Paul, an HR professional, walked into the accounting department, glanced into a cubicle and noticed an employee on the verge of tears. "Is everything OK?" Paul asked. That triggered a flood of complaints about her boss, her child care problems and the lack of advancement opportunities in the company. Paul would never have uncovered those problems if he'd been sitting behind his desk, waiting for emergencies to come knocking.
Walking and watching
As Yogi Berra noted, "You can observe a lot by watching." The time-honored-by-walking-around (MBWA) concept is based on this theory. The problem is, who has extra time to roam the workplace looking for problems?
Another dilemma: MBWA can cast you in an awkward role with employees. Why, all of a sudden, are you looking over their shoulders? Are you an ally or an upper-management spy?
For those reasons, you don't need to schedule specific "observation walks" each day. Instead, it's more efficient to maximize the time you're using anyway walking from Point A to Point B in your workplace. Three tips:
1. Slow down. Instead of leaving two minutes to sprint to a meeting, allocate five so you can look in on people, say hello and engage in brief conversations.
2. Take the "emotional temperature" as you go. It's not hard to pinpoint departments or individual offices where tension is running high. When you hit a hot spot, pause to ask some questions ... or simply watch.
In many cases, you'll simply discover a work group on a crunch deadline. But sometimes, you'll uncover a problem that requires management's or HR's attention.
3. When people seem troubled, ask open-ended, neutral questions, such as "How are things going?" or "What's on your plate today?" Nod, listen and let your receptive attitude encourage people to open up and tell you more.
If you uncover a real problem ...
If you, like Paul, discover an employee at a breaking point, continue the discussion in a neutral, private setting, such as your office or a vacant conference room. Bring in the worker's supervisor, if appropriate.
The bottom line is that HR can't just react to; it needs to adopt a proactive stance. MBWA, long prized by managers, can be an effective tool in taking that first step.