How Shadowing Coworkers Can Make You Better At Your Job

Spending a day in the life of someone in a different department can change the way you approach every aspect of your job.

Have you ever wondered what exactly it is your coworkers do all day?

Work4, a social recruiting company, discovered the key to making employees more productive and improving communication between departments was to answer this question.

Their inter-department employee exchange program called “Live My Life” allows anyone in any position, including interns, to spend one day learning the job of a coworker in another area of the company. The idea is that job shadowers will become familiar with the processes, demands, and challenges of coworkers’ jobs, which will help make working relationships more efficient and provide a more holistic understanding among employees about the operations of the company.

The View From A Different Desk

Senior manager of customer success Patricia Sheppard recently spent a day working in the marketing department and says learning about marketing process helped her to put her job into context. “I live the day-to-day about what our products mean to our clients,” she says. Witnessing how the marketing department strategized several months to a year in advance helped her to see where the company was going and changed how she communicates with clients. “It has broadened my scope in terms of what I do [on a daily basis],” she says.

Prior to participating in the “Live My Life” program, Sheppard hadn’t interacted much with the marketing team. “We were very independent,” she admits. Spending a day walking in the shoes of her marketing coworkers helped foster a deeper respect for her colleagues. She suddenly realized putting together a webinar, for example, was 20 to 30 hours of work.

Sheppard also spent a day working with the product team and had the opportunity to learn the steps of making a tool mobile compatible. “I didn’t realize how many steps were involved in this,” she laughs. While she’d previously thought taking an existing tool and making it mobile-compatible, a request she’d made in the past, was simply a flip of a switch, working with the team on this project gave her a better appreciation of what they go through to fulfill such requests.

“It taught me to be much more collaborative,” she says. “That when I make a request, to really think through what are the next steps. It also helped me communicate better knowing what the process looks like.”

All of Work4’s 60 employees have participated in at least one rotation since the program began in March 2013 and CEO Stephane Le Viet says approximately 75% of part-time employees and interns have participated.

Giving It A goal But No Limits

There are no limitations on who an employee can shadow. Someone in customer service can spend a day in IT and employees are even invited to shadow the CEO. “Anyone can find something that they want to experience,” says Le Viet. The goal of the program is not to drive employees into a particular area, but allow them to choose what is of personal interest. “[We don’t say] because you work in sales, it’s important for you to learn marketing, so we’ll put you in marketing,” says Le Viet. “[The request] really has to come from the employee.”

Work4’s program goes one step farther than simply shadowing a coworker. Participants are asked to define a one-day project that they will work on with the team of their choice. “We didn’t want the team [being shadowed] to feel it was a drag, or a waste of their time and we didn’t want the employee to feel that they were just shadowing,” says Le Viet. Having a goal and structure to the day allows employees to really dive in and feel like they’re part of the team, rather than just an observer.

Upon completion of their day-in-the-life, employees complete a short report describing what they learned and what ideas they will bring back to their own team. Once a month, an email is circulated to the entire team with a summary of these experiences so everyone can have an opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences. “It really allows employees to understand what we do as an organization but it also helps them understand their own jobs better and gives a lot of perspective,” says Le Viet.

Having the opportunity to work with other teams allows employees to step out of their normal daily routine and understand how their work fits in with the broader company vision. But beyond facilitating a broader understanding, Le Viet says the “Live My Life” program has immensely improved morale, camaraderie, and communication within the company. “Being able to talk to other people, work with other people other than your own team really helps to create more interaction across the company and helps people be more effective [in their own jobs]; to know who to reach out to [on other teams to get things done] and how to take more initiative,” says Le Viet.

The “Live My Life” program also allows employees to explore career opportunities. After spending a day in a new department, some employees have found a new niche. “The fact that the program exists is a signal to the team that we will move you around if you want to,” says Le Viet. In fact, Work4’s former office manager is now the marketing manager.

She began working for the marketing team after a “Live My Life” day in the marketing department. Le Viet’s current assistant recently did a “Live My Life” in the customer service team and has now decided to move to that team. “Having people grow within a company is the single best thing that can happen within an organization. It creates a cohesive culture. If you want to do this, there will be no [more effective way] than having people switch around departments,” says Le Viet.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Geiregger]

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