How temporarily switching employee roles can help your business

Here's how Tracy Ewen, managing director of IGF Invoice Finance, swapped roles with an employee in the mail room and gained a greater understanding of the various parts of her business.

One of the maxims that I buy into is ‘always treat others as you wish to be treated’, and it works in business just as well as in our private lives. The basis behind this ideal is that all members of the company should have at least some understanding of what those around them do and the pressures they face on a daily basis. After all, how can anyone be truly sympathetic to the pressures facing their colleagues unless they understand them, and how can they be understood without some form of real, tangible experience?

Following this train of thought quickly led me to a very simple conclusion: what better way to understand the complexities of another team member’s role than by taking the reins of their job yourself? So that’s exactly what we did at IGF. For one day every year, each member of the team leaves the comfort of their own role and takes on a randomly-assigned challenge from a different, unfamiliar part of the business; a kind of professional musical chairs. Counterintuitive as it may seem, I believe the team actually learns more about how to do the best at their own role on that one day each year than on any of the other 364. A good example from my own experience was when I found myself in the mail room, helping to manage the sea of business-critical documents flowing in and out of our head office. The complex network of processes and organisational practices that need to be carefully managed each day so that I see the documents I need to see, when I see them was surprising, and I was ready to be surprised. Needless to say, it was with a sigh of relief when I returned to the more familiar stress of my own office the next day.

The working environment and company culture in any business is based on more than just material gain. No one would deny that salary and mainstream employee benefits play an important role, but there are also a number of non-material things businesses can do to improve the atmosphere and the loyalty of their team members. This, for me, starts with ensuring that everyone feels valued and respected not just by senior management, but by everyone they work with, at whatever level.

A tight-knit community

The industry in which our company operates offers a perfect example of why taking such an approach is so important. We’re blessed to have a relatively small industry with a tight-knit community. While this makes it a great industry to work in, it also increases the opportunities for star employees to be tempted away to other firms, and you can be sure that your competitors will try. It pays in this situation to remember that the boss is only as good as the team he or she works in. The relationships within that team should be based on trust, honesty and an appreciation for the work that the other team members do. When these pieces fall into place, the whole really will be greater than the sum of its parts and the pride generated by the resulting success is among the most powerful sources of employee loyalty.

It is particularly easy, with the wide array of employee benefits on offer in the modern HR marketplace, to take a corporate view on employee loyalty, and use metrics to define which benefits are most cost effective for the attraction and retention of staff. Employees do look for these kind of add-ons to their working life, and even expect them, but I don’t believe them to be the source of a strong, resilient team because they don’t fundamentally distinguish you from any other aggregate consumer of commercial HR products and services. It’s actually the small, personal initiatives to which employees attach emotional value that makes you stand out from the crowd. It could be the work swap days, it could be the surprise weekend away for a birthday after a particularly hard fought project, but it has to be personal. This approach demonstrates a genuine desire to improve the working lives of your staff and it’s the genuine nature of it that is so important. Put simply: loyalty must be earned, not calculated.

What I am extolling isn’t revolutionary, but I think it is something that is easy for businesses to lose sight of as they grow. Little gimmicks like swapping jobs for one day each year can be invaluable for allowing businesses to refocus on their most valuable assets, and to let those assets have a little fun at the same time.

Tracy Ewen is managing director of IGF

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