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Flexibility dividend: Why supported employees increase customer satisfaction

June 11, 2014
Management
​​​​​​​​​​​New research shows well-managed work-life support practices lift customer service
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​​​​​​When Telstra CEO David Thodey announced that from March this year all jobs at the business could beworked flexibly, he talked about creating a more inclusive culture and removing barriers for people with caring roles. ​

Now new Australian research reveals that when it’s well managed, flexibility and other work-life support practices can also boost critical business drivers such as customer satisfaction.

The link between happy employees and happy customers is a core finding from a comprehensive study of the impact of work-life support practices in a multinational corporation, says one of the authors, Australian School of Business (ASB) professor Julie Cogin.

​T​he research is timely as Telstra’s All Roles Flex program gets under way, and a range of other companies take steps towards mainstreaming flexibility. At the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which offers employees various flexible work options and support, increased employee engagement and customer satisfaction levels have been tracked in recent years.

Cogin's research co-authors were ASB professor Karin Sanders​, and Ian Williamson, a professor at the Melbourne Business School. The data was collected from a large European corporation employing more than 50,000 staff in subsidiaries across 27 countries. According to Cogin, there were two main reasons for conducting the study.

“The literature that looks at work-life support and flexible work practices has approached it at the individual level, and at how the existence of such policies results in job satisfaction and positive job attitudes,” Cogin says. 

“We thought, given the global financial crisis and financially constrained work environments, it wasn’t enough to have happy and satisfied employees – we needed to provide the business case and the best reasons to have those policies in place and under what conditions you get the best outcomes.” 

The data was collected over three years and included objective data on customer satisfaction to avoid any confusion over causality – in other words, it was possible to prove that superior customer satisfaction was a result of more flexibility and not the other way around.

'Policy is irrelevant'

The research reveals that organisations can’t expect to simply launch flexible work policies and suddenly get a big improvement in customer feedback. Work-life support must be well understood and managed by executives who support the practices, and are likely to have more impact when an organisation’s marketing strategy is customer-centric.

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“The key message in what we have found is that all organisations now have to have some form of flexible options but the policy is irrelevant – it’s up to the individual manager and their perception of how it is important,” Cogin says. 

“Policies and programs alone do not account for organisational norms and values that impede employees from using the options available. I’ve seen so many cases where the policies are not utilised because individuals who take advantage of work-family policy options, and thus visibly demonstrate interest in family and personal life, often face negative judgments regarding their lack of commitment to the organisation.” 

'While there's still resistance to flexibility from some business sectors, it's about reworking the business model rather than saying it just doesn't work' 

 – Julie Cogin

One of the main effects of well-supported flexibility is the sense of reciprocity triggered among employees, which in turn leads to greater effort to meet the needs of customers. The distinction between high and low customer satisfaction is closely linked to the willingness of employees to understand customers’ needs and go beyond the call of duty to satisfy them, the research concludes.

“It made no difference if you were in consulting or manufacturing – it was about how your employees engage with your customers, and that’s what flexibility tries to do: to help employees to care and a nurturing of that,” Cogin says.

That has certainly been the experience of Donna Stewart, executive manager of Suncorp’s commercial insurance claims area. After struggling to attract enough skilled employees who could provide the expertise to satisfy queries from business owners, flexible work options were introduced a few years ago, including telecommuting. 

The majority of employees in this area now work flexibly and a range of measures have improved, with high levels of commitment, productivity and customer satisfaction.

While there’s still resistance to flexibility from some business sectors, Cogin says it’s about reworking the business model rather than saying it just doesn’t work. 

“These initiatives can’t be available in all roles at all times – in some roles you need to be available, but there are other ways of handling it such as job-sharing, gap leave for professional development, or to take on grand-parenting. It’s not just a women’s issue. Twenty-year-olds want time off to go travelling.”

Men in caring roles

​Although it was not a feature of this research, other studies have revealed an increase in dual-career couples where fathers often have to take on extra caring responsibilities – for children and elderly parents – and face more severe judgment because it's seen as a women’s issue. It underlines the importance of men having safe access and being encouraged and supported to take flexible or other work-life options.

Men’s perspective on work-life issues is presently being examined in another ASB research project. According to senior lecturer Hugh Bainbridge, who is supervising the study, it's an issue that has attracted little attention until now. 

As a result, there's almost nothing in the management or HRM literature on the topic, and it has rarely been on the radar of HR practitioners. But broad demographic trends do show an increase in men performing non-traditional caring roles.

“I’m really excited about the new research because it suggests this is getting traction as a topic of further study,” Bainbridge says. 

“The decisions men have to make about work and family roles are not made in a social vacuum. Decisions men will make occur in conjunction with a partner and they affect women’s participation in work and in the family, and how that will be accommodated.”    

Masculinity as a cultural value

​Cogin believes that support for work-life programs for all employees must come from the top. The research reveals that the impact of management teams with traditional notions of gender roles, and high masculinity characteristics, can create a culture where employees feel uncomfortable taking advantage of the practices offered. This in turn will decrease employee motivation to put in discretionary effort to meet customers’ needs.

Cogin notes that knowing more about the effects of masculinity, which both men and women can exhibit, is helpful for organisations when promoting and recruiting top management teams.

“Masculinity is a cultural value and that’s the important point to make. So you would be looking to set up scenarios and hypothetical situations to see how [candidates] responded to information, and looking at stereotypical views on scenarios,” she says.

Workplace flexibility has moved well beyond a niche benefit for mothers of small children. The study notes demand for different types of options according to age groups – for younger and older groups, gap leave was popular for travel or grandchildren, and in the middle years there was more interest in weekly and daily flexible jobs and sharing, or a variable work week. 

“It’s very much related to your life cycle,” Cogin says.

Whatever the type of work-life support adopted by a business, the extra ingredients that will help make the most of the benefits associated with these practices are the management team and, particularly, business strategy. 

The importance of considering broader strategic aims is underlined by the finding that the moderating impact of management team masculinity is weakest when firms have a high customer-orientation strategy.

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