directors, executive committee, management committee) and employees to clarify decision-making, bring it closer to the grassroots and empower people. Facilitating decision-making also means sharing information more effectively (reports, accounts, etc.). Having a much clearer division of roles and decision-making framework has made life easier for everyone. Recruitment, for example, is now handled by the human resources manager, a counterpart and the line manager. The office is only involved in recruiting members of management. The creation of new posts is discussed and decided at the end of the year on the basis of needs and resources, rather than on the basis of wishes or opinions, which strengthens dialogue and acceptance of decisions.


Time and workload issues are often seen as individual and objective matters. They are seen as personal failings that need to be dealt with at an individual level through organisational techniques (todo lists, work slots, email management, etc.).

The subject of time in the association was initially perceived as a quantitative problem to be tackled with quantitative solutions: number of employees, amount of turnover, number of hours. It gradually emerged as a reflection of more subjective realities: communication, distribution of roles, decision-making, suffering in the workplace. By patiently addressing these issues, the association was able to improve the quality of its work. The qualitative aspects of the business (sales, profitability, etc.) were restored as a knock-on effect.

When time management difficulties are found at an organisational level, they often reveal structural problems. The relationship with time is not the purely objective, quantitative and optimisable data we generally want to see. It is also – and above all – an eminently subjective reality that constitutes an excellent qualitative indicator of well-being in an organisation. The relationship with time can reveal the deep-seated dysfunctions of a group, such as suffering at work, conflicts that have been swept under the carpet, a business model that is running out of steam… Listening to an organisation from the angle of its qualitative relationship with time can therefore help to improve its overall functioning and the experience of its members.

You’ve reached the end of the piece.

PS: Well done and thank you to all the Régie employees, board members and partners who took up this challenge, especially Anne, André, Monique, Carlos, Guillaume and of course Hélène. Not forgetting Matthieu