I am not a huge follower of reality TV, though I am a fan of Oprah’s. I sat down to watch an Oprah episode a couple of weeks ago, and she was talking about the new reality series, Undercover Boss. I almost turned it off, but I’m glad my kids stopped me. Highlights from the series offered surprisingly important insights. I was struck by the fortuitous relevance of the show as we make our way through this post-recession, pre-recovery period of uncertainty.
The interactions between the employees and their “undercover boss” showcased the sometimes painful disconnection between the work+life reality employees actually experience and what senior leader know or intend. I decided to tune in when the series debuted following the Super Bowl, and wasn’t disappointed.
In the first episode, Larry O’Donnell, President & COO of Waste Management, goes undercover and poses as new front-line worker in different divisions of his organization. Obviously, reality television is contrived by the sheer presence of a camera, but perhaps the followings insights from the show will spark reflection. Specifically, what’s really happening on the line everyday and what needs to change so that employees and employers benefit. Here are my takeaways:
American employees work hard…very hard. Often in difficult circumstances. Productivity grew by 9.5% in the third quarter of 2009, the largest gain in 30 years. But unit labor costs fell 3.6% in that same period, the largest decrease since 1948. What this means is that in the second half of 2009, employees produced more work in fewer hours and made less money.
Undercover Boss gives you a sense of what that really looks like. Whether sorting through a rapidly moving recycling conveyor belt, cleaning 15 port-a-johns in a day, or doing four different office management tasks at the same time, people are working very hard . And they are often doing it while managing some sort of chronic illness. In most cases, O’Donnell couldn’t complete the difficult tasks his employees had mastered. He was visibly surprised and humbled, as he should have been.
Small adjustments in work+life fit reality make a big difference. So often we talk about the big, transformational changes we need to make to improve the way we work and live. But as the undercover boss learned firsthand, tiny, easy, low-cost adjustments can do enormous good. There were two small fixes identified by O’Donnell that would make a huge difference to the work+life fit reality of workers.
First, when he rode in the residential sanitation truck with a female driver, O’Donnell was shocked to learn that she goes to the bathroom in a can because there isn’t enough time for a bathroom stop. At the end of the show, he’d committed to fixing that.
Second, when a worker in the recycling plant panicked and ran to make sure she didn’t clock back in even a minute late from lunch, he was appalled. He knew this wasn’t the corporate policy, and made sure that rule was reexamined.
Yes, these two small changes, if completed, will have a big impact in terms of morale, commitment, engagement, and lower stress, but chances are they are not isolated. O’Donnell needs to make identifying and fixing similar work+life fit related issues an ongoing priority. They may seem insignificant from the executive suite and are easy to pass over and ignore. Don’t.
Involve line level employees in the creating the solutions. What sounds like a great idea to fix a problem from 30,000 feet up at corporate headquarters may not make any sense on the ground. I was glad to see that O’Donnell engaged the employees in resolving the issues he observed. Whether determining when or how to build a bathroom break into the truck route, or how to motivate the people who clean the port-a-johns, he asked the individual employees to participate in the problem solving process. As a result, there’s a greater likelihood the solutions will work.
Attitude is Makes a Difference. There is no doubt that times are tough today, but attitude goes a long way in determining how we feel about the way work fits into our lives. While I am sure the employees profiled adapted their behavior for the camera, they exhibited positive attitudes in often difficult work circumstances. You could tell that they consciously thought about how they approached their jobs. For example:
- A man laughs and smiles and describes his job cleaning 15 port-a-johns a day, “an adventure.”
- A young female cancer survivor takes pride in juggling the responsibilities of one office and three generations of her family alone.
- The garbage truck driver makes sure to stop and visit with her customers, one of whom is handicapped, along her route, and
- The proud landfill supervisor marches tirelessly up and down the hills of garbage even though he is on dialysis three nights a week.
The influence of film crews aside, undercover boss O”Donnell was visibly moved by the integrity and dedication of these individuals. Their attitude offers an object lesson for us all, but you have to wonder how long they can keep it up. In fact, it turns out the gentleman who cleaned the port-a-johns with a smile had left the company for another job by the time the show aired.
The series continues for the next few weeks. I will keep watching and sharing any new insights. Although engineered to make the CEO look like a good guy, it’s fascinating to watch the leader become follower, and the followers become powerful teachers. Have you been watching Undercover Boss? What’s your reaction?