Getting the Best from Employees

Our cabinet shop celebrated 20 years in business this past April Fool's Day. How about that for an appropriate day to start out in the woodworking business?

The shop threw a big party for the occasion, and it really was a great opportunity for everyone at the company to show off what's been achieved. This may just be the biggest part of why people stay motivated at any business, but at shops in particular: The staff wants to feel and know they work at a good shop.

Motivation, it seems, is an age-old problem in our relatively low-paying industry. How do you get someone to feel good spending a morning sanding solid ash face frames? How do you get your office staff to stop gossiping and get to those job-costing reports that are months behind?

Well, the best way to get full effort and attention from your team is to somehow create an environment where motivation is part of the way it all works. While you can't demand motivation it's completely controlled by the individual there are many things you as the owner or manager can do to help create the right feeling in those around you.

Support your staff
Money can't buy you love, but if you underpay your people, there's a good chance that eventually they will become disenchanted with your shop. You'll probably have to pay your experienced employees the going rate, and even more than that if you want to keep them for the long haul. Small and frequent raises can go a long way toward keeping that interest up.

Adding some flexibility to working hours has also turned out to be a really big deal for many shops. If you have any single parents working for you, I'm sure you understand. Your main criteria is that 40 hours have to be worked each week, and more importantly, those 40 hours have to count. Working at home with a baby in one's arms is difficult in the shop world, but how about the flexibility of a work week with four 10-hour days and no work on Friday? This could be part of your care package for your people.

Another component in the motivation equation can be good benefit packages: Family health and dental care, vacations, paid holidays, use of tools, vehicles all this can contribute to a person feeling that the company is looking after him or her. That individual will perhaps be more willing to work well and take care of the company in return.

A certain number of company activities, depending on the size of your operation, can really help cement your people to the team idea. A night at the bowling alley, a game of softball, a picnic it doesn't really matter what it is just a chance to be not working (and networking) with each other can boost morale.

Communicate often
Keeping everyone's effort at a high level is your main challenge as a manager. We've found at our own shop that the basis of high effort is not just pride in the actual work we produce, but pride in the company itself. And, a good company tries to communicate and to connect well with its members. Keeping people "in the loop" can engender the feeling that everyone's in it together.

If you're having trouble connecting with your people because you're simply so busy all the time, you may want to set up regular meetings at the end of every day, once a week, once a month, whatever you decide. Making a meeting regular (but brief) help to ensure it will happen, and when it does, you can discuss strategic stuff now and again whether or not to buy that new saw, the point-to-point machine you saw in Atlanta.

You may want to do regular, official quarterly or annual reviews with your employees to ensure that you're checking in with your staff constantly. Again, it's part of keeping them in the loop, but it's a big part. Your feedback, but more importantly, your encouragement can often enhance both behavior and productivity.

By all means, use whatever methods you want of communicating, such as phone calls to your field installers, in-house voice mail for those off-hour thoughts or reminders you may have. Some shops are using e-mail internally for staff memos or on-going discussions. Remember, though, with all of this technological magic around, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting; a discussion by the table saw is often worth much more than a voice-mail message.

In addition, you need to watch out for the negative stuff. This could be people coming to work late, or employees taking longer or extended breaks. You should keep an eye on it and nip it in the bud on an individual basis. If you see someone is regularly leaving the shop early, or getting ready to leave early, you may want a word with that person; it's fine to say you're disappointed to see it happening when the rest of the crew is pulling hard.'

Chatting too much is a difficult one, because it's part of working with other people. Employees, owners and managers often need to download sports talk on Monday morning. However, make sure everyone knows they need to get on with things at the same time. It's called work for a reason you're not supposed to be relaxing, are you?

The very best you can do is to provide an environment where your team players are challenged. Can we move Frank from journeyman cabinetmaker to detailer? Could Victor tackle a solid wood countertop edge yet? You may have to stretch some employees a little, but you may be surprised. Many will go for it and perhaps even surpass your own expectations.

People who are being challenged feel like part of a growing company. By that I don't necessarily mean a shop that's expanding its workforce or one that's doing a lot more dollar volume. It could be a shop that's embracing newer technology and machinery, or perhaps it's a company that's getting into a different kind of work. Either way, it's not a static or boring place.

You may, at times, get very frustrated with employees' performances. They're just not putting out like you are. Well, it's important to remember that they're not you; they may not own the shop, or be in a management position like you. What you need to do is continue to coach, encourage, guide and help. Together, you and your shop team can produce at a high level.

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