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Jul 21, 2017

It’s time to stop taking the hourly employee for granted.

Despite the fact that hourly employees are nearly 60% of the US workforce, leaders have a tendency to discount them when formulating their employee engagement strategies. The high turnover in hourly positions (49% on average according to one study), mixed with the idea hourly workers are a renewable resource that can always be replaced, leads to management styles that outright ignore the needs of this group. Leaders instead focus their efforts on engaging salaried employees, who they may perceive as more “valuable” because of the greater time, effort, and costs associated with finding talent for these professions.

Hourly workers deserve to be on the receiving end of employee engagement strategies, too. They are the executors of the modern organization. In industrial work, they’re the ones handling the product, keeping everything up to standards. In administrative settings, they’re making sure the organization is running smoothly on a day-to-day basis. In customer-facing positions they’re the face of the business.

For any business they are a part of, hourly employees are the seldom-acknowledged backbone that keeps the organization operational. Here are three strategies leaders can leverage to engage hourly employees:

1. Make work meaningful

A sense of purpose and meaning is a key motivating factor for employees. Research points to millennials as the generation that especially values “purpose”, but the desire for contributions to feel meaningful in some way is universal across generations.

How do you conjure up that sense of purpose? Communication. As with salaried employees, you get employees on board with the organizational mission through clear and explicit communication. Connect the dots between what your hourly workers do on a day-to-day basis and how that contributes to the organization, and the world at large.

Sometimes that purpose is less tied to the organization than leaders would like, but that’s OK. In a detailed study on factory worker motivation, Gallup found that this population didn’t care much for organizational mission, but they were motivated by the opportunity to give back to their community. Factories that embraced the need for a “local” mission saw employees exhibit greater engagement and ownership over their work.

2. Build relationships

Our relationships with colleagues play an immense role in shaping workplace engagement. When we have a best friend at work, we’re more likely to perform better, receive recognition and feel that our work has more meaning.

The employee-manager relationship here is critical. As the saying goes, people leave managers, not companies. For a population where employees can leave for even a slight increase in wage somewhere else, managers (and management styles) can make or break the work experience for hourly workers.

In my personal experience, I’ve found you can reinforce this relationship by just making yourself available. Prove to your employees you value them by being around when it matters the most.

Years ago I worked in HR for a production company in St. Louis. This organization operated 24/7; the factory ran at all times and employees worked in three shifts. Every month, I made sure I came in on the third shift – the late night, early morning hours that no one wanted to work. I walked around the floor and let employees know that I was available if they needed me. That basic demonstration of support, just showing up and letting them know I cared, did more for our relationship (and their relationship with the company) than an email or newsletter ever could.

3. Give them a seat at the table

When it comes to strategizing and managing organizational change, of course leaders first turn to salaried workers. In many instances, this population is composed of knowledge workers, and the expertise they bring to the table is valuable for devising company strategy.

But your hourly population are your executors. High-level strategic decisions often have the biggest impact on this population, and this population is likely to have firsthand knowledge on how to improve day-to-day operations and processes. If your organization claims to value knowledge but excludes this population from the problem-solving process, you’re deliberately neglecting to tap a rich vein of knowledge.

Don’t just pull your hourly workers aside for focus groups, take what they know, and implement it without any further involvement from them. Give these employees the latitude to introduce the change they helped bring about on the ground-level. At work, 70% of learning happens informally. Training protocol, employee manuals and other education programs simply aren’t as effective as social sharing and on-the-job experience.

To conclude, Craig Hergenroether’s words say it best, “How you treat people is how you can truly measure what you claim to be.” While Hergenroether, the chief intelligence officer of Barry-Wehmiller, was speaking to Barry-Wehmiller’s “Truly Human Leadership,” a style of company culture that values the contributions of every single employee, his words hold resonance here and can in your company too.

If your organization says it values employees but only works to engage its salaried population, true employee engagement will never fully occur. Only when an organization recognizes hourly employees as the valuable population they are will it truly begin to measure up.

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