Getting the Most from Your Warehouse Employees

With no built-in toggle to switch to “full speed” or “maximum,” warehouse supervisors and plant managers are always looking for creative ways to get the most from their employees.

Given the repetitive nature of the majority of warehouse jobs—picker, lift driver, packer, assembler, machine operator—it can be challenging to make sure your employees’ “batteries are fully charged” and that they are motivated to and actually perform at top levels every day.

A good starting point for developing a strategy for getting the maximum from your workforce is understanding the level of disengagement among warehouse employees. A 2014 Gallup poll shows that 23 percent of warehouse employees feel engaged in their work, which translates to three of every four employees feeling uninvolved in, unenthusiastic about, and not committed to their work.

So whether your workforce is performing at a high level and is engaged, or there are serious problems, there’s room for improvement.

Here are 10 key actions you can take to foster greater motivation and encourage your employees to perform their best at all times.

  • Align the desired motivation with the company’s goals.
    The cost of labor can constitute anywhere from 65 percent to 75 percent of most warehouse operating budgets. That cost can fall into a black hole if your employees’ work is counterproductive to your company’s objectives.

Employees who know that their tasks directly support the company’s goals and mission will be more engaged not only in their jobs but also in the company’s success.

  • Measure productivity.
    Yes, it rings true every time: What gets measured gets done.

Employees understand standard productivity information captured in a warehouse management system, so involving them in identifying bottlenecks and failures and developing solutions encourages their buy-in. Expanding on that, consider posting each day a report on the previous day’s performance. Employees can see for themselves the results, and will take greater responsibility for continuously improving performance.

  • Do a makeover.
    Who says you can’t think big when it comes to motivating your employees? Even a complete re-engineering of the warehouse can be a viable strategy, under the right circumstances. Review your quality management program, safety record, and equipment. The findings might underscore the need to improve work shifts, invest in new equipment, change the process for unloading trucks and putaway, and reconfigure the warehouse layout.

These efforts can have a big impact, including increased productivity, higher performance against established labor standards, improved safety, and reduced turnover.

  • Take training to a higher level.
    Sure, warehouse employees need to be trained thoroughly in their jobs. But investing in formal, development-oriented training, such as leadership skills, can net high payoffs for the workforce and the company.

In addition, training employees in intangibles, such as integrity, responsibility, accomplishment, working with minimal supervision—training them to think, not simply do—instills a sense of job ownership that they otherwise might not have.

  • Cross-train.
    The ability to perform multiple jobs in a warehouse benefits both the company and the employees. From the company’s standpoint, there’s a built-in pool of talent that can be shifted seamlessly to areas of need throughout the warehouse, thus saving money on recruiting and hiring employees externally.

For employees, the training and development they receive validates that the company is committed to investing the time and resources for new skill acquisition and career development. As a result, they are likely to enjoy their jobs more and perform at higher levels.

  • Promote safe practices.
    Arguably, nothing can be more demotivating than knowing the workplace is unsafe. If you do nothing else, create and maintain a culture of safety. Make sure both managers and employees understand the safety challenges that can arise in the warehouse environment and develop solutions together.

Related to safety, ergonomics is becoming increasingly important. The more comfortable warehouse employees are in performing their work functions, the higher the productivity and the greater the satisfaction.

  • Offer incentives.
    A good carrot approach can yield great results. To wit, a properly designed incentive program in the warehouse can effect positive changes, including substantial savings, quality improvements, and greater employee commitment.

Warehouse employees can be incentivized for any number of things—it’s up to you to determine what will generate the greatest value. Employees can be rewarded for throughput, accuracy, quality, speed, and any number of other categories. Almost anything that is measurable and affects the operational bottom line can be tied to incentives.

  • Emphasize quality of work.
    Focusing exclusively on the bottom line can dull motivation. Emphasize the quality of work as well as productivity, rather than either one to the exclusion of the other. Acknowledging and rewarding high-quality work can motivate every employee.
  • Take a walk on the financial side.
    Most companies don't share their financial reports with their employees, but maybe they should—especially if increased company success translates to greater financial gains for their employees. Noting how the company’s goals affect them, especially if it means extra cash in their pockets, will quickly motivate a workforce—and regular follow-up reports will keep them interested.
  • Read, communicate, and recognize.
    The more you know about your employees, the better you’ll be attuned to what motivates them. Accurately “reading” the signs employees give off will sharpen your understanding of their level of job satisfaction. By interpreting their motivators, you can adjust employees’ jobs and opportunities accordingly.

Set aside regular time to talk with your employees. Frequent communication is essential to maintaining motivation. This quality time can be a huge enabler for understanding employees’ current motivators.

Recognize accomplishments. Sometimes a simple comment such as, “Great job adjusting to the scope change—way to work together” can be very impactful. Employees appreciate knowing that their efforts are being acknowledged.

Along with achieving daily metrics and meeting customer expectations, getting the best performance possible consistently from your employees needs to be a major part of your game plan.

Is there a “one size fits all” strategy? No, but finding the right blend of techniques for your warehouse and employees will make a significant difference in productivity, performance, and job satisfaction.