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Management Tools: Get Out of Your Office

HR Magazine, July 2006Face-to-face communication on a consistent basis is still the best way to get information to and from employees.

It may come as a surprise to you as a manager when you learn through employee surveys, 360-degree feedback and other performance measurement tools that you are out of touch with your people.

Without a strategy on how to stay in touch with employees, most managers resort to a style called “winging it.” But, it’s time to give your employees the same time and attention you would an important client. After all, you wouldn’t wing it when communicating with a customer or your organization’s top leaders.

As a manager, you are the most significant communication channel in the workplace. You are chief reporter and translator of changes and decisions. You provide context for those who work for you. Your communication—when done right—can create a connection between an associate and the overall company. Your communication—when shortchanged—can create a cavernous divide.

Walk Around

Years of experience with clients large and small consistently point to one key workplace factor: Employees prefer to get information from their direct manager or supervisor. They favor it more than e-mails, web sites or intranet sites, or town hall meetings—even more than the grapevine. And, the channel of choice for receiving information and providing feedback isn’t grounded in formal or high-tech communication with the manager. The most effective channel for employees is the informal workplace “walk-around”—having their manager come to their desk and sit and chat about work.

How powerful are walk-arounds? For one client, a leading aerospace manufacturer, it was the single most important improvement action recommended by employees as a solution to combat the lack of mutual trust between management and employees. Incidentally, the trust issue was cited by results of a companywide employee engagement survey. (For more on gaining employee trust, see the cover story in the June 2006 issue of HR Magazine.)

Like many organizations, the company’s leadership lacked data on communication performance, but it recognized and admitted something very important—that there were communication inconsistencies and failures organizationwide. Following the engagement survey, the company’s HR group conducted a series of focus groups to get more granular on the data. One progressive business leader launched a pilot improvement process at his business unit, consisting of some 450 people.

With our help, the business unit formed a diverse action team made up of employees from all functions, shifts, tenures, genders and ethnicities. The team met twice weekly over several months in facilitated work sessions, guided by a nine-step problem-solving methodology that our firm uses for developing data-driven improvement plans.

Once developed, the action plan was reviewed with the business unit’s senior leadership team for discussion and go-ahead approval. Of the six recommendations presented to leadership, the most sought-after change was for a weekly, informal walk-around process for all managers at the director level and higher.

As the employee teams explained, “We want you to come out to where we are—in our work areas—not because something went wrong or because there’s a problem, which is the current case. We want you to come out because you actually want to get to know us, spend some time with us and listen to us.”

That’s powerful. By walking around, management gets a lot of press, but, in our experience, few managers do it, and those that do often aren’t as effective at it as they could be. Even the team that made the recommendation for the walk-around was shocked when we pointed out that, in order to be most effective, the senior management team needed to be trained on the process, what was expected of them and what their responsibilities would be.

Walking around may sound like it needs no definition, but, in reality, it’s tough stuff. And many managers find “informal” communication hard to do; many are lost without the security blanket of PowerPoint charts or videos. Informal communication doesn’t mean small talk; informal means keep it simple, but have a plan going in as to the topics you will cover.

Action Plan

Here’s a checklist of walk-around tips you can start applying today:

  • Get out of the office. Dedicate some time each week to get out and talk with your workforce. Even though our aerospace client wanted to keep the walk-arounds informal, there is still a good deal of organization and logistics necessary behind the scenes to ensure that the walk-arounds are occurring. Follow-up and ensuring accountability is another key aspect of their recommendation.

  • Leave behind your cell phone. Minimize distractions that can tug on your attention. You want to demonstrate courtesy and respect during your time on the floor.

  • Start slow. Don't feel the need to dive right in to your discussion even if you have prepared an agenda. Use an icebreaker to ease into the conversation. Weather and sports are perennial conversation starters that put everyone immediately on the same page.

  • Ask questions. Actively seek information. Encourage questions about things that are going well and whats not going well. Use open-ended questions that can't be answered with a simple yes or no, to get dialogue going.

  • Drive involvement. If you’re meeting with a workgroup, ask the employees what they want to hear about. This simple technique will provide you with topics for your next walk-around, and the employees will come away from the meeting with a sense of involvement. The other thing you will give them is a sense that you care—and that is a key building block of establishing trust.

  • Listen. Your goal is to learn. Learn about your teams ideas and perspectives about your business. Learn how they think about their role, your products, your services and your work practices. Effective listening requires you to focus on the person with whom you are speaking, clear your mind of mental distractions and seek to understand (rather than question) their perspective.

  • Make eye contact. Look directly at the people with whom you are speaking. Eye contact lets them know that you are listening—as does an occasional nod and facial expression, such as a grin or smile.

  • Make it two-way communication. When youre asked a question that you can't answer, tell the employee that you don't have the answer but will get back to them. Be sure to get back to the individual in a timely manner. Your credibility is at stake. Nothing kills momentum more than when employees feel that their concerns are being blown off by their manager or supervisor.

  • Be honest. If times are tough, don't sugarcoat reality. For example, if the company lost a big contract, bring it up in your casual conversations. Ask others for their opinions on the subject—or what they heard as the reason for the loss. This is a great way for you to informally validate the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of "official" company communication channels in conveying important information. You will be surprised at what you learn.

  • Process information. You may want to bring a small notepad with you to write down questions or comments that you'd like to remember or that require follow-up. You will learn some great new things about your people and operations. Leave formal reports and clipboards on your desk. The goal is to keep this process informal.

  • Show appreciation. When meeting someone or when concluding a conversation and moving on to speak with someone else, thank the person for their time and their comments.

  • Never quit. This is a self-replenishing process. These walk-arounds are a catalyst for better conversations and relationships. People may not be comfortable during the early months of this process. But as they see you more frequently and your willingness to be visible, comfort in the process will improve. Don't be discouraged if it's just you and one other person when you start out. As employees see your commitment to getting information from them, finding out whats on their minds and answering their questions, your rapport will grow.

The Bottom Line Starts Here

As a supervisor, you must build trusting relationships with your employees and let them know that they have to help you get the information you need to do your job so you can help them do theirs. But you don’t have to do it alone. Front-line employees are your partners in action to meet the goals of the business. By inviting their input, you motivate them to participate and take the fear out of the feedback that allows you to build the necessary understanding of the business that’s required to succeed.

The rewards of taking time to get to know your people better are many. You’re sure to get helpful information from the front lines that will allow you to make better decisions. You will have a better appreciation of the things that your folks really want to hear about. You’re bound to learn something new about someone and be impressed.

You also will gain the trust and respect of people you work with, as well as that of your peers who will wonder where you’re getting your “inside” information.

Linda Dulye founded L.M. Dulye & Co. in 1998 with a business process approach for improving communications effectiveness across organizations. Dulye regularly addresses leadership meetings and professional conferences on using two-way communication. She can be reached through her web site at . . .

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