5 Tips for Motivating a Low-Wage Workforce

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.

HikerMost economic commentators agree that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing. It has widened more in the recent recession because senior manager salaries continued to rise healthily while the average workers’ salaries flatlined. As a result, CEOs earn 331 times as much as the average worker and 774 times as much as minimum-wage workers, according to AFL-CIO’s Paywatch.

This study from the Economic Policy Institute found that the gap between poor and rich is largest in countries like the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Currently, 25.3 percent of workers have low pay and earn less than two-thirds of the median wage; to catch up with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, low-wage workers would need a 28 percent pay boost. Because such a raise is sadly unlikely — or may not be in your control as a middle manager — I thought it would be worth outlining some low-cost tips for motivating a low-wage workforce.

1. Say ‘Thank You’ 

Research from the Wharton School of Business confirms what most of us know, which is that simply saying ‘thank you’ is a powerful, non-financial way to motivate and engage staff. Try to be specific for greater effect, e.g., “Thanks for helping with changing the filing system, as it really got me out of a hole and meant I could get my report in on time. I appreciate it.” Also, don’t wait too long to say thanks: the longer you take to say thanks, the less motivational it will be.

2. Help Them Look to the Stars

Ambition and career progression are two of the key staff motivators, no matter what level an employee is working at. This is more important than ever for low-wage workers when financial incentives are few and far between. Make career progression, development, and training key parts of the low-wage worker’s consciousness. Ensure that internal job vacancies are advertised and that there is perceived equal opportunity for all to progress. Publicize any career success stories, like workers who came in at the bottom and worked their way up to a higher paid role. Show that there is a better future for employees who are prepared to reach for the stars. You will never be able to fully motivate low-wage workers who feel they are facing a dead end or staring into an abyss.

3. Incentives for 100 Percent Attendance.

This study from Durham University shows that raising pay can reduce the level of sickness in low-paid workers. Now, I realize these are supposed to be non-financial tips, so you could think more about offering employees who have 100 percent attendance some kind of recognition gift, such as a Christmas hamper or gift voucher.

4. Focus on Instrinsic/Non-Financial Motivators

Research shows that non-financial and intrinsic rewards can be just as motivational as money. If you are unable to increase financial rewards, make sure that all your jobs are rich in intrinsic rewards. The key intrinsic motivators are a sense of choice, meaningfulness, competence, and progress.

In terms of meaningfulness, make sure that staff get to see the impact of what they do on the business. Try to create a sense of social significance around your work. Also, give staff some choice around how they work. Brand the job well and turn it from a job into a profession — Starbuck baristas are a good example of this. Have some kind of progression badge system so staff can really feel a sense of progress.

5. Have Competitions, Contests, and Leader Boards.

A sense of competition can be a great way to motivate people without money. You could have a leaderboard and pitch teams against each other in terms of productivity or quality. Tread with care here: if handled badly, this kind of competition can turn hostile.

I’d be keen to hear some techniques you have used to incentivize low-paid workers in situations where corrective pay raises are not within your power.

By Kazim Ladimeji