‘Management By Walking Around’ in the Post-Pandemic World

The lifting of Covid Plan B restrictions in England means that many people will be returning to the office, whether full-time or on a ‘hybrid’ basis. Whilst not everyone will welcome leaving their home office behind, others will relish the opportunity to get back to normal and to spend time interacting face-to-face with colleagues.

Working from home brought some advantages but, even with videoconferencing, phone calls and emails, it can be very isolating. This is true for managers as well as their teams. Indeed, working from home has changed the social dynamics within teams and not always for the best. Therefore, as we are (hopefully) reaching the end of the pandemic, how can managers make the best use of offices as they return to the physical workplace?

The traditional approach for management, for much of the twentieth century, was for managers to distance themselves from their staff, perhaps sitting in their private corner offices and not getting too involved in day-to-day office life.

This approach was later challenged, notably by William Hewlett and David Packard of Hewlett Packard (HP). Hewlett and Packard were believers in what has been popularly described as ‘Management by Walking Around’ (MBWA). It’s a simple, but effective, concept. It involves managers getting out of their office and walking around the workplace to have impromptu conversations with staff.

Working from home largely took away the opportunity for MBWA. It distances staff and managers, physically and socially. Videocalls can help but they tend to be scheduled and somewhat structured, as opposed to the ad hoc and informal interactions of ‘real life’. Without a specific reason to have a call, some managers may not speak to members of their team for days, or even weeks when working remotely.

Therefore, when back in the office, why not make the most of MBWA? People are social creatures. It is healthy to have face-to-face interaction with others. By walking around the office and speaking to team members, you can build rapport and better understand those you work with or manage. It brings many subtle benefits.

MBWA is spontaneous rather than planned and gives the manager a chance to have a random sample of what is going on in the workplace. For instance, you may ask what an employee is currently working on, or you may do a random quality check. Whilst this may seem like a good way of keeping employees on their toes, it can improve a manager’s relationship with their staff too.

I have worked in several organisations, in different sectors, with a range of management cultures. When I was a junior member of staff, I keenly observed the management styles of those around me. I was most impressed by managers who were visible and physically present. It meant they were approachable; I was able to run ideas by them and ask for feedback. I felt included and enfranchised.

Other managers, however, rarely ventured outside their rooms, preoccupied by the demands of their job. These managers were more distant figures, preferring to send an email than have a conversation. They didn’t have their ‘ear to the ground’ and, as such, became out of touch with those they managed.

Through MBWA you can pick up on the team dynamics and the roles individuals play within the team. By doing this regularly, you will also be alerted to changes in behaviour, i.e., if someone is uncharacteristically quiet, is there a reason for it? By speaking to people individually or in a group you will better understand what motivates them, what worries them and what is going on in their lives.

Instead of assigning tasks via email, why not speak to the team member directly? By doing so, you will be aware of their body language. A look of panic in someone’s eyes when set a new task, for example, may indicate that person is struggling with their workload or may lack confidence. This allows you to offer support or reassurance where needed. It also gives the team member the chance to ask questions. If they are on the receiving end of an email, unbeknownst to you, your team member may be sitting there, suffering in silence.

MBWA should not just be a case of ‘wandering around’ aimlessly, however. Managers should genuinely listen and reflect on what they observe and act accordingly. Indeed, a good manager will always listen to their team and having work-related discussions in the office outside of formal meetings can spawn ideas and new perspectives. It also allows less experienced and junior members of staff an opportunity to voice their ideas to managers in an informal, ‘safe’ environment, whereas in formal meetings they may be less likely to venture an opinion. Likewise, it is also an opportunity for them to benefit from your knowledge, experience and expertise.

Of course, people cannot stand around talking all day, but social interaction between colleagues of all levels should be a key benefit of office life. Managers therefore should utilise the office to foster collaborative behaviour that delivers business benefits, whether that is increased productivity, the exchange of ideas or improvements to team cohesion.

There’s no doubt that working from home has challenged the traditional office paradigm but, at its best, the office should be creative, collaborative and communicative space in which people feel included, engaged, and empowered to do their jobs. Office life should be an enjoyable experience where people learn, grow, and produce high standard work. Managers should therefore be visible and good listeners, breaking down barriers, and working to create an office environment that nurtures personal and business success.

About the author

Nathan is a member of the senior management team at RWA and manages the company’s e-learning, content and professional standards department. He joined RWA as a content writer in 2016, on successfully completing his PhD. Nathan previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors and has a broad range of experience, including research and analysis, project delivery, corporate governance, and team leadership.

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