Management by Walking About (MBWA) is a term coined by Tom Peters in his 1982 book “In Search of Excellence”. Peters observed that successful managers “walked the floor”. They frequently engaged with employees on an informal basis. This meant employees received timeous support to achieve their goals.
In physical workplaces, it’s easy to understand how check-ins happen naturally and informally. And how either party initiated them. A manager can intervene on overhearing a conversation that alerts him or her to a potential problem. Or, an employee needing assistance can judge the best time to approach a busy manager for help.
But how does this pan out in remote, digital workplaces? And how can we, as HR professionals assist?
Pandemic-related Shifts in Employee Check-ins
Fast forward to 2020, and suddenly the cues we relied on to trigger check-ins are no longer available. Not only that, but we now understand how these conversations played a broader role than just performance management. Employee check-ins contribute to employee wellbeing. They help enforce company culture. And they form the foundation for deeper social relationships.
The shift to remote work impacted organizations differently. But, even organizations that were well-positioned to work remotely struggled. A few months down the line, they were battling issues like employee burnout and disengagement. Tools like Zoom, facilitate face-to-face conference facilities but don’t necessarily offer everything. Informal check-ins have the benefits of immediacy, privacy, spontaneity and casualness.
How then can we replicate check-ins in our new digital workplaces? Especially given that workplaces of the future look set to remain remote. Or, at best, look to be some hybrid version of the old and new. The solution could lie in a multi-pronged approach, including all, or some, of these initiatives;
Planned check-ins have the benefit of ensuring you make regular contact with your team members. In remote environments, they are considered by many to be “the new MBWA”. To maintain momentum, they should have defined objectives and a consistent format. Add spontaneity by asking open-ended questions and scheduling time for employee feedback.
You want the employee to regard these sessions as relatively informal. But don’t be less than intentional yourself. Always make the time to prepare for check-ins and make notes as you proceed. Appearing not to care enough to recall previous discussions erodes the value of sessions.
Scheduled check-ins can cover several topics. Discuss goal performance, team progress and dynamics, learning, and the employee’s career path. Keep track of employees’ hours with cloud-based clocking systems like that offered by JustLogin. And consider using one of the many cloud-based goal tracking and software applications. They can help identify, record and measure agreed goals. Enquire as to the employee’s wellbeing and external factors that may impact delivery. See here for more tips on managing employees remotely.
Employee Initiated Check-ins
It can be intimidating for employees to initiate a check-in. In a remote environment, they cannot easily get a sense of their manager’s mood or schedule.
Facilitate the process by scheduling your accessibility. Times team members know they can request your attention, privately or in a group forum. If your team works across different time zones, make sure it is a time that suits everyone.
Actively remind the team of your availability at kick-off. Individually contact those who are noticeably quiet. Even if they don’t wish to raise anything, knowing you’re thinking of them will be appreciated. And you could catch someone struggling to cope but not able to ask for help.
Encourage peer-to-peer check-ins. Informal conversations between colleagues have also fallen by the wayside with remote working. Some software platforms even facilitate random peer-to-peer check-ins. Slack’s RandomCoffee function pairs up participating users for “coffee dates”.
Cross-functional conversations have an enormous impact on the smooth running of operations. They enable different perspectives and knowledge to be shared. They help develop rapport and get people working together more effectively. And they can avoid a situation escalating to the point that management has to get involved.
Privacy and Choice of Media
Check-ins over digital media, by their nature, have privacy issues. This confers a formality that casual face-to-face conversations lack. Establish policies with regards to recordings, and their use, upfront. Be sensitive to employees’ choice of media where possible and appropriate. Some people might prefer audio over visual communication, for example.
Technology has enabled workplace scenarios that require a new approach by management. Research shows employees value the flexibility of remote work. They appreciate the additional time it allows them to spend with family and the reduced commuting costs.
However, being remotely located can also be associated with feelings of isolation and disconnection. These will inevitably impact productivity.
We’ve discussed using employee check-ins to combat disengagement. They can effectively replicate old-style MBWA techniques. For further thoughts on employee engagement, see this article.
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