Walking Employees Downstream Improves Retention, Productivity, Recruiting, and Engagement (Part 2 of 2)

Implementing a walk-them-downstream retention and recruiting approach

Part II of this two-part series focuses on implementing a “walking employees downstream” retention and productivity tool. It is highly effective because it increases the emotional connection between employees and those who benefit from the firm’s final work product (that they contribute to). Last week’s Part I highlighted the many benefits associated with the “walking employees downstream” approach. Those benefits include increased motivation, productivity, retention, attendance, recruitment, and even sales.

The Seven Primary “Walk Employees Downstream” Variations to Consider

Once you decide to implement this powerful approach, the first step is to realize that there are seven primary “walk employees downstream” variations or options. Each variation has a different performance goal. And, each variation in its own way helps employees understand the impact of their work and how it makes a difference.

When a corporation implements this approach, it can choose one or more of the following seven variations or options. Also, remember that “walking …”, in addition to a physical visit or interaction, can also mean simply providing information that makes employees more aware of the impact of their work. The seven variations are broken into two categories. “Walk connections” with those outside the firm and then those “walk connections” that involve employees meeting other employees.

Category I — Connections That Involve Those Outside the Firm

Variation No. 1 — Walk key employees downstream to connect with their past customers —the most commonly used option. You proactively make key employees more aware of the impact of their work by connecting them with end product users. In this case, downstream means what happens after the product or service is consumed. For your employees who provide a service, those impacts can include something as simple as a “snapshot progress report” covering those who receive significant help from the service employee. The “walk connection” can also extend to a personalized follow-up return visit or call.

For workers who contribute to a phase of product production, have them see how the product dramatically changes customers’ lives by providing a few illustrated dramatic examples. In addition, statistics and testimonials can be provided, along with a few dramatic illustrative cases.

Variation No. 2 — Walk their families in, so that all understand the importance of his/her work  Retention and a commitment to working harder are primary goals of the walk-downstream approach. Employees stay longer and work more hours because they are encouraged to do so by their family. In order to enhance family support for the employee, proactively take action to ensure that family members have materials and information that convincingly show how their family member’s work creates value. And, how the firm’s presence positively impacts their community and doesn’t harm the environment.

One major firm, DFS, held an annual evening event. Executives spent extra time making sure that each spouse and family member was fully aware of the meaningful work and the significant contribution that their family member made. Google has even held “bring-your-parents-to-work days” to strengthen family support for the company.

Variation No. 3 — Let candidates walk inside your firm to improve recruiting — whenever you’re trying to attract the best (and especially those among newer generations) realize that “meaningful work” appears on almost every top candidate’s job acceptance criteria. As a result, when you’re selling your finalists, go out of your way to show them the impact of the job. If you pay significantly less, remember that some will accept nearly one quarter less pay if they’re doing meaningful work.

So, walk top candidates around your facility and connect them with team members who can reveal, specifically, how they know that their work is meaningful and impactful. Making sure that the families of top candidates are also fully aware of the job’s and the firm’s impacts will also improve recruiting. Remind new hires of their upcoming impact during onboarding.

Variation No. 4 — Let outsiders (corporate customers) walk inside your firm — when your firm sells to large corporate customers or works with strategic partner firms, you can strengthen your relationship-building by periodically inviting a few of their representatives inside your firm. Let these representatives meet with both executives and employees in your firm so that everyone increases their understanding of each other’s needs and issues. Perhaps provide your employees with a list of your firm’s large customers, so they know who uses or buys the product that they produce. Knowing that admired firms buy your product and services can further help to build employee pride. In fact, in order to ensure that everyone understands customer needs, consider letting team leaders sit silently in on at least one sales call each year, so they remain in touch with the product’s selling features and the customers’ needs.

In the cases where your customers are mostly individuals, like in retail, consider giving your employees who don’t have customer contact a profile of your average retail customer. Knowing the type of person who relies on your product or service might cause your employees without customer contact to increase their ownership of their output. Also, consider allowing production, back-office, call-center people and others with little face-to-face customer contact to attend customer-appreciation days for a few hours to strengthen their empathy and to better understand the impact that the company’s product has.

Category II — Connections That Involve Employees Connecting With Other Employees

Variation No. 5 — Walk employees downstream to meet employees who work later along the work stream – In many cases, workers operate somewhere in the middle of a long internal process or a chain of work. You can increase the commitment of quality work of these “middle process employees” by making sure that they fully understand how their work impacts other employees further down the work chain. When employees in the middle of the chain know how their errors, omissions, and low-quality work negatively affects their coworkers downstream, the increased empathy and understanding will likely cause their work quality to improve.

Variation No. 6 — Walk employees upstream to meet employees earlier in the long work stream — Mid-level workers are likely also to undervalue the work that occurs before them in the production chain. Often these mid-process workers have little empathy or understanding, and sometimes they are even hostile toward the workers who provide them with the preliminary work that they must continue to add to. Making a stronger connection between these early and mid-level workers would improve the acceptance of both upward and downward feedback, which might reduce errors and make work handoffs much smoother.

If it’s in the same facility, walking mid-level employees upstream usually involves a physical meeting. In other cases, it usually involves conference calls and information in the form of statistics, videos, and pictures. Incidentally, meeting upstream managers and showing key employees what happens upstream may also better reveal the excitement of future career paths. And that may encourage employees to prepare earlier for career growth and likely promotion paths.

Variation No. 7 — Walk employees in all directions so that they see the big picture and the final product — when employees produce only a small part of a work stream or process, their contribution may indeed be small. Demonstrate that without their work, the process would come to a halt and there would be no end product.

For those who work in only a minuscule part of the chain to be able to take credit for the output of the entire process, walking them in both directions during a single half-day event will allow employees to more fully understand the big picture and the interdependence of the individual parts. But more importantly, it will let each individual employee to better see the critical importance of their admittedly small, but still vital mid-process contribution.

And finally, make sure that every employee physically sees, holds, and if possible, gets to see/use the final product or service that results from their work.

Some Additional Implementation Actions to Consider

As part of your implementation plan, consider the following tips.

  • Make someone accountable for internal employer branding  because the “walking them downstream” process is a form of internal awareness, put someone in charge of enhancing the firm’s internal employer brand image and measure its success by the degree to which employees report on a survey that they are confident that “their work is meaningful.”
  • Educate workers on environmental and community impacts  because sustainability and corporate social responsibility are major current issues, provide your employees and candidates with information on how the company is socially conscious. And in particular, make everyone aware of any local community outreach and the positive impact that the firm has on its surroundings.
  • Make workers aware of product awards and top ratings — Employees and candidates need to be made aware of any product and industry awards that the company wins. Making them aware of strong social media and industry rankings can help to build “making a difference pride.” Also, provide your employees with copies of testimonials and positive news articles written about the product and the firm.

Final Thoughts

One of the reasons why turnover rates in small business are generally lower than in large corporations is because employees in small businesses much more frequently get to meet customers and see the results of their work. Realize that as corporations get larger, it’s harder for workers to see and feel their impact. And, other than job redesign/job enrichment, the best way to demonstrate that an employee’s work has a meaningful impact is through some form of “walking them downstream.”

Start by conducting post-exit (delayed by three months) interviews to determine if a lack of meaningful work is a major turnover cause. If it is, set a significant corporate goal to improve the physical and emotional connection between those who produce an initial product or service, and the beneficiaries of the final sold product or service. In short, make it amazingly easy for employees who want to “change the world” to see how their job helps them reach the goal. Make “seeing the difference that each employee makes” an integral part of both your internal and external employer brand image.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, follow or connect with me on LinkedIn, subscribe to the ERE Daily, and hear me and others speak at ERE’s April event in San Diego on “recruiting in a candidate-driven market.”

As seen on ERE Media on March 25, 2019.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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