Before talking about agile HR let’s circle back to earlier TWB_ writing on HR engagements — both on Internal communication and Employee focused communication. It is clear that the role and expectation of the HR function is changing and so is the need and method of communication. But there are 2 major factors in understanding employee issues and engaging with them (a) A large part of the communication in an office is non-official and happens through informal channels – mostly not something HR participates in and in many cases discourages (b) In many organizations the relationship with HR itself is almost adversarial especially if communication and engagement has focussed not on problem-solving but management and policy messaging.
It turns out that the turn of the century theory of Management by Walking Around may be the solution for a 2020 problem – since it addresses both participation & opening informal channels, as well as creates an open empathetic approach to employee engagement.
In 1982, management consultants Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman proposed the concept in their book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. In the book, Peters and Waterman examined successful companies, realizing a common nominator for the most successful. They noticed that good managers tend to communicate a lot better with their team. And they do that in informal ways, like just hanging around in the office and chatting with their team, rather than having formal interaction sessions in their cabins or boardrooms. Sam Walton, for instance, was a great exponent of this practice. He idea gained further attention when William Hewlett and David Packard, the founders of Hewlett Packard, mentioned the theory to be part of the “HP Way”. Peters and Waterman noticed these managers were more aware of the operations and in general, had better ability to solve problems. Peters went on to write a book A Passion for Excellence in which he continued to assert the style as the core element of excellent leadership.
The emphasis is on the word walking as an unplanned movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times.
The idea of this practice is to listen. You must also respond to ideas or problems voiced and take effective action about them. The expected benefit is that by random sampling of events or employee discussions, it is more likely to facilitate improvements to the morale, sense of organizational purpose, productivity and total quality management of the organization. This is compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.
The HR takeaway
While it applies to the business world in general, and indeed legendary CEOs from Steve Jobs to Jack Welch have been proponents of it, it has a special significance in HR of today’s tech environment. The core is a 3-step process:
- To have HR management walking around in an unstructured and unplanned manner amongst the employees with the objective to understand how they are performing, what is keeping them back, what policies enable them to do their best, which ones hinder performance and be the management’s 1st stop to better understand the issues, ideas, and concerns of the teams.
- Then formally collate this and share the findings with management – in a structured way and with recommendations on what will improve the on-the-ground situation. Remember this is not a ‘telling on employees’ session.
- Ensuring management can act on the findings and in time such that the employees establish correlation.
The HR Checklist of Management by Walking Around
- Time is unstructured, the purpose is not: Don’t aimlessly walk around saying ‘Hi’ — the key motivation is to strike up conversations directly related to the work and on personal issues. The focus is on learning from these spontaneous and non-planned interactions.
- Manage your day: It is easy to realize that the day is over – so you must create a system to engage on a regular basis.
- Don’t single out people or teams: Many a time there is direct organizational feedback on specific teams or people, but do not single them out. You must interact across teams. Remember you are not here to take stories back to management but to understand issues. Employees should not feel this is a management bait to get information about certain issues or people.
- Extroverted & Introverted: People are of all kinds. Some talk easily some don’t, but you can’t pick favorites in listening to opinions.
- Focus on learning about the employee and their opinion: Your objective is to gather information beneficial in making decisions and resolving problems. Make sure you have written down you insite immediately and are able to cross reference with other employees if the feedback is about a team or organization.
- Build employee confidence: As an HR leader, you must be good at reading subtle signs of people. Employees must trust you and the interaction must be honest with you.
- Communicate the company’s values: Use the interaction to strengthen the employee’s understanding of the company’s values and vision.
- Understand people personally: People respond to work on what is happening in their private lives. So you also want to understand personal lives, to strengthen employee motivation.
- Be willing to act: If a team member needs urgent help, you must be willing to lead by example and provide support on the spot. The method has a sense of urgency to it and it isn’t about “looking into it”, but getting problems fixed quickly. Remember in business and in HR, people buy people.
- Don’t overstep your time: The nature of the style can cause a disturbance, as you are effectively stepping in on someone’s scheduled workday to take time to talk about things in an unorganized manner. If you do it too often, the subordinates’ ability to perform at work might suffer.
- Seek neutral spaces: Ensure that the conversations take place in neutral spaces (outside of your office) and in a relaxed environment. Over lunch is a good example or while the other person is getting a cup of coffee.
- Maintain a positive body language: Remember you are putting yourself and the other person in an unexpected situation. First, you need to relax. If you are casual about the situation and you treat it as an opportunity to have a chat and not a formal conversation, you can make the situation less daunting.
- Focus on positive recognition: You don’t want to come across as an inquisitor walking around interrogating people. One way is to positively recognize the employee as well as others who are role models in the organization. If you encourage people with positive feedback, give credit for the ideas you hear and share the success stories with everyone, you strengthen subordinates’ motivation to work hard and to share their concerns and ideas.
- Don’t do it because you feel obliged to: If you are not the sort of person who can easily engage – this probably won’t work very well.
- Gauging the level of trust: If people don’t trust you they will think that you’re interfering or spying. Gauge the level of trust and engagement style of the employee as you engage. For instance, a team member may be happy to engage within earshot of other employees while another may not or it may be about discussing personal issues or talking about the relationship to management.
- Never sell people out: Even if the information shared with you is critical of policy or management, it is NOT your job to quote the employee back. Maintaining complete confidentiality is critical to any further engagement.
- Listen, don’t critique or argue: Give them your undivided attention. Listen and observe more than you talk. When you talk, be open and truthful. If you don’t know the answer to someone’s question, find it out afterward and follow up. If you can’t share something, say so. Speaking half-truths can break down trust. Even if you are challenged hold back from retorting. This is about them, not you.
- Don’t bring an entourage: This approach works best as a sequence of one-on-one conversations. Bringing aides or assistants with you will probably kill the discussion before it starts.
How is this Agile HR?
It is an effective strategy to remove the ‘management bubble’ and allow the company to have a realistic idea of what is going on. Feedback on problems and ideas is instant, resulting in faster actions. It can also enhance operational efficiency and improve employee morale and motivation. Thus creating a better understanding of the correct operational decisions that must be made.
Management by Walking Around can be an effective and practical way to keep up with what’s happening within your team and your organization. It can dramatically change the speed at which you gather information, the issues that impact the organization, the trust that you’ll build and the speed with which the organization can respond. It is simple to execute, does not cost anything and is a great way to build an open culture and keep the company vision in front. As people feel listened to they feel more a part of the organization and valued and employees who feel valued don’t leave.
Tech Entrepreneur, TEDx speaker & Philanthropist, Rakesh Shukla is a BTech-MBA & CEO of the world leader in communications for technology businesses with a worldwide Fortune 500 customer base. Rakesh is a speaker on Leadership, Strategic Marketing, Strategic Communications, creating world-class bootstrapped Startups & resurgence in business. He lives with 800 rescued dogs, has no work-life balance and will not have it any other way! Rakesh has been featured in 100+ interviews on the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, CNN-IBN, NDTV, India’s national dailies etc.
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