My first office job was at a family-owned publishing company in Boston. The owners believed that it was a good idea for everyone who worked there to appreciate one another’s contributions, so they arranged for an annual job-swapping day. Shipping clerks answered the incoming sales calls, executives packed books in boxes, and customer service representatives proofed the latest editorial changes in the medical, banking and legal texts that we published.
Of course, not all the jobs could be swapped out. The white-gloved technicians who operated the mainframe computer stayed in their hermetically sealed, climate-controlled sanctum sanctorum feeding punched cards to the gigantic, whirring technological wonder that rewarded them with yard-high reports printed on continuous paper by a dot matrix printer. For those under 50, the strange terms used in that last sentence, such as “punched cards” and “dot matrix,” probably seem more archaic than the Latin phrase. Hey, look at my picture. Yes, I am THAT old.
More recently, Habitat’s ReStore director hatched a plan to do some team-building by having his staff spend a day working on our construction sites, and the Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity Trading Places Day was born. On the morning of August 27, the staff involved in the retail part of our operations reported bright and early to two construction sites in Old East Wilmington. They spent the morning laying the sub-flooring for one house and putting up wall sheathing and sealing windows on the other. Once everyone got the hang of hitting the metal nails and not the nails on the ends of their thumbs, it went quite smoothly. After lunch, they came to the administrative offices and spent the afternoon engaging in professional development.
That left two stores that needed to be run. So the administrative staff took over as cashiers, donation receivers, shelf-stockers and baggers. We were joined in the afternoon by the building staff, which led to the existential question: “How many construction supervisors does it take to figure how to put together a large, odd pile of finely crafted wood pieces.” The answer turned out to be: “All of them – and then some.”
There was no hardware and no description of what the item had been before it was donated to us, disassembled. It included what looked like narrow book shelves with electrically-operated sliding doors, several six-foot long planks, a four-by-seven foot piece of asymmetrical latticework, a long box with mysterious holes and wires, and two large drawers. After much debate, several Google searches on part numbers, and much head-scratching, the puzzle was solved: it was a platform bed that had a headboard with concealed bookshelves.
I feel obliged to mention that one of the volunteers at the Restore had declared, “It’s a bed!” on first glance and had been pooh-poohed by the construction professionals (and me). I am sure that her ability to find the simple answer hidden by seeming complexity will serve her well in her future Peace Corps assignment.
At the end of the day, everyone agreed that it had been fun and informative to trade places. There was plenty of clowning around (literally, in the case of one staff member who greeted customers in a clown suit that had been donated to the ReStore), but a lot of essential work got done, too. ReStore workers gained an appreciation for the efforts of construction staff and volunteers.
Administrative staff better understood the challenges faced by our colleagues and volunteers who keep the ReStores humming. Like taking a trip to a new land, it was fun, informative and exhilarating. It also felt great the next day to “return home” and take up our familiar tasks – with a greatly enhanced appreciation for how the whole organization operates.
I highly recommend Trading Places Day to other organizations. It is a great way to instill pride and a sense of teamwork in your staff. It also brings to bear new perspectives on “standard practices” that can lead to improvements in how you manage your organization. Of course, it’s not appropriate for everyone. It may be problematic for the Brunswick Nuclear Plant, for example.
If you don’t think Trading Places Day is right for your company but still want to get the benefits of team-building and new perspectives, I can arrange for you to have an enlightening volunteer day at the ReStores or one of our construction sites. Just give me a call.
Steve Spain is the Executive Director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. Over the last 25 years, CFHFH has provided first-time homeownership opportunities to more than 150 families and currently builds a dozen new houses a year. To explore volunteer or sponsorship opportunities or to learn more about Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity’s programs, visit www.capefearhabitat.org. Contact Mr. Spain at [email protected]. Like CFHFH on Facebook: www.facebook.com/capefearhabitat.
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