By Scott Greenberg

“My employees drive me crazy!” “We just can’t find enough people.” “We can’t keep people.” “They’re constantly calling out.” “They’re so unmotivated.” “They’re so thin-skinned.”

When I ask my audience members what they find most challenging about managing their frontline teams, 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 hourly workers, they struggle. This is especially true with my clients in the restaurant industry, one of the largest sectors employing hourly employees and one with the most exposure to these challenges.

I spent over a decade operating my own retail Edible Arrangements franchises, and for the first few years, I, too, struggled with employees. I’d already been working as a motivational business speaker specializing in leadership when I got into that business, so it was a shock when I found my employees didn’t respond to my brilliant Jedi-leadership tactics. I had to unlearn what I thought to be true about building teams and return to management kindergarten.

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Here’s what I discovered through a lot of trial and error, experiments and extensive research into other businesses that excelled with frontline employees: Hourly workers can, in fact, be coached into high performers. But that can only happen when you replace your judgment and frustration with curiosity and compassion. It starts with appreciating who hourly workers are, and how they differ from those on salary.

Hourly Workers vs Salary Workers
All employees 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 fulltime, 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, going to school, playing sports 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 also tend to have fewer growth opportunities compared to their salaried counterparts. Their connection to the company is often more transactional than relational. If they feel less loyalty from the organization, they’ll feel less loyal to the organization. This, coupled with the absence of benefits like healthcare, makes it easier for them to leave for new job opportunities.

And, of course, the work being done is quite different. Salary work is often more creative and intellectual. It’s more likely to be done sitting down and can often be done remotely. Hourly work in a pizza restaurant is performed on site and on ones’ feet. It’s physical, messy and repetitive.

With so many differences in their circumstances and work life (not to mention age and demographics), 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 that:

Get your values off the mountaintop and onto the floor. Abstract mission and value statements often don’t speak to the mindset of hourly workers. Are you sure your employees 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” they might say:

  • We always tell the truth.
  • We follow through on our commitments.
  • We admit our mistakes.
  • We treat each other fairly.
  • We comply with all laws and company policies.
  • We respect confidentiality.

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.

Identify and meet their “soft needs.” Most businesses 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 alone (which may be less available for hourly employees) isn’t enough. Employees also have emotional desires, what I call “soft needs.” These include things like recognition, personal growth, respect, safety (including emotional safety) and a sense of belonging.

Employees should be paid fairly, but employers who also elevate their team’s emotional payoff will win more loyalty, just as providing better customer experiences leads to more consumer loyalty. What you give them matters less than how you make them feel.

Give employees measurable work objectives. Their work may be more physical or repetitive and less intellectual or creative than those on salary. Keep them motivated by establishing clear performance metrics. It’s intrinsically satisfying to meet or surpass benchmarks.

Employees like being able to keep score. You can track pizzas (or other menu items) made by the number and over a shift. You can give them sales or upselling goals. You can measure online reviews or your Net Promoter Score. You may be tracking these metrics already, but track them with your team. I was always surprised that after a long, stressful Valentines’ Day making fruit baskets, my employees always asked how many they sold or created. They were more invested in their work knowing it could be quantified, and that was before even offering them incentives to hit specific benchmarks. They just wanted the emotional payoff of hitting their numbers.

Clarify what’s expected and what success looks like. Then appeal to their natural human desire to beat their own score, what I call “self-competition.” The alternative is to just keep them busy. That’s a quick way to lose people who hunger for improvement and intellectual stimulation. Workers, regardless of their pay structure, have an innate desire for growth, challenge and recognition. Managers need to tap into these desires effectively. Then, continuously coach them to improve.

You may not believe it’s possible to build a reliable team of frontline employees. I sympathize, but I can’t ignore the results I’ve gotten, or the well-documented results enjoyed by Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out Burger and other restaurants whose cultures have been well-documented. And I can’t deny the success of the many diverse employers I’ve personally worked with and interviewed that are also thriving with the help of an outstanding hourly workforce. They’ve proven it’s possible. You can transform your frontline employees from your biggest challenges into your greatest asset. But only if you’re willing to provide them with the greatest management.

This photo is a headshot of the author, with graying hair and wearing a dressy grey shirt and a dark blazer.

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

Marketing, Pizzerias