For years, the ability to work out of the office and be productive has been an internal struggle for many companies—with leadership on both sides of the debate. The notion you have to be seated in the same office with all of your co-workers in order to generate success has been fading over the years as technology has allowed for more intimate connections. Now, COVID-19 has put that new mindset on a bullet train. We have seen not only that it is possible to work remotely, as well as very cost-effective, but there are many who would like to work from home, opening up a new employee pool.
I was early to jump on this remote office track back in 2008 when I moved from South Texas to my home state of California. I implemented a network that would facilitate RD (Remote desktop) through our VPN (Virtual Private Network) to my PC, an extension connected to the main office line (VOIP), inner-company messaging systems (Slack Tech), boards, and video conferencing (Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Team, Blue Jeans). I used all of these tools to stay in constant connection to HQ, and I traveled to South Texas one week out of every month. For 12 years, many in the industry had no idea I was even in California 75 percent of the time, and my employees all said I was even more available than some onsite leadership.
"The notion you have to be seated in the same office with all of your co-workers in order to generate success has been fading over the years as technology has allowed for more intimate connections."
So, how does technology humanize us?
To begin, it allows for people to have the personal life they would like to live while being extremely productive professionally. This is not a new concept to most industries, but with produce—and agriculture in general—the notion of face-to-face contact has always carried more weight when deciding on employment. We work in rural areas as well as where the land is fertile. We work in borderlands and ports of entry to bring the best fruits and vegetables to the U.S. consumer. We are cutting-edge in our growing practices, product quality, global shipping, and more. By not embracing technology on the human resource front, our industry is missing out on recruiting extremely talented people that can balance it all—personal and professional life—and bring premium value to a company.
There are some of us that have been making this work, and now COVID has leveled the playing field even more by insisting we find a solution and make it work. We were all forced to carry on with folks working from home, and we have now realized how many positions can allow for remote work. Clearly, harvesting, packing, shipping, and these types of responsibilities all require hands-on work. But, there are so many positions that do not.
I was visiting with an industry colleague recently and she said, “You know, I have actually felt closer to some of my staff through COVID.” I raised my eyebrow, as anyone who knows me knows I have NO poker face. She continued, “I was seeing kids walk by while video chatting, and I was able to access a window into their personal lives that I never really saw when they were sitting in a boardroom.”
"There are some of us that have been making this work, and now COVID has leveled the playing field even more by insisting we find a solution and make it work."
Now, that was a head-scratcher, even for techy me. “I felt closer to my staff through COVID.” What a concept. Not only can you lead and be highly functioning, but you can get to know your staff at a more intimate level. The core fabric of what has made up agriculture has been families—the heartbeat of America. Seeing these people as part of more than the team at the table can be an evolutionary move for a company and for leadership.
Family farms are the backbone of America, with generations of growers that are now looking for succession planning. Gone are the days when my son or daughter will carry on in my footsteps. Instead, we are in the days of, “How do we get talented folks to run our companies, but allow them to have their own family life?” and “How do we ensure the future of our businesses, and bring on exceptional talent to run our companies, and grow them when their families are located across the state, nation, and world?”
How can we embrace each other’s basic humanity and desire to be near loved ones, while still keeping our business productive? Well, you guessed it: technology!