Farming opinion: How I soul-searched on my style of management to help keep staff

John Pawsey, Shimpling Park Farm Picture: WARREN PAGE/PAGEPIX

John Pawsey, Shimpling Park Farm Picture: WARREN PAGE/PAGEPIX - Credit: Archant

I heard Peter Kendall, chairman of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, speak last week, alluding to the changes that we are going to have to make to our businesses in light of the Agriculture Bill.

Agricultural workers busy harvesting on a Suffolk crop field Picture: BRIAN FINNERTY

Agricultural workers busy harvesting on a Suffolk crop field Picture: BRIAN FINNERTY - Credit: Archant

He talked about an agricultural machinery company that had made a U-turn in the products that it manufactured in response to changing market conditions and had subsequently changed its fortunes.

Mr Kendall mentioned its three key business values of which two, ‘sustainable and profitable’, are hopefully a given for most of us, but the third, enjoyable, is possibly something that we are too preoccupied to recognise as a primary focus for business success.

I have definitely been guilty of not making a more enjoyable working atmosphere for full time or part time staff at Shimpling Park Farm in the name of profitability.

Although we don’t employ many people, we have had a higher turnover of staff over the past three years than we have ever had. Running a small team means everyone has a key role and so filling an unexpected gap has to happen immediately and usually falls on my shoulders, which is not enjoyable for me, but, more importantly, why are we not keeping new people?

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This question resulted in some soul searching on my part and having to admit to failings in my management style.

Unfortunately 650 words isn’t enough to detail all those failings, but the key one was that our direction and fortunes as a company were quite clear in my own head, but I was not communicating these aspirations and goals to those who were key to delivering the outcomes.

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Being told to just get on with it, with no explanation to why, is not enjoyable for anyone, especially when the business is going through change.

The other key problem area, which I think is the same for most farming businesses, is not formalising working times so that everyone, including myself, can plan proper time with family and friends or just time away from work. This is a problem for all businesses that rely on good weather to be productive, but we were getting to the stage that the only people we were going to attract were single insomniacs with no friends.

It is early days, but we have recently made some changes that have made Shimpling Park Farm a more enjoyable place to be.

We now have weekly staff meetings, rather than a hurried five minute speech from me at the start of the day. On Monday mornings, everyone involved on the farm that week gathers for coffee in the farm office to discuss where we got to in the previous week and where we would like to be at the end of the current week.

It gives us a chance to look at what the weather is likely to do, to manage expectations as well as see how we can help each other be more productive.

It’s the time when staff can let me know what they expect of me and how I can support them during the working week and also an essential vehicle for discussing potential health and safety issues.

The second change is to bring more structure to working times. This is confirmed at the weekly Monday meeting but the key thing is that planning time away from work is as important as planning time at work.

But the most important change has to be that, apart from six weeks at harvest time, we no longer work on Sundays. Even if it has rained all week and Sunday is the only dry day and conditions are perfect, Sunday is sacrosanct.

It’s been nearly a year now since we made these changes and I firmly believe that, as a team, we are more productive, routinely refreshed and enjoying ourselves. I will be checking the EADT letters page this week for any Shimpling Park Farm dissenters!

John Pawsey farms at Shimpling, near Bury St Edmunds and chairs the NFU’s Organic Forum.

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