Bobby Harris, CEO of BlueGrace Logistics was sitting in a meeting with the company's other executives when it hit him: "We were discussing suggestions about changes in the workplace and we didn't know how these changes would affect the people working for us."
The shipping franchise company had been growing rapidly, expanding both in locations and in staff, and its leadership was beginning to get out of touch. So Harris took a radical approach to opening up lines of communication: He traded his office with the company's IT maintenance guy, and asked the other executives to do likewise.
Like many companies, BlueGrace's headquarters is laid out with offices along the perimeter of its space, occupied by its executives, and cubicles for everyone else in the middle. Eleven of the 13 employees who had offices traded places with someone who didn't for a minimum of two weeks. (The exceptions were the CFO and legal counsel, because their jobs required them to keep some information confidential.)
The move was hugely educational. Harris learned many things including, the fact that one side of the office was consistently too cold and the need to shift some staff to later hours to handle the growing volume of calls from customers in Mountain and Pacific time zones. He also discovered that BlueGrace's vacation policy wasn't sufficient. "One thing that made a big impact was seeing people who needed a day off here or there because of a sick child or other problem. I thought we had a good vacation policy but I saw that people were struggling. So I gave everyone in the company an extra five personal days."
Most important, he says, was "learning about the people themselves--what makes them tick, what they're excited about." With Harris out among the cubicle for weeks, BlueGrace employees talked to him more openly than they ever had before. "A lot of people say they have an 'open door' policy, but you can't just say that and expect people to walk in. You have to really invite people in," he says.
Thinking of doing your own temporary desk swap? Here's how to make sure it's a success:
1. Start with specific goals.
That's a better approach than just moving desks to see what happens, Harris says. His goals were to learn more about the company's evolving sales process, bond with as many new employees as possible, and encourage people to use social media as a way to get the word out about BlueGrace.
2. Make sure to give away your own office.
Otherwise, Harris says, it will be too tempting to drift back into your office if you need to make a private phone call, and wind up hanging around after it's over. If someone else is in there, though, that won't be an option.
And, Harris says, don't move or lock up files or other sensitive data. "You create a bond with someone if you trust that person in your space," he says.
3. Spread out.
At BlueGrace, executives were careful to sit well away from each other, and among the company's newer employees. Some also swapped desks with employees in the company's second office, to make sure to connect with those employees as well.
4. Keep it going.
Once the initial two weeks were over, some executives, including Harris, extended their non-office stays, and they've continued spending 30 to 40 percent of their time out in the cubicles, Harris says. Executives also make sure to spend lots of time at the second location as well.
"Don't do it once and then forget about it, set up a process where you can do it regularly." After all, he adds, "Staying behind closed a closed door is so 1980s. It's the kind of thing a dying company would do."