Over the past few weeks, I’ve talked about how face-to-face training is not effective if you’re looking to develop hands-on-experience. One of the easiest (and least used) methods for professional development is job shadowing. Done well, it will be the most effective, lowest time commitment development activity you can use. And, to get the most of your job shadow you’ll want to first think about the: Why, Who, When

Now, before you click away because ‘job shadowing’ isn’t real training, hear me out for a couple paragraphs!

For the most part, when you think of job shadowing you probably think of following someone around for the day. And, if you were a high school student or an early college student that is probably what you would be doing. Why? Because, at that point in someone’s career the mere experience of being in an office work environment is pretty novel and educational.

As someone with a fair amount of work experience under your belt, following someone around for the day will seem like a waste of your time.

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However, to have even gotten to this article you must have had at least a little curiosity about the concept.

What is job shadowing?

It’s an intentional plan to observe someone doing some aspect of their day-to-day job. It can be done formally – by asking for permission from your supervisor and the person whom you are shadowing. But it could also be informal. Job shadowing could be as simple as asking questions while interacting with someone in a natural working situation to better understand their role.

Why job shadow?

That’s a great question! Why do you want to job shadow?

Are you considering changing job roles or career paths?

Perhaps you are an instructional designer who’s considering a shift to get in front of a classroom. Or, perhaps you work in disaster response but are thinking of trying your hand at writing policy.

Do you want to understand a specific process better?

Maybe you are someone who works in an IT organization and regularly hear about SCRUM meetings. But, you have no idea what SCRUM is or why these meetings are important. Or, perhaps you want to better understand how budget decisions are made for your organization.

Do you want to see where your work fits in to the larger organization?

You may be responsible for completing weekly reports on project progress but have never seen what’s done with those reports. Perhaps you will write more effective reports if you had a bigger picture.

Do you want to see how your role is performed in another part of the organization or in another agency?

Perhaps you work as an administrative officer in the communications office – but are curious about how your counter parts in the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office performs the same role.

Maybe there’s some other reason you are considering job shadowing. But, before you take any further steps, it’s important to figure out why you want to do it. Whatever that reason, it will drive your next steps and increase the value of the time you spend.

Who should you job shadow?

The decision of who to job shadow will depend largely on your answer to ‘why’ you want to shadow someone.

Ask your manager

Depending on your relationship with your supervisor, I’d recommend starting there. You don’t even have to call it job shadowing. Instead, you might explain that you’re struggling with coming up with a solution to a problem. Let them know that you’re interested in talking to someone in another department to see how they address it. Or, you might explain you want to increase your organizational awareness and understand how your work fits in. Then, ask your manager if he/she has any recommendations of who you might talk to about your interests.

If it’s actually your manager that you’d like to job shadow, explain that you are interested in some aspect of their role and ask if you could sit in with them while the perform it so you can learn from them.

Use your professional network

In cases where your supervisor is supportive – but doesn’t have suggestions – I’d suggest using your professional network. More than likely, you know someone with connections to where you’d like to observe.

Maybe you could ask a coworker if they know of anyone who participates in SCRUM meetings that is open to talking to you about what goes on in them. Then, you can contact the recommended person – explaining that your coworker suggested them.

Go direct

If you already know who you would like to shadow, you could approach them directly. Explain what you are hoping to learn, and ask if they mind letting you observe them.

When all else fails – cold call

While you can ‘cold-call’ someone you’d like to observe – you’re likely to have more success and a more open discussion if you come with some connection. But, if you’re pursuing something that’s out of the normal realm of your work, this may be your only option.  I assure you, just about anyone you ask will be flattered. Granted, it is a little strange to be watched – so they may also feel a little awkward…but that’s ok.

When should you job shadow?

Now that you are clear on why you want to do job shadowing and who you want to shadow – the question is when should you shadow them.

Again, in the high school variation of job shadowing, a day convenient to both the student and the employee is selected. The student shows up for the predetermined amount of time. And, the student returns to school with a report that was likely required to explain what they learned.

For you, a seasoned professional, you will want to be a bit more targeted. You don’t necessarily need to spend a whole day or week with someone if you want to learn about a specific process. It may be a matter of a few hours. And the great thing about being so specific, is that it’s a much easier sell to your manager for you to take a few hours away from your role – than to ask for a week to join another office.

During naturally occurring cycles

By being clear upfront about what you want out of the experience, you can identify the specific activity you want to learn about – and ask when it would make sense to observe them. For instance, maybe you’re interested in budget formulation. If that’s the case, you’ll want to understand when that happens during the fiscal year and then plan for job shadowing then.

During slow-periods

Be sensitive to the rush periods of a person’s role. It’s tough to expect someone to let you observe and ask questions when they’re under a tight-timeline. So, if possible wait until the person is out of the rush period. Or, if that rush period is exactly what you want to better understand – explain this to the person. Agree to be a silent observer and save your questions until the period is done.

Consider the sensitivity of your observations

Remember that some things you’d like to observe are sensitive. This may mean agreeing upfront not to share the specifics of what you hear or see during your job shadowing.

Similarly, there are some things that aren’t possible to observe in your current role. For instance, it would be inappropriate for you to observe a manager delivering a performance appraisal to another employee. But, if you’re interested in becoming a manager you could ask your manager to talk through what he/she does to plan to deliver a performance appraisal.

If you’re interested in other unique professional development ideas, check out our post on the benefits of details or temporary reassignments.