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Farm feedback

On this savvy farm, feedback is mined for real value, producing a happier, more efficient workforce

For Adrian and Jodi Roelands, the business challenge was clear. How could they grow their operation sustainably and profitably based on a reputation for top-quality product? In that search, employee feedback is now a key strategy.

On the farm, we’ve heard the jokes about feedback being a load of barley that gets rejected at the elevator, or maybe it’s how a cow chews her cud. In bizspeak, though, feedback gets taken a lot more seriously than that.

As a human resources strategy, feedback is gaining global attention because of the power it has to generate insights that unleash innovation, solve problems and even empower employees.

Now, it’s proving its value on the farm too.

But be forewarned: this isn’t feedback the way that we used to think of it. No longer is feedback something that always flows from the top down, like those grumpy criticisms from the boss or those annual performance reviews.

Instead, this is the era of 360-degree feedback. It’s a whole new world.

The story starts here

Four years ago at Lambton Shores, northwest of London, Adrian and Jodi Roelands started a plant propagation business with four acres of greenhouses and 30 to 50 seasonal staff.

Their second hire was a human resources specialist, because the Roelands could see that in order to achieve their goals, they would need to leverage team leadership skills and create systems to manage people.

Today the farm employs 150 employees (seasonal and full-time staff) and has tripled in size with customers throughout Eastern Canada and into the U.S.

“For us, 12 acres is the sweet spot,” says Jodi. “We were trying to get there as fast as possible.”

Richard Stup, a Pennsylvania-based human resources consultant, says as the numbers of non-family employees increases, so does the level of management and leadership that is required. In his experience, the tipping point is often when farms get 10 to 20 non-family employees.

This is the zone where farmers really need to formalize their daily interactions with people and need to schedule communication, so they can engage consistently, as well as communicate and manage.

“Leadership requirements change at different stages of business growth,” Stup says.

Farm families have a history that keeps them motivated. They’ve also grown up understanding long hours and effort.

But when the farm gets bigger than the family, they suddenly discover that motivation can be a real issue with non-family employees.

They also see the payoff. “Highly motivated workers will give the extra effort needed to do a good job, not just what they must do to get by,” says Stup.

From day one, motivating their employees and learning from them has been part of the Roelands’ business strategy, and this continues to be the driving force behind their success. “We really believe our staff knows what they are doing and that we need to harness that knowledge,” says Jodi.

The Roelands have a strong core of about 100 local employees and sometimes have 40 or 50 contract workers they bring in from London to cover the busiest times. This winter they’re also hiring 40 foreign workers through the temporary foreign workers program (TFWP).

The Roelands hope the TFWP program will help them to continue to expand because they’ve tapped out the local market for labour. They’ve also been automating; rapid increases in the minimum wage in Ontario are reinforcing the cost effectiveness of replacing lower skilled labour with machines, says Jodi.

But to grow the farm, there’s no way around it. The Roelands need good people.

Adrian and Jodi find employees respond to extra communication; the results help them achieve market goals and growth. photo: David Charlesworth

Over their four years in business, the organization of their staff has evolved and become more formalized. Now they have up to six teams in charge of specific jobs, each with a leader. This gives their employees a little more focus, but because their business of producing seedlings for tomato, green pepper and cucumber growers has intensive seasons, these teams move around according to need. Nine managers take care of the day-to-day, and the team leaders report to them.

The two co-owners split up the bigger picture jobs, with Adrian overseeing management, production and growing and Jodi looking after the marketing and financial sides of the business.

Learning how to delegate and letting go of control was difficult for Jodi, but she quickly learned that she couldn’t do it all, especially with five young children. “When I was trying to do everything myself, I was being a bottleneck, I was trying to do too much,” she says. “I found that by hiring the right person for the job, other people could do the job better than me.”

Learn from mistakes

In retrospect one of the core leadership lessons the Roelands have learned is to really dig into mistakes, and to share and learn from them. “Coming to terms with your own mistakes, learning from them and not dwelling on them is key,” says Jodi.

Looking outside the agricultural industry helps them get perspective on risk and their own mistakes, says Jodi. She loves reading business magazine articles about successful companies and the mistakes that they’ve made.

Jodi says Adrian is much better at taking criticism than she is but because they have a common goal, they tend to be focused on that rather than their personal egos. It helps that they work together as equals, building the business from nothing, but it takes good communication.

The couple is in constant communication throughout the day, talking and texting reminders to discuss something or fix a problem later. “I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else but him,” Jodi says.

Their attitude of getting better by learning from mistakes and by constantly looking for ways to improve then creates a model that gets taken up by their staff. With every order, the Roelands post a customer profile where the order is prepared with a photo of the buyer and a list of the specifics they look for in their plants.

Generally, quality is tied to things like uniformity and size, and many of their customers have high standards, which the Roelands are glad of because they’ve branded themselves around quality.

If there is a complaint or suggestion by email from a customer, they print out a copy and tack it on the bulletin board. “We are very open with any communications we get with customers,” says Jodi. “Communication is just so important.”

And the survey says…

Research shows business leaders who do not encourage suggestions for improvement demoralize everyone in the workplace, especially the high performers, i.e. the people they can least afford to lose.

If employees’ ideas are heard and accepted, it can be fulfilling. But if their suggestions are rebuffed, the best and worst employees are all negatively affected.

To help farmers adapt to this, Richard Stup has developed formal worksheets to generate feedback weekly from each employee, including three specific items — strength, growth, look-ahead notes. Continual progress is motivating. Silence is actually demotivating, he says.

“Choosing to not give feedback is an option,” Stup says, but then quickly adds, “it sends a message that the person’s performance on that task is unimportant.”

For about six months the Roelands tried giving their employees confidential surveys to fill out every month. They asked them social questions like, were they happy on their teams, and was anyone negatively affecting the workplace?

However, it was challenging to get employees to fill out the surveys, so instead this year the Roelands decided to just have a sit-down chat with each of their employees at the end of the busy season. Instead of a formal review process, Adrian met with each of them individually for about 15 minutes and asked them how things were going, and if they could see any way to improve on the system and changes that have been made so far.

What they found was that their employees opened up when given an opportunity to talk, and the information was very valuable. “It also builds relationships to be able to talk one-on-one,” says Jodi.

For example, from those interviews the Roelands learned that the piece rate tracking and bonus system they were using made the fastest workers strangely uncomfortable with the slower employees. Their bonus system made them negatively competitive with each other and was set up to favour the ones that stretched the truth and didn’t build team. “Some people are just inherently faster and sometimes speed comes at the cost of quality, at least in our business,” says Jodi.

Their bonus system was based on data from a computer program (called Hortimax) designed in Holland to track labour. Instead of using a time clock, employees go to one of the computer terminals throughout the greenhouses and log in with their employee code and the crops they’re working on. The program ties how much work is done with the hours, showing productivity of the individual employee and the team.

Touchpads let employees track their efficiency and effectiveness. photo: David Charlesworth

Recently, the Roelands have taken their feedback learning a step further and have started surveying their customers after a delivery. By email they send them a link for Survey Monkey, asking them a few questions and for an overall score. That score is directly linked to a bonus system and every month that feedback is shared with the team supervisors and managers.

Current team bonuses are 50 cents on quality (based on the customer survey results) and 50 cents on speed based on the Hortimax data, but employees don’t get the speed bonus without first having good customer scores. This bonus system matches up with their company goal of being a premium supplier.

Bonuses used to be set on how much work was done in a certain time but because quality is so important to their business, linking the bonus to customer feedback has resulted in improvements without decreasing productivity. “There’s a lot less damage to the plants now,” says Jodi.

Culture of communication

Last year the Roelands wrote core value, mission and vision statements as part of their CTEAM training. Although they talked about quality at every staff meeting and said that they wanted to be a preferred seedling supplier, they had not written it down.

Although it feels good to have it formally written, it turns out that this was only a step in the process. Jodi has found it’s more important to actively integrate that culture into their business rather than write it on a piece of paper and post it on the wall. “If you are not living it, it doesn’t matter,” she says.

About the same time, they started using a computer program and app called Bamboo HR. Almost all employees have it on their phone so they can let everyone know if they are sick and unable to come in to work so accommodations can be made and all the managers, team supervisors and owners are in the loop as to who’s in or out for the day.

Employees can also book vacation time on the app and it goes directly into the system so it can be accepted or denied, depending on the schedule. The program has all the employee onboarding paperwork, training and safety documents, and, emergency contact information is at everyone’s fingertips.

On the app, new hires tell a little bit about themselves — like their birthdays, what they like to do when they aren’t working — and on their start day a welcoming email goes out with this information. Jodi has found this little bit of information makes new employees feel welcome because these tidbits are great conversation starters.

A new app

A cool tool that Richard Stup has worked with is an app called Deputy. It helps schedule employee time and attendance in a format that can be directly downloaded to payroll programs, tasking and communication. It’s also an easier way to give constructive feedback to employees, by tracking completed tasks or performance.

Feedback apps like these are becoming more and more prevalent. But it comes down to asking for feedback and actively listening.

“What’s the culture? Are employees engaged to communicate with their boss?” asks Stup.

Stup hopes the feedback cultural shift he is teaching farmers might be the key to stopping outside labour agitators in the U.S. Employee relationships on some American farms have become more of a pressure cooker with the changing immigration laws and threats of unionization.

“Employee welfare and worker welfare are quickly changing,” says Stup. “I’m trying to help farmers get ahead of that with good policies and procedures.”

Recently, company-imposed codes of conduct are forcing changes. Food processing companies are now wrestling with how to balance workers rights with the continual challenge of producing low-cost food. In October, the Vermont-based ice cream maker, Ben and Jerry’s signed an agreement called “Milk with Dignity” with a farmworkers’ group in the state.

It establishes labour standards for the company’s suppliers, such as a set minimum wage, the right to one day off per week and at least eight consecutive hours of rest between shifts, and housing accommodation that includes a bed and access to electricity and clean running water. In return, Ben and Jerry’s will pay their accredited farms, a premium for the milk.

Cutting to the right question

Farm employers desiring a high-performing and committed workforce need to move beyond the minimum requirements, says Richard Stup. They need to create an atmosphere that meets people’s social needs.

To bring home the point, Stup often asks farmers how their employees would answer the following five questions that relate to social needs.

  1. Do people feel they are an important part of the farm’s success?
  2. Do people interact in a friendly manner?
  3. Is there a common area on the farm where people can socialize?
  4. Are there opportunities for people to work together to get jobs done, or must they always work alone?
  5. Do people feel they are part of a group that is working toward worthwhile and understandable goals?

Then Stup asks farmers to write down ways they can help improve the responses. The goal is to create work environments where employees are motivated beyond paycheques.

About the author

Senior Business Editor

Maggie Van Camp

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