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Sir Brendan Barber: 'Going walkabout'

Friday 23 October 2015

Sir Brendan Barber discusses how listening, reflecting and interacting with staff helps senior management reinforce a sense of integrity in the workplace.

Sir Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is Acas' Chair, joining in January 2014. Previously Sir Brendan was the TUC General Secretary (2003 to 2012) and sat on the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Council (1995 to 2004). Sir Brendan was knighted in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to employment relations.

Acas Chair Brendan Barber blog

A recent Acas case study 'pdf icon Keeping a check on conflict: a case study in improving people management systems [157kb]' describes how our advisers helped a large private sector organisation improve people management skills. YPO (Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation) provides services and equipment to the public sector and, typically for a growing company, the skills of line managers were not always keeping pace with the changing structure and personnel.

Acas worked with staff at YPO to provide tailored training to managers, including training in mediation, and to improve communication channels. One communication initiative that struck a chord with me was the commitment for the board at YPO to carry out a 'director's walkabout' on a weekly basis.

'Not being visible enough' is a criticism that is often thrown at senior management. The last Workplace Employment Relations Study tells us that this invisibility may partly be a result of the growing reliance by managers on communicating via email (up from 35% in 2004 to 49% in 2011).

Looking back over the past twenty years, one of the great changes in the modern workplace has been in the way the working day is structured. For many of us, much of the day is taken up in meetings, and then time at our desks is often structured around emails.

This is one of the things driving many companies to re-evaluate how they communicate - and walking the floor is certainly one way of reconnecting with people. As I write this I am sitting in a large open plan office with Acas colleagues from many different disciplines: working in communications, policy, HR and operations. If I walk from my desk to get a glass of water or cup of tea I am technically going on 'walkabout'.

The theory of being seen and giving staff the opportunity for informal interaction with their leaders is sound. It helps reinforce a sense of integrity. Skilled line mangers is one of Acas' 'seven levers of productivity' and one of our key markers of a skilled managers (of what ever level) is the ability to handle difficult conversations. But I would argue that a skilled manager should also have the ability to manage 'easy conversations'.

On the surface, talking about football results or the weather may not seem very productive but, as the recent interest with emotional intelligence will tell you, there is an awful lot you can learn about yourself and about other people (and the way they work) through observing behaviour and reflecting on our interactions.

From my understanding of emotional intelligence, one of its key attributes is that it informs the way we learn, for as we all know, learning is largely about listening and reflecting. This poses some interesting questions. In all spheres of our lives, we see great benefits associated with digitalisation, particularly in communication and service provision. But how does new technology mesh with one to one contact?

Developing a greater understanding of the value of emotional intelligence is something Acas is currently researching. But interacting directly with people, 'walking the floor', will arguably provide us with our richest source of evidence.

'Skilled line managers' is one of Acas' 'seven levers of productivity'.

Read other blogs in our productivity series

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