Job Swapping as a Development Tool

John Dodds takes a look at how job swapping can be a valuable and effective personal development tool


Down time is learning time

“The changing of the seasons is sometimes viewed as an opportunity for assessment, appraisal and reflection upon one’s situation both in work and upon life as a whole.

In previous times summer was the quarter when work patterns were disturbed by closure, maintenance, mandatory and voluntary holidays, invasions of students seeking vacation employment, part-time working and diminished output. The more progressive organisations and pioneering managers saw it as an opportunity for personal development.

Development not courses

By personal development, I don’t mean courses! For many the month of August was viewed as a complete “no – no”, where courses would be considered with as much excitement as avian ‘flu or the rising cost of oil! Personal development frequently took the form of shadowing or even “job swaps”…for a day, a few days or a few weeks. It was an opportunity for the more senior to appreciate the challenge, frustrations and pressures experienced and endured by those on the front line – encountering live bullets fired by customers.

I would like to take you down memory lane – for those with long memories. Conversely, if time is on your side, I would like to share some personal experiences and highlight some of the benefits that can be gained from the re-introduction of a particular approach to personal development.

Coronation Street

Viewers of Coronation Street will know that Ken Barlow is a pillar of the community. A learned and respected stalwart. A teacher whose academic prowess, and sharp literary mind is acknowledged. In many ways he mirrors the traditional manager of past generations – aloof, remote, insular, a bit out of touch and unaware of the trivia that can trip up the ordinary working person. His comeupance came when he took a part-time job at the local supermarket and became a humble trolley pusher.

Trolleys aren’t like people – they are cold, inanimate objects without feelings and as such are unable to make conversation. They squeak and groan their way though the day, covering huge distances. They are sworn at, cursed, rained on, spilled in, bashed and bruised and left out at night to suffer the extremes of our climate. Not really a million miles from how some of us have treated our colleagues at work?!

Trolley management

My period of “trolley management” started not in the warmth of summer but in the deep chill of winter. On the first damp, freezing, windblasting morning I quickly established that my high visibility (to myself rather than to others) waterproof coat certainly was not showerproof, let alone waterproof! The industrial safely boots were lethal, the treads skimming the oily surface turning me into a third rate impressionist of an ice skater. No matter how many pairs of gloves I wore my hand temperature never increased to beyond frostbite level.

As a trolley pusher you join the ranks of the great invisible. Drivers aim at you, customers blaspheme as you get in their way as you fight like a ring master to discipline your line of charging, menacing trolleys. On really diabolical days, the trolleys gain their revenge and freewheel in the wind before crashing like waves on a beach into the innocently parked innocuous customers’ cars.

But was there much to learn about customer contact and personnel management in this role that could be transferred to my real job as a Manager?

Additional responsibilities

My second key responibility area within trolley management was to act as “guardian of the protected parking places”.

In most major supermarkets special zones have been established for parents and guardians with children and visitors with disabilities. In general these places are in highly sort after positions really close to the main entrance.

Lacking the authortiy of a traffic warden or the power of the parking attendant it can be challenging to encourage those parked illegally to move on, and indeed persuasive conversation can move in a matter of seconds towards intense confrontation.

None of my courses had prepared me to handle the sheer volume of abuse nor be able to respond in a credible manner to the acidic and physically impossible recommendations that were made to me! (Perhaps my ability to inspire, motivate and persuade my own team are not quite as effective as I thought?!)

Here to help

Trolley managers are there to help.

A struggling Mum will sometimes appreciate assistance when unloading , particuarly if she has a shrieking child and a barking dog in the car, a whining baby in her arms, an elderly relative criticising every move, purchases precariously balanced and a trolley with a burning desire to go for a stroll further down the car park.

It’s an opportunity for you to use your interpersonal skills – having first established that despite or in spite of your high visibility jacket stamped with the name of the organisation in huge print and your badge indicating that you are “here to help”, you are neither a child molesterer nor the serial supermarker stalker.

A generally less risky action is to offer to return the empty trolley to its bay – thus helping the user to avoid the additional trauma of having to leave a child unattended in the car.

Little things mean a lot

It’s the little things that mean a lot – retail is detail – the joy of “de-crapping” (a technical term) trolleys after customers have used them i.e. removing apple cores, empty pop bottles, security tags,packaging, plastic bags, nappies and worse. (So much for my impractical knowledge of health and safety)

New skills

On a bright, sunny summer day it is easy to be jealous of the trolley adonises/ adonisi, ambling around, building up their sun tan, enjoying the fresh air. But this totally discounts the massive physical demands of the role.

If you have spent a lifetime virtually nailed to the desk or resticted to the limited confines of your open plan office, the vast plains of the supermarker car park quickly feel like the challenge of the London Marathon.

You have to acquire the noble art of attaching, strapping, steering and pushing a line of bucking trolleys without allowing them to take bites out of the parked cars en route.

Moan zone learning

The third role, if you are up for a real challenge is to manage <strong>“the moan zone”.</strong> That is the area close to the supermarket entrance where the trolleys lurk ready for action. Conversely, on a really busy day you will find no trolleys in the bay – a situation that causes customers to break into mild or extreme hysteria.

But what really annoys customers are trolleys with wet handles!

The massive rolls of paper towelling either fail to absorb the damp or run out at the critical moment. What every customer needs and needs now is a dry trolley!!! Where from?

They don’t care! It has been raining non stop throughout the last few weeks, so all of the trolleys are wringing wet.

So what does the customer demand – they request, in a louder voice, because you are obviously deaf and stupid (if you had more than one brain cell you wouldn’t be doing this invisible job), a dry trolley……but it’s two years since I did that course on Conflict Resolution and I’ve forgotten the principles!!!

Back to the floor

There is just so much learning that comes from going back to the floor , the sharp end – appreciating that memory is selective and that we do get ring rusty and forgetful.

Boring but essential jobs

Job swaps at other stages of my work career have proved equally valuable.

I once had the responsibility for gluing cardboard boxes together.

Highly skilled, precise work involving adding glue along the horizontal and vertical plains of the base of the box in the correct quantity. The real skill lay in placing four house bricks in precisely the right positions to ensure that the glue did its job successfully.

It was numbingly boring work. But there was a catch. Later in the day, you would be carrying these individual boxes laiden with heavy groceries to the back door – never the front door of the customer’s home.

An unglued cardboard box was not something you wished to encounter too often! So the principle of continuous improvement, kaizen, get it right first time is not as new a concept as some might imagine.

Worth doing!

I really advocate the benefits of temporary “job swaps”.

Take off those rose tinted glasses. Get out there in the front line and see the world afresh – as it really is.

Refresh those latent skills, build bridges between work colleagues, show genuine appreciation of the contribution of others in managing and resolving difficult situations.

Live, learn, grow and become an even better Manager in the process.

John Dodds

Learning and Development Consultant

John Dodds takes a look at how job swapping is not only about doing something different, but can when managed correctly become a valuable and effective personal development tool

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