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What’s your “3 o’clock parade” question? How to get the most out of an employee check-in

We designed our staff check-ins to break the mould and stand apart from rote box-ticking exercises. But, if you want it to work, you need to ask the right questions, and then follow through. So, what is an employee check-in for, and what kind of questions should you be asking?

At its most basic level, an employee check-in sets out to achieve two things. First, it provides ongoing, mutual feedback between an employee and their line manager. Second, it tracks progress on an employee's assigned goals. It's just that simple.

And yet, at the same time, it isn't. To truly answer the question, "What is an employee check-in for?" we have look deeper. If check-in questions never change, or you never do anything with the information, the whole process grows stagnant. But that's where the "3 o'clock parade" question comes in.

Where other forms of feedback are sparse, check-ins are frequent. Where other survey tools use generic batches of questions, check-ins are tailored to the individual. So, why are these things necessary, and what can you gain by taking advantage of them?

What is a "3 o'clock parade" question?

So, what's this "3 o'clock parade" question we keep harping on about?

Well, if you've ever been to Disneyland, the phrase probably sounds familiar. And that's where it comes from. Asking, 'What time is the 3 o'clock parade?' might sound redundant. But it's something people working as Disneyland mascots hear all the time.

As tempting as it might be to reply, 'I think you just answered your own question' in your snarkiest tone, that's rarely the most productive response. And the mascot training at Disneyland reflects this.

You see, when someone asks you something, you've sometimes got to read between the lines. It's often about the questions they're not asking. Or they might just be phrasing things poorly because they're a frazzled adult wrangling kids in the hot Parisian (or, God help them, Floridian) sun.

So, when you approach Mickey Mouse or Gaston, and ask them this, they're trained to respond in a particular way. They'll try to figure out why you're asking this question, so as to provide all the help they can. And that's not only great customer service. It's also a strong blueprint for how to manage and engage your employees.

'Instead of simply repeating the obvious answer—the actual parade start time—back to the Guest, our Cast Members take this opportunity to draw from their theme park knowledge and Disney service training. They may share with the Guest what time the parade will pass by certain locations in the park, offer possible vantage points to view the parade or advise when to leave another area and still arrive at the parade on time.'

Applying this approach to your check-in

The lesson we're getting at with this is simple. By only taking questions at face value, we close ourselves off to whole avenues of discussion and possible solutions. And that should be your biggest clue about the answer to the question, "What is an employee check-in for?"

But how does this apply to employee check-ins?

Well, technically, you're the one asking questions, even though you're the guy in the Goofy suit in this analogy. Sure, an employee might ask you something in an open-ended response. But the whole conversation generally stems from the check-in questions you set each week.

So don't take it 100% literally. It's about how you treat the questions that get asked, not who asks them. Asking about the 3 o'clock parade is just the quintessential example of a point for branching off.

So, this raises a couple of questions of its own...

  • What kind of question(s) can you ask that will make staff think more broadly about their employee experience?
  • What should you do with the information you gain from talking to your people?

Open-ended questions are a good start. Anything that gives people an opportunity to put things in their own words. Combining qualitative detail with quantitative metrics is what sentiment analysis is all about.

Try questions about personal wellbeing, blockers they've encountered, or improvements they would make. These are all great for encouraging reflection, assuming you can present them in a non-biasing way. Leading questions will only muddy your findings and rob you of insight.

Then there's the matter of what to do with the information. In a nutshell, you need to do one (or preferably both) of two things:

  • Respond and ask questions to sustain the dialogue.
  • If insight is actionable, THEN ACT ON IT!

Sustaining the dialogue

Lucky for you, our check-ins have a handy response feature included. When you're reviewing someone's update, you can respond directly to any of the answers they've provided. That's your perfect chance to ask follow-up questions and show an interest. And, if you find you're scratching the surface, you can set up a 1:1 or a Teams call, or just go and have a chat at their desk.

Acting on what your people tell you

There's no quicker way to sour a dialogue than to never do anything with what you learn. You'd think it was obvious. But, according to one study, more than three quarters of Gen Z employees feel ignored by their manager. 42% fear there would be negative consequences for expressing their opinion to a leader, with only 16% feeling enabled to do so.

However, it might not be as simple as managers being too ego-driven to listen to their people. Sherf, et al (2018) found that a lot of team bosses fail to act on employee ideas because, in reality, they aren't empowered to do so. It's down to a combination of the short-term demands of the business, and a lack of managerial autonomy.

Often, managers don't have the authority to make the kinds of changes their people are asking for. And, even when they do, the change can cause disruption which they then have to justify. And if there aren't short-term gains they can point to, it's a hard sell to make.

So, if you're a CEO or some other senior leader reading this, try cutting your managers some slack. Give them the room to try a different approach, especially if it's what their people want. After all, what is an employee check-in for if you're just going to ignore what it tells you?

What is an employee check-in for, if not better communication?

The next time someone asks you "What is an employee check-in for?" you can proudly tell them it's about building good communication habits. It's about your people with ongoing support, and enhancing your existing feedback frameworks. So, to close out this piece, we thought we'd leave you with a few tips for getting the most out of your check-ins.

Always review your team's updates

Of course, it's a given that you'll review check-in updates at some point. What we mean is, always give it your full attention. One of an employee check-in's major selling points is that both submitting and reviewing updates only takes a few minutes.

But that's no excuse to let your eyes glaze over as you click through to the finish. It's best to set aside specific times for this, so that you can make sure to give it your full attention. Have a think about any immediate responses you can make, and set yourself reminders for future action.

Share feedback whenever you can

One of the main purposes of checking in is to bridge the gaps between performance reviews. If reading an update is all you do when reviewing it, you're missing out on half the value.

Sure, not every question urgently needs a direct response. But, if you can think of some tips, a recommendation, or even just an assurance, then post back about it. This helps employees to improve week-to-week, and means you share a clear understanding of their performance.

Use 1:1s for deeper discussions

Asynchronicity helps staff check-ins fit into our hectic working lives. But, when it's time to have a more involved conversation, it's better to have it face-to-face. That way, if someone asks an important or difficult question, they aren't waiting around for an answer.

This is especially important for any remote workers you have. Remote staff are often lacking in direct contact. So, setting up a Teams meeting, or even inviting them to the office is a great way of reinforcing that you care about what they have to say.

Share vital feedback throughout your organisation

There are two important features in our employee check-in that it's easy to overlook: Pass-ups and recognition.

Pass-ups are when a manager shares the results of an employee check-in with a fellow leader, or even their own line manager. You might do a pass-up for any number of reasons, such as to get their advice, or to show sentiment about a given issue.

Then there are our recognition-based questions. These typically ask if anyone went out of their way to be helpful, or who you think was your team's MVP this week. They allow employees to tag each other in open-ended comments, making it easy to offer personalised praise.

It's vital that you as a manager recognise employee contributions. But it's even more important that they give recognition to each other. SHRM findings have shown that employees value praise from a colleague more than they do praise from their boss.

Help people according to their needs

Part of the value of staff check-ins is that they treat employees as individuals rather than one homogenous blob. You personalise questions on the individual level to figure out how to help that person.

People have different things they struggle with, and different things that motivate them. One person might be champing at the bit for career development, while another might be hating their daily commute. So, for the ambitious person, you might offer skills training and new responsibilities. But, for the person with the bad commute, hybrid or remote work could make all the difference.

Then there are the things groups of people need, but not necessarily everyone. That might mean quiet workspaces for your neurodivergent or introverted employees. Or it could be greater accessibility options for staff with physical disabilities. Ignoring the needs of cross-sections of your staff can be dismissive at best, and outright discrimination at worst.

Don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions

If you feel like you need more information, go and get it. As far as check-ins go, you have a couple of options. You could respond to their answer directly by asking for more information. Or you could tweak next week's check-in to include questions further exploring the issue.

Asking these questions shows you're taking things seriously. So, there's no reason to feel self-conscious about asking for more information. Plus, if it turns out you misinterpreted something, you'll be glad you asked!

Fancy seeing how a Weekly10 staff check-in helps you better understand your people?