Keeping employees motivated and engaged is a tough task in the office. Doing the same for the field service workforce is that much harder — and just as important. Leadership expert and author Kevin Eikenberry blogged recently about ways to keep front-line workers in sync with the greater organization — and expanded on those insights in an interview with The SmartVan.
You say that managers and truck drivers might not think the same way, yet they’re both working toward the same goal. How does that work?
Eikenberry: It’s more of how someone on the front lines sees the world versus how the manager sitting behind a desk sees the world. The way you see the word is shaped by the work you do every day and the interactions you have.
As a manager, I don’t know what it’s like to be that van driver if I’m never out with that van driver. If leadership sees something as strategic, but if they’re not stopping to think about how that might impact people on the front lines and never take the time to understand that other perspective, they’re not going to be successful in communicating that change. As a manager I have to understand how my decisions are going to affect that person getting in and out of a van 17 times a day. A decision may make all the sense in the world to the manager behind the desk and may really be the right answer for the business. But until a manager bridges the gap and anticipates how front-line employees see that decision, they won’t be successful in communicating with them.
How can managers effectively interact with a team on the front lines that they don’t see that often?
The most important thing is you have to decide you’re going to do it. The cliché “out of sight, out of mind” is a cliché because it’s true. The first thing leaders and managers have to do is say, “[connecting with employees] is a priority, that I’m connected to them, and that I’m nurturing relationships with my employees who are out there and in front of customers every day.”
Leaders have to realize how important that is. They can do this through a million different methods, like picking up the phone and checking in or having a weekly staff meeting before your team goes out on calls. Managers need some sort of process to connect with their front-line employees. How often are you riding with your team members to stay connected and give them feedback and tell them how they’re doing?
When folks are out on the road, it’s very helpful for them to know that the boss is even thinking about them. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation — many folks in vans probably don’t want their boss with them all day — but they’d sure like their boss to know what they’re doing and the challenges they face.
You recommend bringing front-line workers into internal manager meetings. Many leaders are skeptical of this. Why do you endorse it?
Most leaders talk too much. Just shut up and listen. Ask a question then shut up and listen and you’ll actually gain perspective on your employees. If you’re going to make the effort to meet with them, don’t spend most of the time showing PowerPoint presentations.
Now if this has never happened, and it looks like a drastic change, you’re going to raise a red flag and employees will get concerned. If you’re going to change your behavior to do things differently, you need to be clear with them and share your intention. Tell them, “I want to ride with you in the van. Don’t get freaked out; I just want to get a handle on what you do every day.” Recognize that a big shift might take a little while to get used to but once they understand your intention and motivation and there’s trust, it will be very valuable.
Does this actually improve performance for employees on the road?
When people know that other people care about their work and notice their work, that will improve performance overall. It won’t necessarily improve performance for every employee. But if you take it across a larger group of people, there’s no question it’s going to raise performance, raise morale, raise engagement, and lower turnover.