Do you ever go through an “a-ha moment” that suddenly makes you aware of a totally new perspective?
That happened to me a few years ago. Like many top-level leaders, I had slowly and imperceptibly developed “Corporate Ladder Bias” during my transition from employee to executive. This subconscious change occurs when our field of vision is consumed with all the problems and headaches at the management level. We become blind to the day-to-day frustrations of what I call the “Foundational Staff.” These are employees at the lowest levels of an organization, including:
- Direct Customer/Patient Care
- Food Service (or Dietary)
- Maintenance (or Physical Plant)
In your industry, you may use slightly different titles; but they are represented in some way in every company.
All of these roles are absolutely vital for processes to run most effectively.
- They’re the least appreciated out of all the job roles.
- Typically, they are the least paid.
- Yet without these roles, the consequences are disastrous.
|Job Title||Primary Duties||Purpose||Impact Without This Role|
|Housekeeping & Sanitation
|Clean, disinfect, and organize||Keep high standards of cleanliness and sanitation||Trash and dirt buildup, disease, disorder|
|Direct Customer/ Patient Care||Build relationships, and serve customer needs||Resolve disputes and inquiries to improve customer loyalty||Slow response time, inadequate support, broken communication|
|Food Service & Dietary||Prepare and serve nourishing meals||Provide sustenance & refreshment||Fewer food options, lack of nutrition and sustenance|
|Maintenance & Repair (Physical Plant)||Keep conditions safe, and repair broken items||Protect the investment of fixed assets (machinery, buildings, tools)||Faulty machines, unsafe conditions, higher risk of injury and loss|
We know that Foundational employees are indispensable. Without them, systems would fall apart and basic needs wouldn’t be met. Yet in my experience (and perhaps yours as well), very few leaders take the time to step into those low-level roles.
The simple practice of “sitting in the seat” of employees (especially Foundational Staff) gives you a perspective that is just not possible at a leadership level. It provides first-hand knowledge of organizational challenges from your employees’ point of view.
My “Employee for a Day” Experience
I learned how to be a better manager by sitting in the seats of my employees. It wasn’t because of my exceptional management abilities (my strengths are definitely not in Operations). And I didn’t find it in a New York Times best-seller book.
My “aha moment” happened when I stepped into the world of my staff.
At the time, I had just joined an organization in a leadership position, and we were having problems. Although we provided an exceptional client service, all the leadership discussions centered around problems with… staff.
We were seeing a steady decline in productivity.
Customers frequently complained about delays and inefficiencies in our processes.
Paperwork frequently went missing.
…So it must be the staff’s fault, right?
As a fairly new manager, I initially fell under the spell of “Corporate Ladder Bias”: a condition that causes new leaders to let go of being an employee, and focus instead on top-level decisions.
It happens slowly and imperceptibly. My workload consumed me until I woke up and realized that the stacks of paperwork, endless phone calls, and hundreds of e-mail requests had side-tracked my ability to actually solve problems.
Although it is possible to lead from behind closed doors, any employee who is honest will tell you it’s not very inspiring. And at the end of the day, uninspired employees feel the effect of “Hollowed-Out Engagement,” which has a huge impact on the bottom line.
So several weeks into my new job, I finally looked up from my piles of papers and realized that the work I’d accomplished from my quiet office had no impact on the problems outside. In fact, I was so far removed from staff that it became painfully obvious I had no idea how our processes were even happening.
- What concerns were customers voicing early on?
- Why were some documents misfiled and/or saved to 5 separate folders?
- Were our productivity challenges related to a lack of training, poor communication… or by something else?
From a management perspective, we could see the results of processes not working, but not the causes.
So I decided to seek out the causes.
If you’re familiar with the Introvert-Extrovert spectrum, then you can empathize with those of us who need “alone time” to process information. I am definitely on the introvert side, as an INTP (one of the 16 Meyers-Briggs personality types: Introvert iNtuitive Thinker Perceiver). I seem very outgoing, but one “people-hour” takes me about 5 hours of recovery time to process and decompress.
It’s human nature to fight, flee, or freeze when we are faced with a problem, especially when it relates to our own inadequacies. No matter your personality type—whether you crave time alone or need to be around people—avoiding discomfort is one of the biggest mistakes a leader can make.
This realization made me rethink my management role. Was I avoiding our staff on purpose? What kind of message was that sending? While the exec team met at exactly 11:50 to go out for lunch together each day, I decided to start bringing my own brown-bag lunch and join our (somewhat shocked) staff in the break room.
At leadership meetings, I started to ask about root causes.
- “Why are our customers getting upset? Is it because we aren’t providing consistency?”
- “Could our lack of productivity be due to the fact that our teams aren’t cross-trained?”
- “What do our employees think we should do to solve these problems?”
None of us on the leadership team had an answer.
Rather than guessing, I decided to evaluate the situation for myself. I didn’t know just how helpful the “Employee For a Day” experience would be—or that it would push me way out of my comfort zone.
As you’d probably expect, since I’m an introvert, I planned my “Employee For a Day” experience far in advance.
I decided that I wanted to:
- Interview each of our staff members separately.
- Physically try as many tasks as possible.
- Keep notes about what was going wrong and how the staff suggested we fix it.
- Investigate “broken processes” and follow them back to the source: the root cause.
My ultimate goal was to learn how the company worked from the ground up. I wanted to hear our staff’s point of view about why we weren’t getting results. I also wanted to analyze the qualitative data and qualitative experiences based on my observations. Finally, I wanted to recommend easily implementable “Move the Needle” solutions to our executive leadership team.
Step 1: Dress Down
First, I made a few adjustments to my normal role. Rather than wearing a business suit and heels, I chose casual pants, a t-shirt, and flats. My makeup and hairstyle were both toned down. I packed sack lunches and joined the staff at their meal times each day.
Most important of all, I hung up my “management hat” and become a student of my employees. No corrections, no instructions, and no unrequested feedback. My only job for 4 days would be to observe, learn, and try to do their job as best I could. All employees had been informed of my new schedule, and each of them had arranged a time slot for me to sit and observe their work.
Step 2: Observe
My plan was to observe our company’s processes for 3 full days during a normal work week. During that time, I spent 45 minutes shadowing each employee and asked them 3 things:
1. What is your job?
I was most interested in finding out what each staff member thought about their own role, and how they would describe the work tasks.
2. How does your work benefit the company?
Not just “what are your tasks,” but “how is your role helping our company reach its objectives?”
3. If you were the boss, what you would you do to make the company better?
This usually got a chuckle, because “Wow! Nobody ever asked me that before!” I expected to get a couple of ideas but was not prepared for the torrent of insights the staff would ultimately provide.
At around noon, I joined the staff in our tiny break room. Since our executive leaders rarely spent any time there, it gave me a chance to connect with the employees on a deeper level and discuss topics that had nothing to do with work.
Step 3: Do the Work
I also planned to perform basic tasks and get familiar with how information flowed in and out of the company.
How It Went
On the first day, a Monday morning, I walked into the main staff area in casual outfit of a long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, flat shoes, and basic makeup. This took a few people by surprise, since they had never seen me “dressed down.”
Throughout that first day, my presence in the main office area met with some resistance. Staff mainly kept to themselves. For years, they had worked down the hall from the executive team, with an unspoken “us-and-them” boundary line. Execs typically remained behind closed doors, so the presence of a manager “in the trenches” was unexpected.
But as the experiment progressed, employees started to warm up to me. My goal was to find out why processes were inconsistent and what they thought we should do about it. Once the employees realized that I wasn’t there to point fingers but rather to hear from them, every single person was eager to offer ideas and suggestions.
Here’s what I discovered:
1. What is your job?
Once the staff warmed up to me, their answers were very direct. I quickly discovered that most of our staff’s job descriptions did not accurately reflect the work itself. They were very open to helping me draft new descriptions and sharing why they disliked the siloed division between the two departments in the organization.
2. How does your work benefit the company?
After conducting the interview and job shadowing, I also performed several tasks myself: answering client phone calls, filing documents, writing e-mails, and sending out mail. Surprisingly, all of these tasks were really challenging. Like REALLY challenging. I had a very hard time answering client questions and finding answers in our software system.
Some of our processes required a long and complicated series of e-mail requests and delays. The extra steps caused clients a lot of frustration and were completely unnecessary. I started to see workflow patterns that had been created years before and were no longer serving our needs.
3. If you were the boss, what you would you do to make the company better?
This usually got a chuckle, because “Wow! Nobody ever asked me that before!” But after the shock wore off, their feedback was absolutely amazing. They cautiously told me about changes and small adjustments that could save the company thousands of dollars. As they felt more comfortable, a few even told me that these ideas had been mentioned to the executive team several times before, but none of them were implemented.
Here are some of the benefits that occurred after my “Employee For a Day” experience:
- I knew every single employee’s name, background, daily tasks, personality type, strengths, and frustrations
- The mood in the office became more welcoming
- Employees started voluntarily offering their ideas and suggestions, which had never happened before
- We formed two new work groups, one for cross-training members of the siloed departments, and one for customer engagement
- We initiated a whole-team weekly staff meeting for the first time in the company’s history
- An overarching frustration was due to outdated equipment; so after a cost study revealed better options, we updated equipment and watched productivity increase by 30%
- My observation of actual tasks led me to update several job descriptions to more accurately reflect each role’s contribution and value to the organization. (I now call this Participatory Job Design)
- We created new Policies and Procedures based on the feedback from staff
- We also updated the Employee Manual and improved our training process
- Our executive team updated the organization’s Vision, Mission, and Values and discussed them regularly at staff meetings
In addition to higher engagement and enthusiasm, I was also able to quantify our biggest sources of revenue losses. Staff in the Customer Engagement work group isolated several methods to decrease the inconsistency of our services, and the Cross-Training group took an inventory of each employee’s knowledge level and scheduled time for them to get up to speed on any gaps. We also developed a process to track productivity, which improved teamwork between the departments.
Overall, this experience was both exhilarating and exhausting. I was humbled many, many times by simple tasks like printing out a postage label or answering a client’s simple (but perplexing) question. Things that had seemed so easy from the comfort of my management chair were, I realized, much more stressful from an employee’s point of view.
It also became obvious that employees felt forgotten by our management team. Although we managers spent a lot of time discussing ways to boost employee morale from the comfort of the boardroom, in reality very few of us had actually spent significant time WITH the staff. Not just overseeing or correcting, but actually doing their roles. Once I saw the company from my staff’s level, it totally changed my appreciation for how hard those jobs were.
Leaving the comfort of my office was one of the most challenging things I have ever done as a manager. I learned so much from my employees, including painful realizations about my own weaknesses as a leader.
The experience also gave me a glimpse of the heart and soul of the company: how employees lifted each other up, how they took pride in caring for customers, and even problems in the company’s overall strategic planning and core philosophy. By entering the world of my staff, I noticed things that would never have been obvious from my office down the hall.
Check out other articles on this topic:
If you have spent a day in your employee’s shoes, what was the experience like? Does your organization provide managers with the chance to be “Employee For a Day”? Share your experience below!
Interested in hearing how you can reverse a toxic workplace? Find out more here.
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.