“Management by walking around” (MBWA) has been a management staple for decades. The phrase was popularized in the 1980s. Consultants Tom Peters and Robert Waterman explored the idea in their 1982 book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. It involves leaders physically visiting their staff to observe their engagement and effort to understand their concerns and foster better communication and collaboration. However, with the advent of the hybrid workplace, where employees split their time between remote and in-person work, the traditional approach to MBWA needed to evolve.
In 2011, I went to work for Elements Financial Credit Union (Eli Lilly FCU) in Indianapolis, a forward-thinking credit union that understood the cultural and economic value of remote work. They allowed every employee with a job that did not require daily physical presence, like branch tellers and MSRs, to work remotely. There were few rules around this practice, and the credit union found employees were very diligent in choosing office versus home. They chose home for many reasons: sickness or an ill child, a personal appointment, school days off or special events, or a visit by a repair person. Many employees came into the office because they missed their co-workers and interactions with others. This business model became a critical asset when weather or, in the case of Indianapolis, the Super Bowl, came to town. Remote work was seen as part of its business continuity plan.
Below, I discuss what “management by walking around” looks like in the hybrid workplace and how it can be effectively implemented to enhance leadership, employee engagement and satisfaction, collaboration, and teamwork.
The Hybrid Workplace Landscape
When remote work became necessary due to the pandemic, employees realized the value of having the flexibility to work remotely. Many employees benefitted from improved work-life balance, reduced commuting time, flexible work effort, and clock management. In contrast, it presents new challenges for leadership and team dynamics. Leaders who previously relied on in-person interactions are challenged to adapt their approach to maintaining cohesive, productive, and collaborative teams. Executives realized how we lead and manage employees had to evolve to this new reality.
What Does the Modern “Management by Walking Around” Require?
- Virtual Visits: In the hybrid workplace, physical visits to employees’ workspaces are not feasible. However, leaders can still virtually “walk around” by scheduling video calls or impromptu chats with team members. These interactions should be more than just about work tasks. Leaders should ask about employees’ well-being, discuss their concerns, and offer support when needed. The virtual MBWA creates a sense of presence and accessibility, making employees feel valued and connected.
- Open and Inclusive Communication: Traditional MBWA emphasizes face-to-face interactions, which can inadvertently leave out remote team members. In the hybrid workplace, leaders must prioritize inclusive communication. Regular team meetings, email updates, and group messaging apps can help keep everyone informed and involved. Additionally, leaders should encourage open and honest feedback, ensuring remote and in-office employees have an equal say in decision-making processes.
- Flexible Work Arrangements: Leaders should embrace flexibility because employees have different work arrangements in the hybrid workplace. This means accommodating employees’ preferred work hours, considering their time zones, and respecting their needs for remote work. Leaders can create a positive work environment and build trust by showing understanding and support.
- Tech-Enabled Tools: Technology plays a crucial role in the success of the hybrid workplace. Leaders can leverage tech-enabled tools like project management software, video conferencing platforms, and instant messaging apps to facilitate virtual MBWA. These tools enable seamless communication, document sharing, and real-time collaboration, keeping teams connected and informed.
- Emotional Intelligence: Empathy and emotional intelligence are paramount in the hybrid workplace. Leaders should be attuned to the emotional well-being of their team members and provide support when needed. Recognizing signs of burnout or addressing mental health concerns, a compassionate and empathetic approach can go a long way in maintaining a motivated and engaged workforce.
Are there Benefits of a Hybrid MBWA workplace?
- Enhanced Collaboration: Embracing a virtual MBWA approach can foster a culture of collaboration where team members feel connected and can readily exchange ideas and feedback.
- Improved Employee Engagement: Regular check-ins, whether in person or virtual, show employees that their leaders care about their well-being and development, leading to increased engagement.
- Flexibility and Inclusivity: The hybrid MBWA approach accommodates the diverse needs of employees, making it an inclusive and flexible leadership style.
- Elimination of Geographic-Specific Hiring Pools: Allowing for hybrid workers, hiring managers can expand their search parameters to seek out the best and brightest and attract more diversity of thought, experiences, and education.
- Reduction of Facility Expense: Many companies report saving expenses by not having to warehouse office space, which is unnecessary in the hybrid ecosystem. Of course, some of these savings are re-purposed in extending the technology hardware and software to support the remote worker and to extend travel expenses necessary for those required in-office days.
Credit unions working to establish policies and practices for a hybrid workplace must keep those policies flexible, and decisions about who, when, and where employees are allowed to work remotely must be transparent. There is one vital piece to this complicated puzzle: every decision must be based upon what is in the credit union’s AND the employee’s best interests, where the employee can be most productive and impactful in their role. Any deviation from established practices must be carefully and thoroughly explained to everyone. One departure without explanation will create dissatisfaction and distrust. As the workplace continues to evolve, leaders must adapt their management styles to meet the needs of the modern workforce. “Management by walking around” has traditionally been a practical leadership approach, and its principles can be applied in the hybrid workplace. As a result, the hybrid workplace can be where employees thrive, regardless of where they work.