UK: Back to the floor.

UK: Back to the floor. - Front line workers are getting the chance to see the boss do their jobs as the TV series Back to the Floor returns to BBC2.

by Hugh Dehn.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Front line workers are getting the chance to see the boss do their jobs as the TV series Back to the Floor returns to BBC2.

Can you imagine the fabulously wealthy boss of Berkeley Homes flashing rear cleavage in true builders' fashion as he finishes some paving before a buyer arrives? Or the managing director of Butlin's, in a Redcoat's uniform, charging into the staff kitchen to complain about the meal he has just been served? Or a director of Pickford's, up a ladder, manhandling a settee out of a window? Or the chief constable of Sussex, back on the beat, kicking in a suspect's door?

Well, you don't have to imagine it. You will be able to see it for real with the return of the BBC2 series Back to the Floor, which has just won the Royal Television Society Award for Best Feature Series - and is making serious waves in the business world.

Most bosses are concerned with climbing to the top of the ladder and remaining there. Our job at Back to the Floor is to persuade them to do the opposite - go back down to the bottom rung and stay there for a week.

Added to that, we have to get them to agree to leave their support systems behind and be willing to risk a lot more than their dignity.

Twelve bosses have completed the course and, as far as we know, not one has regretted it - despite each film revealing flaws in their organisations that often necessitated considerable restructuring or improvements.

In fact virtually all of the bosses now positively advocate the system.

So much so that four months after filming had finished, when I needed to talk to Tony Marshall, the new managing director of Butlin's, about this article, I found him quite by chance back at the coalface, spending three days working as a trainee operator in Butlin's call centre. Marshall, who is midway through spending a £140 million to revitalise Butlin's, says: 'We take up to 7,000 calls a day here. It is the first point of call for the customer and, by listening in and talking to the staff, I can find out the difficulties that both experience. It is vital we get it right here.'

Nothing could have delighted me more. This TV series is working for real.

It is not a publicity stunt. There were a few bosses, however, who, during pre-filming discussions, quickly lost interest when it was explained they would actually have to do the job.

That was not a problem with Marshall. The last time we had filmed Marshall, he had just returned to head office after a frenetic Bank Holiday weekend working as a Redcoat at Butlin's biggest centre, Minehead in Somerset.

The image is etched firmly in my memory. At first everyone had been joking - the boss has been a Redcoat, ha ha ha. But within minutes of the meeting starting, there wasn't a smile to be seen.

Marshall, who took the entire two-and-a-half-hour debrief standing, told them they were all going back to the floor. One executive was told in no uncertain terms where he was going to work: customer services.

'I have been in there,' said Marshall, 'and I was up to my neck in guano.

It has got to be the furnace of the centre. It was absolutely bloody hell in there.'

And it was. With no proper computer support systems, and only two telephone lines, it took the team an average of 20 minutes to deal with each complaint - and, as Marshall discovered, the longer it took, the angrier the customers became. That day 8,000 guests had checked in, and while Marshall was in customer services there were only 32 complaints. But the lack of resources, and the time that it took to sort them out, created an air of Dickensian chaos. Back at HQ, Marshall continued to spell it out: 'They are working as best they can - by hand. Why haven't we got an IT system for it?'

'I don't know,' replied a hapless executive, 'but I shall find out.

And I'm going to go and spend some time down there and experience it at first hand.'

It was TV magic. But why hadn't the executive gone down there sooner?

Why hadn't he known? Or had he?

One thing that becomes clear after a number of these programmes is that, time after time, middle management paints the boss a picture that is rosier than reality.

Marshall, who is now spending £1.5 million on a new computerised reservations system, also sent his senior IT people down to Minehead Customer Services to work with the team and find out what the team needed to do the job effectively and efficiently.

'The one thing you really learn from going back to the floor,' says Marshall, 'is that you only know half as much as you think you knew about the shopfloor.

You also earn the respect of the staff, if you are prepared to go and really work with them and share their burdens. But you have to make the staff relax and persuade them that you are not there spying, and that you genuinely want to learn.

'If you can do that, they start telling you things - how to improve things - and that is great.'

Marshall, 53, found the perfect way to win his staff over when he agreed to appear on stage in a glitzy Redcoat show. He had spent his career working his way up through the nightclub business, but the last time he had been on stage was as a DJ more than 30 years earlier. He was terrified, which became apparent to the Redcoats during rehearsals. His openness won their respect, plus the fact he stayed in their very basic staff accommodations, sleeping in one of the aptly named 'fish-finger' beds.

Just before he went on stage, feeling sick with nerves, he confessed he was more frightened than when he had gone before Rank's main board to ask for £140 million to sort out Butlin's.

'I've been trained for that. I haven't been trained for this,' he stammered.

He won our respect, too.

The next boss we filmed for the forthcoming series hadn't been hired from the outside. It was his company, his baby. Yet, once at the coalface, he too found a number of surprises.

Tony Pidgley, the boss of Berkeley Homes, is a very wealthy man. He is a legend in the City of London as the man who sold all his property in 1988 and bought it all back in 1991. In a classic rags-to-riches story, he was adopted as a boy by travellers and spent his childhood roaming the country in a caravan. Yet he has made his fortune from stationary bricks and mortar.

He started Berkeley in 1976 and is intensely proud of it. He agreed to go back to the floor as a site manager on his flagship development, Harrods Village in south west London. Pidgley is a fabulous character and a film about him was screaming to be made. When, over a very boozy dinner, we told him that it was vital for the success of the project that we worked as a close team, he suggested moving into his magnificent manor house for a week. We did. When we agreed dates, he just spat in his hand and shook on it. You knew that was more binding than any exchange of letters or contract. But it worried us that he kept saying he wasn't going to learn anything. He went on and on that he knew everything there was to know about building.

It was with some satisfaction that, midway through haranguing his board on a Saturday afternoon, we heard him say: 'I've learnt more about my business this last week than I've learnt in the last five years. I thought I knew this business.'

As at Butlin's, the big shocker for Pidgley was customer care - but in a very different way. Berkeley's slogan is 'Quality to Appreciate' and the company prides itself on providing two years of free after-sale service.

The Harrods site that Pidgley worked on is the second stage of a huge development on the south side of the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge. The first stage, Barnes Village, is literally over the road. Its properties have been sold and most are occupied. Both developments are for the rich, with many of the bigger houses costing well over a million.

When Pidgley, who has a fearsome reputation in the industry, literally found his customer care centre, it was another moment of TV magic. The grubby little 'office' was in the corner of a virtually derelict block in the middle of the building site. There were two ways to get to the office: one was to clamber over rubble; the other was down an alley, passing some discarded loos on the way.

Once there, Pidgley found Jim Fraser, the grandly named customer care manager, doing his best with very limited resources. He had threatened to resign twice due to the stress and hadn't even been given a mobile phone to communicate with customers. Pidgley, almost shaking with rage, called the two executives in charge, telling them to drop whatever they were doing at head office and meet him on site. As he showed them round, one said, somewhat defiantly, that customer care was put there so that 'we would actively discourage customers from coming here. I mean, that's the way we would normally operate it.'

Again we appeared to be witnessing a serious lack of communication. Building is a very tough game, and the cost-cutting exercises are legendary. Any free repairs obviously cost money, and the executives' job was to come within or under budget. But to Pidgley, the damage being done to the company's reputation made the costs look like a drop in the ocean.

Pidgley told the crestfallen duo: 'We wouldn't dream of having the sales centre in this state. Here we are, "Buy a Berkeley Home - Quality to Appreciate", and you want to offer them this? I'm ashamed.'

In Pidgley style, the old customer care office was razed and within 48 hours a temporary office, a converted Portakabin, with smart furniture, was delivered to the sales office car park. Fraser got his mobile - and Pidgley brought him along to the board meeting.

While Fraser beamed, Pidgley asked the assembled directors: 'How can Jim be out there fire-fighting for us, and we don't know? We put people out there on site and leave them to their own devices; we don't go and talk to them. We sit here in our fancy board meetings and set strategy.

Well, strategy means nothing if we can't finish the product and don't care about the customer.'

The value to the company of the people working on the front line became a recurrent theme. Grant Whitaker, 46, Pickfords' director of UK removals, was moved by what he found when he went to work with his men in the Birmingham area. And he was honest enough to admit it. 'Some of our people, the way we employ them and the way we reward them, is wrong,' he said 'I think we exploit them, take advantage of them. They are employed on a part-time casual basis, but some of these guys work almost permanently for us, yet have no holiday or sick pay.

'The whole exercise was fascinating from my point of view. It showed me how important it is for the rest of the business to support the people on the front line. They are probably the lowest paid, but they are the most important. They deliver the service. They are the vital link: the face of Pickford's. It is their interpersonal skills that matter in dealing with stressed-out customers. Each job is unique, and they have to think on their feet and often be really quite resourceful.'

Whitaker, who returned to HQ covered in bruises but carrying a 25-point action plan, was exhausted at the end of his week. He went on: 'It is damned hard work. I was new to the job, but I believed that I understood the concept of the moving business. But, in fact, I just didn't appreciate the complexities and dynamics.'

The dynamics hit Whitaker hardest when lack of the latest equipment meant he had to hump a heavy safe down stairs or get a double wardrobe out through an upstairs window. The complexities hit home when he discovered the movers have to find a public call box or beg to use someone's phone when they need to talk to operations. While Pickford's is a multi-million-pound business and its trucks travel the world, the guys on the ground have no mobile or vehicle communication system. But that, it seems, is now likely to change.

Heather Rabbatts works in the public service. She is the chief executive of the London borough of Lambeth, probably the best known local council in Britain.

'It was a failing and failed organisation,' she says. And one that is still beset with housing problems - the area that Rabbatts herself suggested she work in.

Rabbatts, 42, was determined that no one could accuse her of taking the easy option.

She spent a week working in Waterloo in Kennington's neighbourhood housing office, dealing with tenants' problems - from leaking pipes to housing benefit. Some tenants were very angry.

Rabbatts says: 'I found it very tiring. It is the daily grind of saying "no" to people in need because you have to prioritise services. It's the fact that you don't have the power to change things on the front line that I think is so wearing and disempowering. It has made me think on how we can lift some of those burdens, make the daily work experience more creative, so it doesn't always feel you are looking at a negative picture. The whole exercise reinforced my view that chief executives should be out there in the organisation. The days of the boss locked in a room are over.'

Again communication became the burning issue. 'We send out information to our staff and we think that's it: they will understand. But it does not work. People's views are formed by mythology, rumours and fears, so getting out and talking to staff is therefore vital.'

To continue trying to get her message across Rabbatts is turning the exercise around. She now invites certain staff to shadow her for a day.

'I hope it will enhance their view of the organisation as a whole, and that they will then share this with their colleagues.'

The view that a chief executive's life in the public sector is easier because one doesn't have to make a profit cuts no ice with Rabbatts. 'The public sector is much more aware of who their customers are, and of how their performance is looked at. There is an increasing business-like mode of operation in the sector. We have to juggle with far more than just the bottom line.'

Every one of the bosses who have gone back to the floor, regardless of their type of work, have had to do that. Perhaps the worst scenes were witnessed by the RSPCA's director-general Peter Davies, who worked as a trainee inspector in the Leeds area, which has the highest prosecution level for animal cruelty. Like so many bosses, he threw himself into his work with gusto. But some of the scenes witnessed were simply harrowing - homes so filthy they defied belief.

Davies, a former major-general in the army, is a very tough man, but it got to him, too. He says: 'It was the consistent walking into conditions of great squalor, dirt and filth, and knowing before you even saw the animal that it would be in distress of some sort, largely due to massive indifference.'

Not surprisingly Davies has unending praise for his inspectors, and much of his week was spent finding out what they needed in their fight against animal cruelty. His willingness to do every task, even cleaning out cages, won him the respect of his colleagues.

But winning respect of the staff was a common feature. In fact all the bosses earned our respect.

In a nutshell none of the bosses had to do it. Each had already got to the top and yet was prepared to risk all - risk looking the fool and risk putting their companies in a bad light. The staff knew who they were, but as a rule the customers did not. All the bosses were different. They had different qualities and styles, but the thing they all had in common was they seemed to be extremely good at their jobs. Perhaps that is why they were all willing to put their reputations on the line when they didn't have to.

We are already working on a third series for 1999, so, bosses, you know where we are.

Hugh Dehn, a BBC producer, devised the television series.

The new six-part series of Back to the Floor starts on Thursday, 17 November, at 10pm on BBC2.

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