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For many decades, CEOs have implemented a strategy called Management By Walking Around (MBWA). Literally, this strategy involves walking around the company, connecting with employees and developing a clearer picture of operations. The term was coined in the 1940s, and many CEOs have practiced this strategy over the subsequent seven decades.
Perhaps the idea was best explained in a 1982 book by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman called In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. In sum, most successful companies had leaders that were in the field most of the time, rather than in their offices.
Of course, this management style isn’t about wandering around your company’s campus and observing whatever you might see. The idea isn’t just to meander aimlessly having conversations either.
MBWA does involve connecting with employees in an “unstructured and unplanned manner amongst the employees” in order to understand the company’s issues and concerns. Whereas employees might polish themselves and hide their concerns if they know you’re coming, MBWA is about observing regular operations.
Management By Walking Around in a Virtual Office
Now that so many companies operate virtually either all or some of the time, however, does MBWA still have its place? In other words, how can Management By Walking Around be modified for the virtual workplace?
Hold open video conference sessions.
You can also connect with more employees more easily if you have regular open office meeting times. This way, employees can come to you. This is a particularly important tactic if your team lives in many cities and may never have been able to come to your physical office. You could even schedule meetings with subsections of your team to demonstrate how much you want their feedback.
Build relationships in informal networking opportunities.
Still, employees may not share openly with managers they don’t know well. One of the hallmarks of MBWA is getting to know employees, so they’re willing to tell you about problems you might not otherwise ascertain. So, don’t expect to meet with an employee once and have them share their concerns openly.
Instead, create networking opportunities or host casual talkbacks where you can get to know your employees – and share about yourself and your goals. If your team knows that you’re excited to listen to their concerns, and won’t balk at their honesty, they’re more likely to provide you with the authentic information you’re seeking.
Devise new ways to monitor productivity.
In the 1980s, managers used Management By Walking Around to increase productivity. But punitive measures for the virtual office, like video monitoring or reporting, don’t actually increase motivation.
Instead, Tommy Weir suggests that managers should use AI tracking to give both employees ways to monitor their own efficiency, as well as for managers to track potentially-actionable insights.
Briefly attend meetings of many different subsections of your team.
Managing over 500 employees was daunting to David Boehmig at the beginning of the pandemic. Yet, he was able to sit in our four separate sales meetings in 90 minutes, something that would have taken him weeks to complete in his face-to-face workplace.
In this way, virtual meetings are actually conducive to MBWA tactics.
“If we’ve learned anything lately, it’s that responsiveness matters. And when it comes to MBWA, the opportunities to use digital tools to reach out and touch employees have never been better,” Boehmig writes.
Let your team know you’ll be virtually “walking around.”
At the same time, it’s a good idea not to just drop into a meeting unannounced. While part of the ethos of MBWA is that you get a sense of your workplace when your employees aren’t prepared to see you, you don’t want to catch them off guard either.
So, if you’re planning on sitting in on virtual meetings during a specific week, let your employees know you might be dropping by. You don’t have to tell them exactly when you’ll be there, but they shouldn’t be entirely shocked by your presence.
Record your talks or training for those who can’t attend live.
Another benefit of the virtual workplace is that employees near and far can get to know you. MBWA might have worked well for CEOs who managed a group of people in a specific location, but what about for CEOs with branches all over the country?
In this way, the virtual workplace is ideal for sharing yourself and your values with all of your employees. Not only can your employees all over the world watch your talks or network with you, but you can also record these sessions for those who can’t watch them in real time.
Management by Walking Around Is a Philosophy and a Practice
Management by Walking Around (MBWA) may be more of a philosophy than an action in today’s virtual workplace, but it’s a good one to keep in mind. Specifically, your goal is to engage in your company’s daily operations, rather than assuming information will come to you. Perhaps ironically, the virtual workplace actually simplifies MBWA in several ways, rather than being a barrier to it.