Adapting programs to employees based on cultural differences: the example of work–family balance

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Scientific interpretation

When an organization decides to expand its business into other countries, it generally tries to increase its competitiveness in the global marketplace. This strategic decision, however, exposes it to new management challenges, related especially to cultural differences among employees from different countries. If certain employee programs seem well suited to certain cultures, can they necessarily be implemented everywhere? How do you take into account the cultural differences in the various programs implemented while preserving a strong organizational culture?

To answer this question, we interpreted the study of Stock and colleagues, published in 2016. The authors wondered about the effects of two types of organizational support on employee job satisfaction and performance: formal support, reflected by the establishment of work–family balance programs, and informal support, arising from an organizational culture promoting balance between work and family life. They wanted to understand the effects of formal and informal support on job satisfaction and performance, according to different national cultures (United States, India and China).

Expert adviser

ARIANE OLLIER-MALATERRE, professor, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)

Authors

Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

RÉBECCA LEFEBVRE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke

JOSÉE CHARBONNEAU, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

PATRICE DANEAU, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke 

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY:

Formal organizational support?

In this study, formal support is demonstrated by the establishment of work–family balance programs within an organization. This involves structured programs whose goal is to improve employees’ abilities to respond to both their professional and their family demands. These programs can take the form of childcare services at the workplace, flexible work hours and/or the possibility of teleworking, for example.

informal organizational support?

In this study, informal support is reflected in an organizational culture that promotes balance between work and family life – in other words, a culture in which values and beliefs are shared regarding the extent to which an organization supports and values employees’ integration of work and family life. Informal support is based on an explicit willingness to respect employees’ family life and to facilitate the compatibility of their family and professional responsibilities in fulfilling their needs when it comes to work–family balance, without creating specific programs for this purpose.

Meeting employees’ needs when it comes to work–family balance can, for example, happen through giving them flexibility regarding work hours (floating holidays, arrival and departure times, number of hours worked, etc.). In an organization where support is more informal, these aspects are part of the daily routine. Where managers incorporate this flexibility without it being officially required, policies are not needed.

 

Complete reference

Stock, Ruth M., Strecker, M. Melanie et Bieling, Gisela I. (2016). Organizational work–family support as universal remedy? A cross-cultural comparison of China, India and the USA, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(11), 1192-1216.

Method

 

Participants in the study are managers from the United States, India and China who work in the secondary and tertiary sectors. The primary condition for participating in the study was to be subject to high work demands that were likely to compete with family responsibilities and to affect well-being and performance.

Data collection was done through online surveys. Corporate information banks made it possible to find managers who were invited to complete this survey.

 

Here is the overall portrait of study participants:

  • Total number of participants: 461
  • China: 247 managers: 93% are married, 91% have children and 86% are men. Average age: 39.
  • India: 66 managers: 95% are married, 84% have children and 86% are men. Average age: 39.
  • United States: 148 managers: 87% are married, 69% have children and 70% are men. Average
    age: 43.

 

Cultural differences: individualism and collectivism

The authors decided to conduct their study within organizations in the United States, India and China to determine the effects of employees’ national culture on the effectiveness of formal and informal organizational support for work–family balance in terms of job satisfaction and performance. The choice of countries for the study was done according to a classification system that positions different national cultures on a continuum ranging from a more individualistic culture to a more collectivist culture.

In more individualistic cultures, personal interests are preferred to collective interests, and most families have a nuclear structure – that is, they are made up of one or two parents. In more collectivist cultures, people instead live “with” or “near” their extended family. Societies whose culture is more collectivist are therefore often characterized by strong family ties and frequent contact between family members. Members of the extended family are more available to take care of each other or to look after children, for example. Generally, the kind of economy in place is also more collectivist in nature.

Thus, the United States is distinguished by its more individualistic culture, characterized by a majority of nuclear families. India, which encompasses social values focused on the family and individualistic economic values, is situated midway between a more individualistic culture and more collectivist culture. China, meanwhile, is characterized by a more collectivist culture, in which the family plays an important role in daily activities.

 

WHAT DO THE RESULTS OF THE STUDY SHOW?

Employees’ cultural differences produce different responses when it comes to job satisfaction and performance, depending on the type of program established!

The study showed that the two types of organizational support (formal and informal) are key elements for a work environment that is conducive to work–family balance. However, their effectiveness varied by culture.

While informal organizational support has positive effects on employees from the three countries studied, independent of national culture, formal organizational support, such as work–family balance programs, seems to have different effects by country.

 

Principal results

Interpretation

1) Informal organizational support

Positive effect on job satisfaction and performance in India and China

  • Because the family plays a role that is generally very important in more collectivist cultures, adopting similar values in the organizational culture may promote employees’ sense of belonging. In other words, when organizational values are consistent with employees’ personal values, job satisfaction and performance would be more present.

Positive effect, but less pronounced, on job satisfaction and performance in the United States.

  • As more individualistic cultures are characterized by nuclear families, family values may be focused more on the parental relationship, and less on the extended family. The values we find in collectivist cultures are therefore perhaps less obvious in the workplace in individualist cultures. This doesn’t mean that family values are less important for these people, but rather that more formal programs are more needed to meet employees’ needs when it comes to work–family balance.

2) Formal organizational support

Positive effect on job satisfaction and performance are similar for US and Indian employees, despite India’s more moderately individualistic culture.

  • Low rates of accessing outside help for parenting tasks could explain this result. For example, even when they have the financial means to pay for help, US employees could have trouble finding reliable domestic help compared to those who can call on a family member.
  • Although its culture is not considered to be as individualistic as that of the United States, it is customary in India to give the woman the responsibility for household and parenting tasks. This situation leads parents to ask for little or no outside help to do certain tasks and could explain, in part, the positive response to formal support measures.

No effect on job satisfaction and performance of Chinese employees.

  • In cultures with strong collectivist tendencies, members of the extended family generally provide support when it comes to childcare. Employees may not feel the need to request formal organizational support.

Because studies must always be interpreted with caution

Although proven statistical models were used for the study, the sample of Indian managers is too small, compared to that of the United States and China (66 participants versus 148 and 247, respectively), to produce conclusive results. Also, we find that Chinese organizations have few formal programs in place, unlike organizations in India or the US. This can influence the results by reducing the significance of results regarding the effect of formal support. Finally, because even today many family responsibilities fall on women’s shoulders, the results would have no doubt been more robust if the sample had included as many women as men, which is not the case here: women are very under-represented.

ACTIONS EMPLOYERS CAN TAKE

Determining, developing and implementing different programs that are appropriate to cultural characteristics is an increasingly important task for organizations. Here are some practical examples to help coordinate the implementation of work–family balance in an organization.

Actions

Examples

Informal organizational support

Establishing an organizational culture that targets employees’ work balance and needs is appropriate in all types of national cultures.

  • Create clear organizational culture guidelines that emphasize the family and thus create the basis for a culture of mutual trust and understanding regarding family matters.
  • Ensure that guidelines are respected by all members of the organization.
  • Offer training on topics related to work and family, such as the importance of work–life balance, the benefits of work–life balance for the health of the organization and business, etc. Once they have been trained, managers serve as models for the other employees.
  • Offer to have employees share a position: in some organizations, two people can share a full-time position, with each one working part-time. In this way, they can consider a position that has more responsibilities and that is higher up in the hierarchy, without the pressures of a full-time job.
  • Set up a telephone helpline for managers and employees so they can communicate quickly with the human resources department when needed.
  • Evaluate managers on their ability to implement work–family policies (such as 360-degree feedback to assess a manager’s ability to communicate and effectively help their team).
  • Pay attention to consistency – some organizations that claim to be family oriented don’t give their employees any latitude when it comes to work–family balance. It is important to act in accordance with the values being promoted.Determine who are the champions in the organization, that is, the people in positions of leadership and who set a good example for employees and managers in promoting good practices, training or coaching of managers and employees.
  • Use technology with caution, especially smartphones. Organizations must not forget that smartphones follow employees outside of work hours.

 

Formal organizational support

In all types of cultures, there are ways to adopt formal supports by encouraging their implementation.

  • Promote programs that include flexible hours, childcare services in the workplace, the option of teleworking and the option of switching between full-time and part-time work.
  • Base decisions on surveys conducted with employees or on cultural analyses to better understand models and family values and to implement the most appropriate type of support.
  • Promote pilot projects (trials) to confirm or disprove fears. Costs are lower if the project fails, and if it succeeds, the organization is only more agile strategically.
  • Involve employees in the pilot projects: welcome their ideas and involve them in project implementation. They will only become more motivated and engaged.

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM OUR EXPERT

Care must be taken before classifying an entire population under one culture. The culture of the United States is generally seen as more individualistic, but we can notice profound cultural differences between states, and even between cities. In the same way, China is changing rapidly on the social level, and its collectivist nature is less obvious than it used to be.

The collectivist aspect of a culture can also limit people’s availability, as helping family is usually reciprocal. Thus, the person who benefits from help from family is often expected to reciprocate when needed, which can reduce considerably time the time they can give to work, for example.

Also, although national culture can have an impact on an organization’s decisions and on ways of managing human resources, it is unwise to be limited to this. It is important, above all, to create a portrait of the environment that surrounds work. Some countries, and even some cities, have public policies that already meet the needs of different employees. It is therefore not necessary to offer programs that already exist. For example, while in the United States childcare services in the workplace make life easier for many parents, in France, childcare services and public schools are already subsidized by the State. On another note, the Netherlands already has a policy on the length of a workweek, which is generally limited to 32 hours per week, making an overly complex work–family balance policy obsolete.

Care must also be taken with the term “work–family.” Although in many cases organizational policies are aimed at the family, other types of support can be needed, depending on the individuals. That is why some researchers prefer to use the term “work–personal life balance.” Thus, someone who must look after a sick family member or someone who has other responsibilities outside of work, such as volunteering or even recreational activities, is also affected by this type of policy. The increase in engagement and performance as well as the decrease in turnover rate depends on the response to the needs of all employees.

If you would like to participate in a comparative study on work–family experiences, conducted in 30 countries, we invite you to complete the survey by clicking on the following link: 

http://limeescp.i-campus.fr/index.php/156753?lang=fr

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Ollier-Malaterre, A., Fouquet, E., Lefebvre, R., Charbonneau, J., Daneau, P. (2018). Adapting programs to employees based on cultural differences: the example of work–family balance. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Stock, Ruth M., Strecker, M. Melanie and Bieling, Gisela I. (2016). Organizational work–family support as universal remedy? A cross-cultural comparison of China, India and the USA, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(11), 1192–1216.

Also available at global-watch.com

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton

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