Grow your people, not just your business

By Sue Bryan

Poor communication is often quoted as one of the biggest frustrations among staff on farms. Limited engagement can impact performance, productivity and commitment to the role. Not to mention, the effect it will have on the workplace.

Creating a positive work environment for your staff has never been more important than today. The Farming Community Network’s helpline has seen a notable rise in UK farmers seeking mental health support, as we continue to face Covid-19, concerns around the effects of Brexit and a range of other challenges. All heightening feelings of stress and anxiety.

When considering the above, it of course must appear a daunting task to keep your staff’s spirits high. Let’s not forget, however, that it can be the smallest of gestures and changes that can make the biggest difference. Don’t underestimate the power of communication to create a strong, passionate and fulfilled workforce.  

It’s time to stop and listen

I encourage you to take a moment now and think about the last time you stopped and spoke to your staff. I don’t just mean a brief chat in the parlour or at the tractor cab door, I’m talking about a moment when you set your tasks aside and sat down to have an inciteful conversation. A time when you could both offer contribution.

I suggest that this should be something of a regular occurrence. How regular? Well that is up to you and your team. You need to understand what would work best for them, as well as for your business. Although, planning it and making sure you have chosen the right setting are both essential.

Privacy is key and so is taking the individual away from their tasks on farm. You’re always going to get a better response when your staff member is away from their colleagues. This doesn’t necessarily mean a formal setting suits best; work out where they appear most comfortable. I’ve had people clam up in the kitchen but pour their heart out to me sitting on a bale in the shed.

Putting time in the diary during January would too seem sensible, providing the foundations for a successful partnership throughout the rest of the year.

The steps to a successful staff meeting

Once you’ve got a time and place organised, the next step to consider is what you need and want to be asking your staff during these conversations. I see it as a four-step process.

  1. The first, and most important, step is to simply ask if they’re okay. Whether they give an open response or not, offering support and guidance can be a remarkable gesture.
  1. There needs to be a focus on future progression, training and fulfilment. The questions could be ‘are you satisfied with your current responsibilities?’, ‘do you feel you’ve had adequate training to fulfil your job duties?’, or ‘what are your short- and long-term goals?’ It’s your job to make sure employees are best equipped to complete the jobs you need them to do well and are mentally stimulated. Some may want to grow professionally, but you don’t know their thoughts until you ask. This step goes some way in avoiding disruptive surprises when someone suddenly hands in their notice.
  1. Attention then should turn to, ‘is there anything the business and I, as the manager, can do better?’ The last thing you want is for your team to feel isolated from the company they work for and not empowered to suggest change. 
  1. It’s all very well having these conversations, but if you fail to do anything with the feedback then you are de-valuing the whole process. Listen to your employees and use their knowledge to help the business to evolve and grow. They have invested their time into this conversation, and it’s your duty to give them this time back. By showing that you’re taking on board their feedback, they’ll be inclined to get more involved.

If you are hesitant about this process then there is great value in using an external resource, someone who specialises in staff management. Not only is it often easier for a third party to ask direct questions than it can be for you, staff are more likely to give honest answers if the facilitator uses their skills to probe gently to find the real issues.

Collaborate and communicate

While I would suggest that these one-to-one chats are one of the most vital parts of creating a positive work environment, there are other things that you can do. Weekly staff meetings could provide perfect opportunity to discuss and go over any challenges, review the previous week and what you (as a team) would like to achieve by the end of the current week.

It could also present chance for staff to let you know what they expect of you and how you can support them during the working week. As well as how they can all help one another.

Only by collaborating and communicating will you be able to create a motivated, well-trained and productive team of employees. It can be testing at times, but the benefits certainly outweigh the challenges. After all, good staff provide the foundations to a successful agricultural business.

For further guidance on employee reviews and staff management, get in touch with our farm consultancy team.