The Employee and The Wheelbarrow

Words: Corey Adams
Words: Corey Adams 
I never know if I should laugh or cringe a bit when I hear an old saying from construction in the past. You knowthe sayings that our fathers and grandfathers all use to repeat. We all have heard them, and can probably recite a few of them still to this day. Heck, some of them even still hold true! They should really be a reminder of how our industry has evolved.   The other dayI sat with five other entrepreneurs for a lengthy discussion on life, business, and some of the challenges we are currently facing. When digging into the labor epidemic, one of them brought up a saying that I hadn’t heard for years. A lifelong contractor that he knew told him, “employees are like wheelbarrows. They work as long as you push them.”  At first glance, this seemed profound, funny, and at a minimum thought-provoking. As the day went by, I kept circling back to that saying, trying to determine the reality of it. Was it really that way? Does it have to be? Over the next few days, this one statement stuck out in my mind like a foghorn going off at a funeral. I couldn’t ignore it.   After hours of contemplation, I decided that there was an underlying flaw with it. We as business owners should not have to “push” our employees, but we are responsible for motivating them. A lot of employers think their employees need pushing. More hours, less labor force, faster production, and in essence, more stress— this isn’t necessarily true or needed.   I guarantee if you took a poll of construction workers across the country, the vast majority will admit their job have become more stressful in the last 2 years. I get it, the demand for the construction industry outweighs the supply. However, this does not give us a license to push our employees to a breaking point. Instead, now is the time to begin a system of motivating them.   The first step to any system of employee motivation is zeroing in on what behavior you want to achieve. Do you want more production? More safety awareness? Unmatched quality? The behavior you are trying to get out of your employees will dictate what type of motivation system you put in place.   When designing your motivation system, make sure that it is explainable to your employees. Clearly define the goals, ways to achieve them, and the reward that will be waiting there. It may be as simple as telling the guys that they can have Friday off if they get X-Y-Z done by Thursday.   Here are a few motivation systems we have used over the years. Some work better than others, and it's important to be willing to adapt if necessary. 
  1. Incentive Plans. These are tried and true as any system. More company profits, more money in your employees’ pockets. The downfall is that most companies go off the deep end on what metrics they are using to calculate and end up confusing the employees into not caring. Make the metrics something each person or crew can control. 
  1. Sales Bonuses. I personally am not a fan of pure sales commissions. There are too many factors in construction to focus solely on sales. Some have had luck, but make sure to design it to reward the behavior you really want, selling higher profit margin jobs. 
  1. Safety Bonuses. Pretty self-explanatory. 
  1. Equipment Down Time Bonuses. These help by motivating employees to take care of the equipment they have on-site. 
All of these systems have specific goals because there is no panacea of motivation systems for employees. Don’t overthink it. As the old saying goes, Keep It Simple Stupid” (KISS).   
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