Do your people expect too much flexibility, or are you too rigid?

I recently attended a CX networking event – it’s always interesting to see what the latest thinking is and re-connect with your peers.  At the event, I met up with former colleague – we compared notes on our respective (conservative) industries, talking about the need for greater flexibility in how we support customers.

As more people joined the table, the conversation pivoted towards how we might do that.  The general consensus was that despite technology, our people still play a critical role in differentiating ourselves from the competition, and empowering them to delight customers is key.  What was surprising, especially amongst customer experience peers was how some defined “empowerment”  I thought it would be interesting to share some examples, so we can all reflect on our own level of flexibility.

One suggestion was an “empowerment model”, whereby the teams delivering to customers could pick from a list of “empowerment actions” to fix issues and re-engage customers.  For me, this kind of defeats the objective of empowerment – if you set a rigid list of what people can do, by default, this suggests that they cannot do anything else.  That doesn’t feel like empowerment, and often encourages people to follow the rules to the letter.

Another approach shared by a peer in the automotive industry was more interesting – truly flexible working, encouraging the teams to work cohesively to establish shift patterns and cover, with a manager stepping in only when there was an issue.  This should have a direct impact on how engaged the team’s are, driving up focus on the customers.

Others expressed concern about being too flexible with their teams – “If you let one person do it, they will all want to do it!”  I have heard this in almost every organisation that I have worked in.  It’s right up there with the “overly interfering boss” as a source of extreme frustration for most employees.  If a 9-day fortnight or working from home is good enough for the boss, why wouldn’t it be good enough for every (performing) team member?

I really liked one fintech’s approach of engaging the individual’s personal world in their day job.  Beyond flexible working location and hours, embracing personal technology devices and cool and funky offices, this company really listened to the employees’ perspective.  “Bring a family member to work”, time working on local charitable projects, apprenticeships for local kids from under-privileged backgrounds and various other initiatives marked this business out as different – by thinking outside the box, and doing more, the results were evident in terms of engaged employees increasing customer delight!  The model needed belief from the top down, but was clearly delivering tangible financial returns.

At the end of the evening, despite the many different perspectives, we all agreed that a few simple principles apply across the board: listening to our peoples’ request with openness, ensuring that we apply any concession or changes fairly across the whole team, and to be willing to have our own perceptions and expectations challenged in the name of employee engagement.

Managers who see flexibility as a “gift” that they bestow on their teams are fooling themselves.  Restricting your teams and not trusting them will ultimately lead to churn of your star performers.  A critical question to ask yourself is whether each layer of your organisation is afforded the same level of respect and flexibility that you have as a senior?  If there’s a gap, then your people may not be unreasonable in expecting more flexibility!

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