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Hey, Boss — Time to Ditch the Corner Office

Tuesday, 31 Jul 2012 | 2:30 PM ET

There is a palpable anxiety in Officeville these days. Just when everyone thought it was safe to come out from their hiding place under their cubicle when the recession was officially declared over — BAM! Europe started to shake and companies hunkered down.

Fiona Jackson-Downes | Cultura | Getty Images

Any idea what that does to morale?

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain good morale and productivity, and keep employees engaged in their jobs, throughout the recession and the past three years of the stalled recovery. Employers are again managing what had been employees' rising expectations and are now dealing with confronting rumors of layoffs and cutbacks and rising concerns about job security," said Annie Stevens, managing partner at executive-coaching firm ClearRock .

So, if you’re the boss, what’s your first move to lower the collective heart rate of the office?

Stevens says the answer is an oldie but a goodie — “Management by Walking Around,” which is credited to Bill Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett-Packard. It’s a technique that’s been used by many Fortune 500 companies and was a favorite of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Email and mobile devices have been great for keeping businesses connected, but they’ve had a bad side effect — a sharp drop in face-to-face communications. And when a company is going through tough times, that’s when employees and bosses alike need that face time the most.

“When you have periods of high change, you want to increase your interaction with people — not decrease,” said Marie McIntyre, a career coach and the author of “ Secrets to Winning at Office Politics .”

For the boss, it creates a “listening post,” which helps you really understand what’s going on, McIntyre said. “These are the people who are delivering the services, making the products and interacting with customers,” she said. “I’ve seen far too many managers who get totally out of touch with their business.”

And for employees, it can be a huge motivator — and calming factor.

“Right now, many may be feeling trapped in their job … and if they never see the boss or CEO, they just wind up feeling like widget performing a task — not important,” McIntyre said. “For those people, a visit by the boss can make them feel valued and important — something that will motivate them.”

And it’s not just the supervisor who should be getting up and walking around. McIntyre says everyone from the supervisor on up to the CEO should be periodically getting up and walking around and interacting with employees.

ClearRock offers the following tips for Management by Walking Around (MBWA):

Do it yourself.Don’t bring an entourage.

Don’t announce it in advance.That will help keep the interaction the most natural and effective. And when you’re walking around, always say “hi” and smile at people — otherwise you may come off as standoffish.

Come with a few questions.Remember, the boss makes a lot of people nervous and many may get flustered and not know what to say. Ask simple questions like, “What is your hottest selling item?” or “What are you hearing from customers these days?”

Follow up.One super easy way to kill the positive impact of walking around is to act interested and then not follow up! Make a note to follow up with employees if there was a question you didn’t know the answer to at that moment; or you can even ask the employee to send you an email to remind you.

Recognize and reward good behavior.If you don’t have money for a financial reward, praising the employee or even offering a certificate of recognition can go a long way.

Don’t criticize!This is perhaps the fastest way to kill any walking around goodwill. If you see someone not performing up to task or something you don’t like, make a mental note and take it up with the employee or the employee's supervisor at a later date.

If you forget all of that, remember this:

“Don’t go out there and act like an insensitive jerk!” McIntyre said. “There are some managers I’ve seen who would be better off staying in their office!”

Well, actually, she says, that’s not the answer — the answer is to get good training from your HR manager (or, of course, an office coach!) to make sure you know how to handle it.

One manager she recalls said he had heard of MBWA and consciously chose not to do it anymore. He said, “Every time I go out there, I come back with a list of problems.”

“I said, ‘That’s the reason you go out there!’” McIntyre said. “If you can fix those problems, people will love you. If not, you’ll hear about them eventually!”

Especially at a time like this, when the economy is are tough and worries about job security are high, you should expect more questions — and maybe even some anger.

“If people get mad or upset, you need to stay calm. You need to empathize with the person,” McIntyre said. “The worst thing you can do is to get mad back!”

“At the end of the day, a lot of people just want to know that you’re listening,” she said.

In the words of Dr. Frasier Crane , “Go ahead, caller. I’m listening.”

A word to the wise: Michael Scott on the meaning of the word "boss":

Cindy Perman
Cindy PermanCNBC.com Commentary Editor
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