American television networks pump out reality shows on all sorts of weird and wonderful topics. Who knew, for example, that it was possible to produce an entire series about men making gigantic fish tanks, or women with extreme couponing habits whose mission is to shop for free?
One of the more engaging of the species is Undercover Boss, where unsuspecting employees spend a week working alongside the company’s top brass. Invariably, they end up spilling the beans about the organisation’s shortcomings, and the chastened boss vows to make amends. The feelgood bit is that employees are rewarded for their candour, usually with a few tears on both sides.
Management at Cork and Dublin airports don't go that far, but they do participate in the Walk in My Shoes initiative, introduced by new DAA chief executive Dalton Philips. Under the initiative, all senior managers work a shift a month alongside frontline colleagues. These shifts are in a wide mix of roles, from security and retail to airport police, duty management and the fire service.
"It's a great opportunity for managers not only to see the realities, challenges and opportunities at the coalface but also to engage directly with our colleagues from different departments and to build trusted relationships," says Kevin Cullinane, head of communications at Cork Airport.
“Very often, organisations find themselves in the predicament where a vision and mission are in place and desired values identified and agreed upon, yet a disconnect remains between the leadership and staff.
“Walk in My Shoes is a practical way to bridge this gap. It allows us to remain engaged with the people and processes at the heart of our airport.”
Falling out of bed
Cork Airport’s managing director, Niall McCarthy, says he wasn’t aware of just how tough shiftwork can be until he found himself falling out of bed at 3am for a 4am start in security.
“You have to leave everything ready from the night before because time is so precious. You don’t feel like breakfast and your body just doesn’t want to be up at that time,” he says.
I realised just how important breaks are to people, so we upgraded the rooms and introduced more comfortable furniture
Managers dress the same as everyone else when they’re on shift, and McCarthy says he learnt a thing or two about how well the uniforms fit. He also discovered the condition of some of the airport’s break rooms left something to be desired.
“I realised just how important breaks are to people, so we upgraded the rooms and introduced more comfortable furniture. Belt buckles going off at security are a pain point, so we have changed them and we’re introducing new gloves to improve protection and get rid of the latex ones because a lot of people don’t like them.”
Walk in My Shoes also pointed up a number of small but significant issues that really bugged staff. These included poor temperature control in the building and not being able to see security screens when the sun was shining. Monitored thermostats have since been installed, as has anti-glare film.
“You don’t have time to chat to people when you’re on a shift as it’s flat out until you get the first batch of early morning flights away, but there’s a pause around 7am for breakfast and it’s then you get the feedback,” McCarthy says. “Housekeeping issues can really annoy people and are often easily addressed, but you need to know what they are. These are the things you pick up from first-hand experience and listening to people talking.
“I think it’s all too easy to lose touch with staff and customers and this helps you to understand the issues and experiences from both sides.”
Job shadowing is a well-established way of providing employees and managers with much better insights into the organisation they work for or run, and it can cut both ways – managers shadowing staff and staff shadowing managers.
Initially, most people were apprehensive about the initiative, but I think it's been very positive
It also allows people to experience the reality of a job description and the accompanying working conditions. Niall McCarthy says he had no idea how tired your feet can get in safety shoes until he had to wear them, while dealing with stroppy passengers made him aware that staff needed a quiet space where they could switch off during their breaks.
Shadowing also builds stronger interpersonal relationships and helps organisations to pull together more as a team.
Reena Moloney is part of the search unit at Cork Airport and has worked alongside McCarthy on passenger security shifts.
“Initially, most people were apprehensive about the initiative, and not everybody likes it, but I think it’s been very positive,” says Moloney, who has worked at the airport for 15 years. “It has made a difference at a very practical level and improved things such as cleanliness in certain areas, provided us with more space to hang our wet clothes and tackled the issue of our area either being too hot or too cold.”
Having worked with McCarthy, Moloney says she would now have no hesitation in approaching him to raise an issue. “I have spoken to him about things and he has listened and made changes happen – and very quickly where possible,” she says. “There can be lots of challenges when you’re dealing with people going on flights who may not be complying with the rules on liquids, for example. I’ve seen Niall having to deal with this on his shift, so he’s very aware now of what we face on a daily basis.”