“My workers drive me crazy!”

“We can’t keep people.”

“They’re constantly calling out.” 

“They’re so unmotivated.”

When I ask my audience members what they find most challenging about managing employees, I consistently hear some version of the above responses. In every industry, including ones that invest heavily in corporate culture, when it comes to managing their hourly workforce, they struggle. The construction industry, with its blend of hourly and salaried workers, is no different. Understanding these differences is crucial for effective leadership.

I spent over a decade managing hourly workers in my retail franchises. What I discovered through a lot of trial and error, experiments, and extensive research into other businesses that excelled with hourly workers is that with the right management practices, this group can be coached into high performers. 

Hourly Workers vs. Salary Workers

Your workforce may include both hourly and salaried employees. Hourly workers typically include laborers, tradespeople, and operators, vital for the hands-on execution of projects. Your salaried employees may include project managers, engineers, and architects, responsible for the strategic and administrative aspects of construction projects. Both groups share universal needs like fair compensation and respect. But salaried employees earn more of both. There’s status with not having to punch in. They’re also more likely to work full time, receive benefits, and earn a reliable income, making it easier to plan a life and access credit. They enjoy stability.

Hourly workers are more likely to be juggling multiple jobs or revolving around other family members’ schedules. They may have their hours reduced or changed. This uncertainty in both income and schedule requires them to frequently adjust their daily lives. 

Hourly employees tend to have fewer growth opportunities compared to their salaried counterparts. Construction work is often seasonal, with fluctuating hours based on project needs, leading to income instability. They also face physical risks, working in potentially hazardous environments. Their connection to the company is often more transactional than relational. If they feel less loyalty from the business, they’ll feel less loyal to the business. All of this coupled with the absence of benefits like healthcare makes it easier for them to leave to work elsewhere.

With so many differences in their circumstances, hourly employees require more understanding and empathy. They can’t be expected to respond to the same tactics companies use to build white collar corporate cultures. You need to adapt. Here are a few ways to do that:


Most companies focus on “hard needs”—the tangible things people want from a job. Usually this is money, but it could include other benefits. It’s what employees get in exchange for their work. 

But money isn’t enough. Employees also have emotional desires, what I call “soft needs.” These include recognition, personal growth, respect, and a sense of belonging. Buying them lunch and gift cards won’t do the trick. This isn’t about kindness; it’s about meeting their specific needs, their emotional ones—needs they may not articulate, but absolutely have, and appreciate when met.

When these needs are met, employees are more likely to stay with a company and perform better. Gallup and Deloitte have reported for years on how employee wellbeing correlates with productivity and engagement. This is particularly important in construction, a field that can be both physically and emotionally taxing. Meeting emotional needs creates a workforce that feels valued and understood, which in turn fosters more dedication and productivity. 

Besides making money, what matters to your workers? What do they want in a work environment? In a team? What will make their experience of work better? Don’t make assumptions, and don’t project your soft needs on them. 

What you give hourly workers matters less than how you make them feel. Pay them well, but treat them really well in the ways that matter most to them. That will help you become an employer of choice.


Abstract mission and value statements often don’t speak to the mindset of hourly workers. Are you sure your workers know what “Integrity” means? Do they recognize it when demonstrated? Make your values more tangible. For each one, come up with a list of behaviors that reflect that value. For “Integrity” you might say:

  • We always tell the truth.
  • We follow through on our commitments. 
  • We admit our mistakes.

These actions reflect the value but are easier to understand. They make it easier to hold employees accountable. Discuss these behaviors and reward those who consistently demonstrate them. Reprimands should also reference these behaviors and a violation of the values agreement.


Hourly employees’ work may be more physical or repetitive and less intellectual or creative than those on salary. Keep them motivated by establishing clear performance metrics. Then appeal into their natural human desire to beat their own score, what I call “self-competition.” Workers, regardless of their pay structure, have an innate desire for growth, challenge, and recognition. It’s intrinsically satisfying to meet or surpass benchmarks. Setting clear, measurable objectives for safety, project completion, and quality can significantly motivate hourly workers. These metrics not only provide a sense of accomplishment but also contribute to the overall success of construction projects. Clarify what’s expected and what success looks like. 

The alternative is to just keep them busy. That’s a quick way to lose people who hunger for improvement and intellectual stimulation. 

You may not believe it’s possible to build a reliable team of hourly workers. I sympathize, but I can’t ignore the results I’ve gotten, or the success of the many diverse employers I’ve personally worked with and interviewed that are also thriving with their hourly workforce. They’ve proven it’s possible. You can transform your hourly team from your biggest challenge into your greatest asset.

About the Author:

Scott Greenberg is a business speaker, writer, and coach who helps leaders and teams perform at a higher level. His new book is titled Stop The Shift Show: Turn Your Struggling Hourly Workers into a Top-Performing Team. Find more at www.scottgreenberg.com.

Modern Contractor Solutions, April 2024
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