Managing White-Collar vs. Blue-Collar Workers: What All Employers Should Know

Contributor: Robert Swaim
Posted: 01/17/2017
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Only one in seven employees in developed countries does work that requires manual labor. 

While the western world has shifted to a knowledge-based workforce (think: desk jobs that involve more problem-solving and less physical work), there are forces creating new manual labor opportunities. 

Tech startups like Boxed and Rent the Runway, for instance, hire programmers and developers to build apps as well as warehouse workers to manage inventories. When it comes to the small business landscape, blue-collar fields like construction and roofing are among the most lucrative. 

Managers in emerging and traditional fields must understand the different skill sets required to lead the two types of employees—both equally important to the strength of the economy.  

According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory, knowledge workers (like accountants, computer programmers, and marketers) are motivated by self-actualization, learning, and understanding needs, rather than lower-level security and safety needs.

Using Frederick Hertzberg’s Hygiene and Motivation Theory, knowledge workers are motivated by the need for achievement and the quality of their work, rather than compensation, benefits, and working conditions.

And in terms of David McClelland’s Needs Theory, knowledge workers are motivated by the need for achievement, rather than the need for power or affiliation.

Motivating Manual Workers

Manual workers are more concerned about what Hertzberg calls “hygiene factors,” which emphasize compensation and benefits. The implications of these findings for organizations include: 

• Human Resources managers should conduct periodic studies to ensure the organization’s compensation and benefits are competitive to attract and retain employees. 

• Work conditions will obviously vary by the type of industry, but regardless of the job, safety is paramount. 

• The organization’s policies and procedures should be administered fairly with no discrimination.

• Managers and supervisors should practice positive management and leadership styles (training may be necessary).

• Co-workers are very important to manual workers. Managers should work to create self-directed teams, with careful selection of members to ensure compatibility. 

Motivating Knowledge Workers

Knowledge workers are most concerned about finding challenging work that brings them a sense of achievement. Thus, to motivate these kinds of workers, organizations should do the following:  

• Knowledge workers should be assigned tasks where they can experience achievement and make a meaningful contribution to the organization.

• These tasks should include analyzing opportunities for the organization to pursue, or major problems that need to be resolved (but do not keep them focused on problems too long at the expense of ignoring important opportunities). 

• Continuous innovation should to be built into their job (i.e., pursing and assessing new business opportunities).

• The organization should access the strengths of their knowledge workers and assign them to tasks that take advantage of these strengths.

• Knowledge workers are looking for challenging and meaningful objectives with feedback mechanisms, so the knowledge worker can measure his or her own progress.

Productivity of the Knowledge Worker

Drucker felt that increasing the productivity of the knowledge worker requires addressing several key factors and asking some important questions. These factors include:

• Job analysis and its contribution

• Concentration of work on the task

• Assessing performance and results

• Team organization and participation of the responsible worker

• Permanent learning and training

Because of the limited length of this article, I only address the “job analysis and its contribution” factor here. A number of assessment tools are available from the author upon request. 

Job Analysis and Its Contribution

Knowledge worker job analysis requires asking the following questions:

• What? Check the need and use of the job. What is being done? What is the purpose? Is it essential? Would the sky fall down on us if we stopped doing it?

• Where? Check if the place where we are doing something is the appropriate one. Where is the job performed? Why? Could it be performed somewhere else, in a more economical and satisfactory manner?

• When? Make sure that the job is being carried out at the appropriate time. When is the job being carried out? Why? Is this the best time to do it? Could it be done in another sequence? 

• Who? Make sure that the person who performs the job is the appropriate person. Who does this job? Why? Who could or must do it? Why? Could a more qualified person do it more economically? Could a less qualified person do it after being trained?

• How? Find out whether the job can be simplified or better performed, with less complication, higher quality, and lower cost. How is the job done? 

• Why? Could it be done in an easier and simper way? Can it be done at a higher quality, without introducing complications? Are the means used the most appropriate? Are there alternative means or other ways of doing the job that are better than the present ones? Which things make the job complicated or difficult for the people who perform it? Could things be eliminated?

Guidelines for Leading the Knowledge Worker 

The following are some of the major guidelines for leading the knowledge worker:

1. Assign knowledge workers to tasks where they can use their knowledge to produce results.

2. Don’t force them to stay wedded to one task forever. They like to solve problems, but they don’t want to be stuck with completing one task for too long.

3. Establish challenging projects and objectives for knowledge workers with flexible deadlines.

4. Allow knowledge workers to perform their work the way they feel comfortable. 

5. Build in self-feedback mechanisms so that knowledge workers can measure progress and achievement on their own.

6. Reward knowledge workers with recognition, educational opportunities in their field (e.g., attending professional conferences), and chances to become thought leaders (e.g., writing articles and technical papers in relevant professional publications).

7. Meet with them on a regular basis and review the knowledge worker interview form that the manager and knowledge worker will complete. 

8. Determine if they are being “burned out.” What other interests should they pursue—inside or outside the organization—to revive their enthusiasm?

9. Key questions you should always be asking of your knowledge workers:

•  What is the task the knowledge worker has been assigned to?

•  What are the strengths of the knowledge worker—what do they do well and where do they belong?

•  Where should they be assigned to produce the greatest contribution and results?

•  Why is this person here? What would happen if this person were not here?

•  What results (output) do you expect from the knowledge worker and when?

•  What obstacles are hindering knowledge worker performance? How can they be removed? Are you asking them this question regularly?

•  What other support may be required to make the knowledge worker productive?

•  What team assignments would be most appropriate for this knowledge worker?

•  What direction and leadership am I providing them?


The productivity of knowledge workers has not kept pace with the productivity of manual workers—in fact knowledge worker productivity has been decreasing. 

Management must know how to address this problem, since the number of knowledge workers is increasing and will continue to do so. 

Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge workers” over 40 years ago, but his insights are as valuable as ever. As he said in Management Challenges for the 21st Century:

“The most valuable assets of the 20th-century company were its production equipment. 

The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

Contributor: Robert Swaim