“Scott, we’re doing all we can to support our managers, but they just can’t seem to motivate our employees. What do we do?”
I meet many business leaders in my work as a speaker and consultant and I hear their challenges. Four out of five conversations are about employees. Usually it’s their hourly employees, those on the front lines. High turnover, low morale, frequent callouts — management just can’t get the stability and performance they need to grow.
But I learned firsthand from 10 years of managing my own hourly retail teams and from witnessing so many other high-performance hourly cultures that yes, you can ignite your frontline workers and enjoy sustained motivation and productivity. To accomplish this, however, it’s not enough to light a fire under them. You have to ignite something within them. Here are three ways to do this:
1. Provide better frontline management training.
If we’re talking about more than one or two underperforming workers, there’s a good chance it may also be management who needs some improvement. Too often this is a result of poor or a lack of good management training. Many managers are promoted due to job competence. They were great workers and probably demonstrated reliability and a good attitude. They may know your policies and procedures. They may have many job skills. However, this doesn't guarantee they possess the necessary people skills to engage employees, build culture, or resolve conflict. Frontline management is a completely different skill set than frontline work. Unfortunately, the average manager works 10 years leading others before getting any formal training in people management.
I present a lot in the franchise industry, where many people with no experience managing hourly workers (who are a completely different group than salary workers) buy a business and instantly become bosses. Many who have managed hundreds of employees in white-collar environments come to me pleading for help with their “lazy and entitled” hourly teams. They don’t appreciate their role in employee (under)performance.
Invest time helping your managers with the people side of their work. The return on investment will be much better hourly work.
2. Meet employees’ soft needs.
Just as hourly workers require hard skills and soft skills to thrive, you must also meet their hard needs and soft needs to keep them motivated. Hard needs are the tangible benefits of work. Primarily this is financial payment, but it also includes benefits and perks. It’s the stuff they get in exchange for work. Most managers rely too much on hard needs. They believe motivation can be bought. In the short term, this is true. People will take on a new job or task for the money — for a while.
But hard needs alone don’t retain employees or sustain motivation. For that, you must appeal to workers’ emotions. These soft needs aren’t what they get, but how they feel. Just as consumers come back for a better customer experience, employees are inspired by a work experience that elevates their emotions. Hourly workers want respect, a sense of belonging, recognition, and a feeling that they’re progressing. Many aren’t getting these needs met anywhere else in their lives.
The employers of choice I’ve met and written about are very deliberate about meeting their hourly workers’ soft needs. They pay well, but not extraordinarily well. But no one creates a better work experience. They recognize and reinforce high performance. They create clear paths for progression within the organization. They build cultures that promote camaraderie. They get to know their workers to identify what they want emotionally, and do their best to meet those needs. These environments are intrinsically motivating.
So don’t just pay them what they want financially. Pay attention to what they need emotionally.
3. Bring culture to the floor.
A beautifully written mission statement and a poster listing your values may inspire those in the C-suite. Often they’re way too abstract to have meaning for hourly employees. It may be a hard sell to convince those working on the line that they’re “making the world a better place.” Are you sure they know what “synergy” actually means? Do they know what it looks like when demonstrated? Too often this corporate-speak just doesn’t connect.
Make these principles more tangible. For each value you have, come up with a list of behaviors — dos and don’ts — that reflect that value. For “synergy” you might say:
- We Work Together: We share our thoughts and listen to our co-workers to build better ideas together.
- We Respect Differences: We appreciate everyone's unique views and experiences to solve problems creatively.
- We Talk Clearly and Often: We keep everyone in the loop with simple, frequent updates and messages.
- We Help Each Other Out: We lend a hand when our co-workers need it and aren’t afraid to ask for help, too.
- We Listen Carefully: We pay close attention to what others say, showing we value their input and ideas.
- We Compete Fairly: We focus on winning as a team rather than just for ourselves.
These agreements reflect the value of synergy, but are easier to grasp. They also make it easier to hold workers accountable to the value. Have your managers discuss these behaviors and reward those who consistently demonstrate them. Reprimands should also reference these behaviors as a breaking of the values agreement.
You can also live your culture by instituting rituals that make employees feel like they’re part of something. Instead of issuing a new worker a uniform, give them “swag.” Put the uniform in a gift bag with a few goodies. Have a few other team members there to congratulate them. Turn it into a small ceremony. Also, consider pre-shift huddles that focus less on operations and more on culture and team. Put employees in charge of these huddles. Ask them to discuss your (their) values and how they will demonstrate them. Ask them to praise and recognize one another. Experiment to see what works with your team.
The top workplaces I’ve observed place a lot of emphasis on culture and they ensure it’s something employees actually feel. Make it a priority.
There are many other places where your hourly workers can earn money. There are fewer places that light a spark within them and make them want to work for something more than a paycheck. You can create and maintain a motivated hourly team, but it takes better motivation and better management.
Scott Greenberg is a business speaker, writer, and coach who helps leaders and teams perform at a higher level. His upcoming book, "Stop the Shift Show: Turn Your Struggling Hourly Workers into a Top-Performing Team," will be released in February 2024.
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