Back to the floor | Job-shadowing


Senior management are often seen as being out of reach, inaccessible and having little concept of what goes on among the lower ranks. Workers ask, rightly, how people with little or no knowledge of how the work is done can make the decisions. Sending them back to the shopfloor is one way of jogging their memory, ensuring that they communicate with more junior staff and showing those staff your commitment to them and their viewpoints.

As part of the recent Adult Learners’ Week, The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) sent its HR director, Ali Peck, back to the floor. Instead of plotting HR strategies, Peck joined the housekeeping team and found herself maintaining the on-site overnight accommodation used by RNLI volunteers trained at The Lifeboat College – from making beds to cleaning rooms and communal areas. Peck’s efforts were part of the RNLI’s job-shadowing scheme, which gives staff an opportunity to get hands-on experience of colleagues’ jobs.  Staff can choose to shadow a range of jobs from across the organisation – including chief executive.  Almost 70 staff took part this year. As Peck says, “Most of us have an idea about what other people’s jobs entail but actually doing the job – even for a short time – is a real eye opener”. 

In the face of such enthusiasm, it seems odd that so few companies offer job shadowing schemes. What is there to fear? Are they worried that people might suss how little the chief executive does, or that the lower ranks might get it into their heads that they too could do the ‘big’ jobs? Or are companies simply too tight to allow staff to step away from their work long enough to benefit from schemes like this?

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3 Responses to Back to the floor | Job-shadowing

  1. Gary Ashworth 30 June 2008 at 3:31 pm #

    Job shadowing is a short-sighted tactic, if the goal is to widen employees’ skills sets and motivation. Instead of spending time observing different roles, it’s more important to the business that the jobs get done. Job shadowing may have a ‘feel-good’ factor for workplace culture, but the business benefits are limited as there is no real need for employees to become multi-disciplined and adept in all areas of business. Managers would be better off encouraging their staff in the areas to which they are best suited. Shop floor staff would be motivated by knowing that their managers are investing in them and value their contribution, while managers would be able to spot gaps in their portfolio of skills, and recruit people with the niche skills the business requires. No one would expect a junior programmer to have the same capabilities or do the same tasks as the chief executive, so why should the chief executive be expected to know exactly what a junior programmer does all day? What matters is that both jobs are fulfilled by those best equipped to perform well in the role.

  2. Cathy Monaghan 30 June 2008 at 3:43 pm #

    There have always been cries of ‘they’ don’t know what ‘we’ are doing and ‘if they did, decisions would be better’. And there is some truth to this. In a previous role I ‘had’ to spend a week a year on the shop floor but found the experience invaluable in terms of customer feedback and using the knowledge gained to improve what HR and therefore the business delivered. The programme was valuable as it was structured, with objectives linked to business benefits.

    But job-shadowing is not always easy to organise: health and safety can be an issue, and cover for the ‘normal’ role can be challenging. Organisations are often reluctant because they don’t understand the business benefits, and employees can be cynical, viewing a senior manager working with them as ‘staged’. There must be a robust communications and objectives plan for everyone involved. There can be real benefits to launching a programme of this nature but it has to be relevant, linked to business goals, development plans and total quality management. I look forward to seeing Terry Leahy on the checkout at my local Tesco.

  3. Steve Miller 4 July 2008 at 7:50 am #

    For goodness sake can we please steer our efforts on getting our own jobs done first. Do we really think an HR Director returning to the floor to clean the loo is really going to increase morale, customer service levels and commercial gain. This is yet another misplaced HR theory that is often met with laughter from people on the shop floor. To be honest I find it all a bit patronising.

    Spend time on getting your own job done well and make your business profitable. Then share some of the profit with all employees. I think somehow they will prefer that rather than seeing the HR Director stacking the shelves or sitting on a checkout machine!