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Mind the Gap

Take The Time To Walk the Floor

Posted by Amanda Whiteford

We’ve all heard the expression ‘walking the floor’ but what does it mean for senior leaders – apart from the obvious? Why do it? What value does it add and what will it demand from you? There are many advantages in our view …

Walking the floor can be interpreted as getting to you your own division or department, of walking around and talking to your team, getting out of your smart corner office if you have one. More importantly it means getting in touch with the heart of your organisation, where the core of your business is actually done. So, for a hospital it’s about spending time on the wards and a stint in A&E, for a factory it’s visiting the factory floor and talking to workers there, in retail it’s visiting shops and warehouses. This takes more time and effort, your organisation may be geographically spread, but the return on your investment can be immense.

What works well? Even better if? Find out directly from your staff what is happening in the organisation. Where do they feel things are going well and what is missing or frustrating for them? What’s the culture in their part of the organisation? Are your staff engaged? Does it reflect what the senior leadership team intended or is it entirely different? Do the values of your organisation resonate or are they seen as a joke? You need to know. You cannot be a leader if you have no followers – so what is the experience like for your staff?

Do their managers lead in a way that makes you proud or want to cringe? Do you invest in those mangers? If all is working reasonably well, congratulate everyone. If it isn’t, listen to the feedback, outline what you are prepared to do (avoid empty words – you won’t get a second chance otherwise) and action it, returning to gauge what improvements have resulted.

Likewise has the organisation recruited the right people for your organisation? Have they the right skills and experience required for the work? Are their skills developed further? Are they really engaged and enjoying working for your organisation? Or, in truth, is it just a job they invest no time or energy in, it just pays the bills? Is this acceptable? Perhaps it is – some organisations are regularly exposed as poor employers yet little seems to change, as the reports keep coming. Is that what you and your colleagues want? Is that what will drive your business forward?

Walking the floor may well raise eyebrows, especially if it’s a rare event for senior leaders to venture out. However, it will be welcomed if you are genuinely interested in what’s happening, how your staff feel about their work, and listen carefully to what they have to say. You will build a reputation as being approachable and engaged with them and you will have a richer range of perspectives on how well your business is working.

Walking the floor will give you the opportunity to engage and enthuse your staff. To talk to them directly about organisational developments, achievements and their role in bringing such results about, of sharing the vision and future strategy for the organisation. This will be far more powerful than any internal communication document or newsletter because you’ve taken the time to visit and talk to your staff directly.

If you work in a unionised environment, walking the floor gives you an additional perspective on issues raised by the union. Some unions are highly engaged and business orientated, others rather less so. If the only communication your staff receives directly is from the union how can you be sure the right messages are percolating down? By being present and engaged, listening to staff issues and frustrations, you are supporting your line managers and showing your staff that you are interested in what they have to say.

Walking the floor also helps you to sense check plans for expansion or change. What capacity does your staff really have? Is the strategy feasible, are the resulting plans deliverable, or have key issues been overlooked or unappreciated?

Killer question coming up now – having walked the floor would you want your son or daughter to work there? Is it good enough for them? If not, why not? I’m not talking about using their intellect, I’m talking about working conditions, the quality of leadership and management, recognition and appreciation for effort made and the possibility of progression. If it isn’t good enough for your children why should it be good enough for anyone else’s? That may sound rather altruistic, but people who work in poor conditions are less likely to give you additional discretionary effort (as academics like to phrase it), which will inhibit your organisation’s progress.

Are there any downsides for you in walking the floor? Yes. People will judge you – we all do it, all the time. You’ll need to be aware of this and consider how you will conduct yourself during your visit. Even facial expressions are picked up on and evaluated. So, you will need to consider where you visit, the range of people you talk to, the reactions you have to good and bad news, the range of questions you will ask. Remember to use your active listening skills too. You may be asked challenging questions, held to account for perceived failures of other senior managers to address critical issues. Talk to your managers on the shop floor before your visit so you are mentally prepared. Whilst, at worst, the visit may bring difficult issues to the fore the very fact that you are there and prepared to engage and listen will be useful for you and appreciated by the majority of your staff. And it could hail a new beginning.

Staff surveys are common and often viewed with cynicism as little seems to change as a result. Walking the floor at least shows senior leaders are truly interested in what their staff have to say. Just having carved out time to be there and talk to people will be engaging and appreciated. So, don’t make the mistake of hiding away in your office, get out and meet your staff by walking the floor – in all parts of the organisation. Make sure your finger is on the pulse of the organisation. It will enhance your decision making as well as your reputation and, who knows, you may even enjoy it!