What Qantas needs now is a charm offensive

Emirates and Qantas’ joint venture prompts some interesting issues around how Qantas can improve its worker productivity. AAP

The recent announcement by Qantas of its proposed joint venture alliance with Emirates highlights not only the highly competitive environment facing aviation, but some interesting questions around workplace productivity and measures to increase it.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce spoke recently about the Qantas Feedback Panel, which asks Frequent Flyers on all classes of travel and in both domestic and international flights, to evaluate the airport, lounge and in-flight experience, including service provided by flight attendants. The latter are rated from zero to ten.

While Qantas does not yet have a policy which links these ratings to remuneration, Mr Joyce is reported as saying that in the future, cabin crew may well be rewarded based on their score. The purpose of this initiative, as we see it, is to underscore the importance of impeccable customer service, which according to Mr Joyce, is the new competition “battleground” among airlines.

Certainly, cabin crew determine to a great extent customer satisfaction and corporate brand experience. However, a 2003 study of nearly 3,000 Australian flight attendants by researcher Claire Williams found emotional labour is a source of significant stress, albeit mitigated by the level of support provided to staff by the airline’s management. Still, stress could have a negative effect on the helpful demeanour flight attendants are expected to demonstrate with detrimental results on customer experiences.

Furthermore, in unionised industries such as aviation, problems resulting from emotional labour have led to industrial action; for example, the British Airways cabin crew strike in 2010. Qantas cannot possibly afford another round of strike action and more importantly the loss of business it causes.

Research has shown that employees and employers are more likely to collaborate when an organisation is facing a crisis; the commonplace adage “there is no such thing as a bad crisis”. Being in exactly this position, Qantas has the unique opportunity to engage with its staff and capitalise on their tacit knowledge and their unquestionable desire to make Qantas a profitable business. This can be done without losing customer focus.

However, it is pertinent that Qantas provides their employees with the appropriate avenues that will allow them to express their concerns and their ideas. Drawing on academic research, we argue that any performance-related incentives should be supplemented with more and better channels for employee voice; these incorporate formal and informal methods that allow employees to have a say in matters that affect them.

The importance of alternative channels for employee voice is increasingly pronounced in Australian businesses, especially given the continuing decline in union membership, the traditional avenue for collective voice.

Preliminary results of our research examining voice and engagement in a range of industries suggest direct forms of employee voice can facilitate productivity increases and lead to greater customer satisfaction.

Research has shown that commitment and productivity are increased when employees have input into business decisions, especially so in industries where staff are expected to expend discretionary effort in their everyday work, such as flight attendants.

A 2011 cross disciplinary study between UNSW, ANU, Macquarie University and Copenhagen Business School examined 78 Australian organisations from the services sector and used 18 performance measures to calculate the High Performing Workplace (HPW) Index.

The research also found that top-performing organisations ensure two-way direct communication with their staff by including them in strategy and planning, budgeting and target setting, which contributes to higher productivity.

It allow employees to add significant value to the business but more importantly, helps create a collaborative culture, a key characteristic of high-performance workplaces.

The new Gulf Stream alliance may well help Qantas increase its profits, but a new charm offensive may well help them move on from the IR turbulence of the past, and help create a more viable Qantas in the process.