Managing Unskilled Workers

Keeping People Happy and Motivated

Managing Unskilled Workers - Keeping People Happy and Motivated

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Managing unskilled workers requires a unique approach.

Have you ever had to manage people who only needed basic skills to do their jobs? If so, you'll know that it can be a challenge to manage them effectively.

For instance, how do you motivate people who won't have the opportunity to take on interesting tasks and projects? And how can you keep people happy if they're doing repetitive or unchallenging work?

This group needs a subtly different management approach from that used with skilled knowledge workers, and it's essential to get your approach right, so that you can build a loyal, motivated, happy workforce.

In this article, we'll examine the challenges that come with managing unskilled workers, and we'll discuss strategies for working with them effectively.


The term "unskilled" can be misleading; everyone must have some skills to do a job, even if these skills are relatively simple to learn! In this article, "unskilled" simply means that people don't need formal training, qualifications, or experience to do their jobs well.


An important part of managing unskilled workers is putting together the right team. But, how do you recruit the right people, when they only need basic skills to do the job effectively?

Clearly, they'll need to be able to do what's required of them in the role. So don't assume that everyone can do the job, even if they need only very basic skills to be effective. Consider using InBox/In-Tray Assessments to see how potential candidates will perform on the job, and ask people to highlight how their past experiences could relate to the role.

It's especially important to look at factors such as personality, self-motivation, and reliability. Therefore, it will be helpful to define the type of people who will best fit the role, and to add this to the personal characteristics section of the job description. This can help you attract, and spot, the type of people you want. Recruitment tests can also help you choose the best person for a role, based on their personality and other "soft" factors.

During the interview process, encourage candidates to ask questions about the role and your organization. People who ask questions about your organization, and the responsibilities they'll have in their new role, will likely stay motivated longer than a candidate who expresses no curiosity. (This won't apply in all situations, though, so use your best judgment here.)

You may also want to make sure that you don't recruit people who are "over-qualified" for the role – they'll be more likely to move on, if they don't have the chance to use their skills fully in the job.

Motivational Strategies

Many people assume that unskilled workers will be motivated by pay alone. However, this is often not true, and there are many other ways that you can motivate them effectively.

Let's look at several strategies and theories that will help you do this:

  • Theory X and Theory Y helps you understand your assumptions about what motivates your people. This helps you treat people as individuals and adapt your approach as necessary.
  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs highlights that certain motivators, like pay, only satisfy basic needs. So you'll need to meet other needs in different ways. For example, by providing a safe working environment, encouraging team bonding, and praising your people for a job well done.
  • Herzberg's Motivators and Hygiene Factors theory says that people will only be satisfied in their role if you first remove factors for dissatisfaction. Make sure that you remove as many of these as you can.
  • Expectancy Theory helps you motivate people by linking hard work with positive outcomes.

It's also important to reward your people for their hard work. Even a simple "thank you" will show them that you notice and appreciate their efforts. You could also thank people by bringing in muffins or cakes at the end of the week, or by ordering in lunch after a busy period.

Tip 1:

You'll probably find it easier to use these strategies with people in skilled roles. However, you can apply many of these strategies with unskilled workers with a bit of creativity. For example, you could give unskilled workers "advancement" and a sense of status in their roles by asking them to train new team members.

Tip 2:

Make sure that unskilled workers are treated in the same way as everyone else in your organization. This is especially important when it comes to company benefits such as flexible working or staff parties.

Tip 3:

Whenever possible, give your people the ability to choose their tasks. The more control they have over their work, the more they'll "own" and take responsibility for what they do.

Further Strategies

You can also help unskilled workers be more effective by using the following strategies and tips.

Improving Workplace Conditions

Set up your team's workspace with their happiness and comfort in mind. Try to incorporate plenty of natural or bright light. Bring in plants to make the area more comfortable and inviting.

Also make sure that your team has a healthy workplace. Walk around and examine the office or workspace. Is the temperature comfortable? Does everyone have the tools and resources they need to do their work? Is the space bright and motivating? Is the area as clean as it can be? And, all in all, is it the sort of place that people will want to work in?

Sometimes, business or performance goals can put team safety at risk. Analyze the way that you measure and reward your team's performance. Is safety the top priority? Or do the incentives you offer encourage people to put safety at risk?


You can encourage your team to work safely by changing the way that you reward good work. For instance, instead of rewarding speed (which could put people at risk), you could reward team members who report safety hazards.

Creating a Positive Atmosphere

You can create a more positive atmosphere by striving to have more positive interactions than negative with your team members. See our article on the Losada Ratio for one suggestion for the kind of balance to aim for. Although the statistics behind this model are in doubt now, the principle is not. When you have more positive interactions with your team, morale is higher, people are happier, and productivity improves.

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Monotonous Or Repetitive Work

People don't enjoy monotonous work, but it's sometimes unavoidable, especially with unskilled jobs.

Do what you can to vary the tasks and responsibilities of your team members. Strategies such as cross-training and job crafting can go a long way towards making each person's job more varied and interesting.

If it doesn't negatively affect performance, allow team members to chat with each other or listen to the radio while they work. You could also let them work from a different desk or workstation every day to add variety to their routine.

Dealing With Illiteracy

Illiteracy is a surprisingly large problem in many countries, and it's more likely to affect people in unskilled roles. For instance, in the U.S. one in every seven adults is functionally illiterate; in the U.K., it's one in every five.

If you suspect that any of your team members have difficulty reading or writing, approach this with sensitivity, and do what you can to help them be effective in a dignified way.

For instance, you could pair them up with another trusted team member, give instructions verbally, or color-code resources and work tools. (Remember, though, that some people are color blind!)

Key Points

People in unskilled roles often require a different management approach from that used with skilled or knowledge workers.

First, make sure that you recruit the right people by ensuring that they can do the job, and that their personality is a good fit for the job.

Then take the time to understand people's individual needs, so that you can motivate them effectively.

It's also important that your people have a comfortable and safe place to work, that you build a positive environment, and that you do what you can to add interest to monotonous work routines.