If you want to motivate your employees, try working alongside them

I have a client named Andrew who owns a manufacturing firm in New Jersey with about 75 employees. He has low turnover and — as far as I can tell — pretty high morale.

Does he pay his people more? Not really, although his compensation and benefit plans are competitive for his area.

Does he do anything special for his employees, like bringing in lunch, making a fuss over birthdays, encouraging socialization? Sure, he's pretty good about that too. He also is pretty good about letting employees work from home when it’s feasible and being flexible with vacations and childcare needs.

All of those things are great ways to keep your employees happy. But this is not the primary reason why Andrew’s workers are so motivated to do their jobs or why he’s had such low turnover.

The real reason is this: Andrew doesn’t have an office.

To be clear, he does have an office. It’s where he keeps his stuff. And he sometimes uses that office for private meetings or phone calls. But Andrew learned something important a few years ago when construction was being done to his office and he was forced to find another place to be. So he sat somewhere else. He took an empty desk next to his customer service team. And what happened next really opened his eyes.

“During the month that I sat there I learned more about my people — and my customers — than I did in the previous 10 years,” he told me. “Sitting there, I was part of the team and not just the boss.”

During that month, Andrew listened in on conversations and offered his thoughts. He was able to propose suggestions and helped to coach the reps around him, which in turn helped them to better offer answers to customers and even suggest new products to sell them. He helped them do their jobs better. That made them happier and more motivated to do a better job for him.

Andrew became humanized. He wasn’t the “owner in the corner office.” He was Andrew. He became friends (but was not too friendly because that has it’s challenges as a manager) and he not only better understood the jobs that his people were performing, but also offered ways to help them do better and feel better about what they did.

He also got to know them personally a little bit. People like to work with people. Owners are people too. Andrew learned that. So did his employees.

And when his office was finished, Andrew moved … to the production floor.

He took another desk in the production team’s area and worked out of there for a month. Because that location was at the back of the plant he frequently walked the floor and chatted. He noted inventory that wasn't moving. He pointed out potential safety issues. He acknowledged a daughter’s graduation, a wedding anniversary. He offered condolences on deaths and congratulations on births.

And then he moved to the sales area. And then he hung out with the accounting team. After that, it was back to customer service. And around again. It’s been that way now for almost three years.

“When you run a business you get wrapped up in things that are important like deals and contracts and customer meetings, but I was ignoring the most important thing: my people,” Andrew said. “I discovered that I was becoming a figurehead and people don’t get motivated working for a figurehead.”

As a CPA, I've been working with small business owners for more than 20 years. I've seen advisers and consultants recommend different forms of compensation, vacation plans, health insurance strategies and workplace activities all with the intention of improving culture, boosting morale and attracting, retaining and motivating workers.

None of this advice is necessarily bad. But there’s one thing I learned from Andrew and that is that people get motivated when they feel there is meaning to their jobs. And the only one who can communicate that meaning in a small business is the owner of that business.

Some of my clients who are competing for talent against larger companies don’t realize this. They think it’s all about the paycheck. But Andrew is an example of a business owner who has succeeded in motivating his employees simply by just being there and working alongside them.

Gene Marks is a CPA who owns and operates The Marks Group PC, experts in customer relationship management technologies.

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