FORTUNE Small Business:

Getting the most out of your hourly workforce

A caulking business owner turns to Ask FSB for ideas on motivating foot-dragging workers.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: My uncle would like me to take over the family commercial caulking business, and right now, I am working with the caulkers in the field, learning the job and making sure they do not drag their feet. Unfortunately, the workers, who are paid by the hour, do just that. They are in no rush to get the job done, and though we profit-share at the end of the year, it seems like that is not enough motivation. What are alternative wage methods that other businesses like mine use to pay their employees and increase production?

- Edward Zachris, Richmond

Dear Edward: Motivating employees can be difficult for anyone, but the source of your frustration might actually be a great opportunity in disguise.

By learning the ropes of a family business from the ground up, you can see the company as your employees do - invaluable information for any boss.

"The first step is to get inside the minds of your employees," said Eric Boehme, a veteran in information technology management and consulting who writes about these sorts of issues as the "The Blogging Boss." "You need to understand how they think. That means you have to spend quite a bit of time observing what they do, how they do it, and how they feel. You also must understand what motivates someone to do the job you are paying them to do."

So rather than just assume some employees aren't working fast enough because they are lazy or would do better on a salary, a closer look - and more communication with your employees - might uncover deeper issues.

If you find out your workers simply aren't happy, Boehme says, "this is not their problem. It is your problem."

Yup, the downside of being the boss - if it's broke, workers will look to your leadership to fix it.

Getting more out of hourly workers is not necessarily a money issue. Some questions to consider: Do the employees feel a sense of ownership over the outcome of a job? Why, or why not? Can you think of specific instances where a slow work pace cost the company money? Was its effect on the bottom line (and thus end-of-year profit sharing) communicated clearly? Perhaps your caulkers would be more motivated by a profit-sharing program that pays more immediate rewards?

If that doesn't bring some solutions into focus, Skip Weisman, president of Weisman Success Resources, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based consulting firm, recommended going back to the hiring process.

Often, enough time isn't spent in hiring hourly employees, Weisman said, particularly in "identifying the right attitudes, beliefs and behaviors a business wants in those type of employees."

Could you find and recruit caulkers who have reputations for being fast and thorough? They might be more expensive, but the example they set might be worth every penny and more. And don't stop there, Weisman said: Good hiring decisions need to be backed up by a thorough and detailed orientation, consistent accountability mechanisms, and feedback.

"I find few small businesses invest time in this area," he said.

Motivation is a classic problem, said Todd Dewett, author of the book Leadership Redefined: The Secrets of Surviving Cubicleland.

"The first task is to consider motivation and ability," he says. "Often, a supervisor will assume the performance problem is one or the other, causing predictable problems."

If the problem is motivation, there are many levers the business owner can pull, Dewett said, including clarifying expectations, managing outcomes, and giving workers a voice to help improve processes.

"It can be as simple as the owner stopping by occasionally to solicit genuine input," Dewett said. "When you act on good input, be sure to share the credit loudly and widely."

He also recommends sharing the benefits of improvement, including linking any measurable improvements to increases in pay, and shifting managerial responsibilities to the group.

"Many times hourly workers simply do not feel empowered," Dewett said. "They see themselves as a cog in a wheel at the bottom of the organizational pyramid, unappreciated even though they actually 'do the work.'"  To top of page

Do you have a successful strategy for motivating your employees? Tell us about it.

How can I make sure workers do their jobs?

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