Environment and culture

Create a positive workplace culture

The environment or culture of a business is often set up from the top. An effective leader sets the tone for the team, encourages a positive workplace culture and is able to bring about cultural change.

Workplace culture comprises the shared attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, values and expectations that influence the way people work on farm. It is “the way we do things around here”.

Some cultural aspects are understood by all and are obvious such as turning up for milking on time, while others may be “unwritten rules” that are not so obvious for example how personal issues are resolved with work colleagues.

Many factors that influence whether a workplace has a positive outlook are within the control of people who work on the farm. There are also factors out of their control, such as slumps in global milk prices, weather events, or shrinking local communities. The team can, however, control how they respond to these factors.

Those farms that do create positive workplace environments develop a reputation in their community as being ‘good to work for’ and have a competitive edge. Not only are these farms more able to attract and retain people, the farm team tends to be more stable as it proactively deals with issues and adapts to change.

Teams work best when they are clear about what is expected of them. They are more able to deal with difficult issues if they feel the values of the organisation are supportive of them.

For a workplace culture to be positive, the direction and actions of the business must be consistent with the core values of the people on the farm. The people must trust each other and be able to openly express and exchange ideas.

Working through these steps will help with developing a positive farm culture.

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Create a positive work environment
  • Discuss, agree and reinforce the values of the workplace: set expectations (e.g. honesty, initiative, flexibility, reliability, enthusiasm, respect, encouragement etc.); use role models; incorporate values into the routine way things are done; ensure owners and leaders demonstrate how it should be done.
  • Convey the workplace culture to others especially new employees. An easy way to do this is to develop a statement of team values and support this with a business code of conduct.

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Foster collaboration in the workplace
  • Help team members understand and appreciate each other’s styles and work patterns better (get the right mix of team players).
  • Have ways of sharing information about how work is being done (communicate effectively).
  • Promote trust by ensuring that feedback is constructive and focused on issues not people.
  • Use differences between people to arrive at better solutions and to do better work (manage conflict and solve problems).
  • Create opportunities for team members to interact and build their relationships with off-farm team members (e.g. factory supply officers, farm consultants, nutritionists, accountants, vets) and increase their knowledge and skills.
  • Use technology effectively.
  • Involve the team in setting up documented standard operating procedures for the all the tasks on the farm.
  • Encourage team members to openly express and exchange ideas.
  • Establish team ground rules that promote openness.
  • Have regular meetings of the farm team (run productive team meetings).
  • Do a performance appraisal with each team member at least every six months.
  • Have an exit interview with anyone (family member or employee) who leaves the team.

To do a quick check of the team culture on your farm go to Where is the team now?

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“… the way we want to be treated ourselves” – Stephen and Karen Fisher, Togari, Tasmania

Stephen and Karen Fisher were the Trans-Tasman winners of the 2008 Dairy Business of the Year Awards, based on excellent pasture and grazing management, good financial planning and budgeting, rearing replacements and building stock numbers and first-class labour management.

The Fishers’ philosophy on labour management was pretty simple – “to treat people the way that we want to be treated ourselves,” Mr Fisher said. It was critical to have respect for employees. “The rate at which we can grow our business is related to our labour input,” he said.

They employ people based on attitude not skill. “What we find is if we put a bad egg in with a good bunch it can cause us trouble,” he said.

They have written employment agreements for all staff that are given to them to read and sign before they start work. These outline conditions, wages, OHS issues they need to be aware of and, in the case of senior staff, detailed information about what they are expected to do.

The Fishers previously offered a quality bonus but have now built that into the overall package. “We figured if we had to pay that bonus (to get quality milk) we didn’t need those blokes anyway,” Mr Fisher said. They also offer a financial incentive to senior staff if they commit to staying for the next 12 months and then do that.

The Australian Dairyfarmer, July-Aug 2008

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Maintain a good work-life balance

Ensuring a good work-life balance is important for any occupation, but particularly so for farming. Farmers usually live at their workplace, so it is tempting to be on the job every day of the year. Dairy farming is not a nine-to-five, five-days-a-week job. There are times of intense activity during the year and stock must be cared for constantly.

Each person on the farm will have their own perspective on what constitutes a good, healthy work-life balance. The competing demands of raising a family, maintaining relationships, pursuing sport and having time away from work on the one hand, and getting results for the farm business on the other, is a juggling act. Finding ways of organising work so that the needs of each team member are met is a constant challenge for the farm owner and manager.

Yet getting it right has great payoffs. People who strike a good balance between family, leisure and work commitments are healthier, more productive, and more likely to stay. Burn-out or stress can have long-term effects on health leading to depression, relationship breakdown or illness.

A good work-life balance usually involves flexibility of when, where and how work is done rather than spending fewer hours at work.

Have the people working on your farm got work-life balance? Start by completing the work-life balance tab in the People Snapshot. These are an important set of questions for everyone on the farm. Work-life balance should be achieved for everyone working on the farm not just some individuals.

To explore the impact of working conditions on your farm further you can use a more extensive checklist of questions on work-life balance for employers and employees and the Working Conditions tab in the People Analysis tool.

This example shows how a dairy farm can use this tool to explore working conditions.

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If the work-life balance isn’t quite right here are some things you can do.

  • Communicate openly about the differing needs of individuals for time-off.
  • Have flexible work rosters and timetables to assist team members (particularly parents and carers with young children). This may include providing opportunities for extended time off in less busy periods, and avoiding consistent rostering of parents around their busy family times.
  • Consider offering part-time or shared positions.
  • Offer time off in lieu of overtime.
  • Provide amenities for workers – for example, access to lockers and showers, kitchen facilities for basic meals and a store of healthy snacks, especially when workers are not accommodated on farm.
  • Consider offering health checks for people working on the farm.
  • Have a culture in which working very long hours is not considered ‘heroic’. Model the way by demonstrating your own commitment to work-life balance. Have some social or recreational activities that you do as a team.
  • Celebrate the achievements of staff outside the farm (for example participation in sporting events).

Additional demands on people reveal problems in work-life balance

Problems with striking the right balance usually become apparent when additional demands are made on people. To deal with this, each person needs to think about what is important to them both at work and in their personal life so they can start to focus their time and energy.

Having some time away from work is important and ensures that people are refreshed when they are at work. A well designed roster helps to manage work-life balance and is important for all farms not just those with large numbers of employees.

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“Flexibility is critical” – Angela and Wayne Huisman, Togari, Tasmania

Angela and Wayne Huisman won the Australian Dairy Business of the year Sharefarmer Award in 2008. They milk 620 cows on 200 hectares at Togari, Tasmania.

“People are essential on large farms,” said Mr Huisman.

They employ four full-time staff and need to ensure organisation of the staff is top-notch. A whiteboard in the cow shed is used to plan and allocate jobs.

“Forward planning lets people know what they have to do,” he said.

He also tries to let staff do tasks they enjoy – usually things at which they are good.

Flexibility is also critical. Employee hours are recorded in a book and staff are able to work flexible hours to suit themselves. They are expected to attend milking and then have a list of jobs that they are expected to complete, but this can be done in either the morning or afternoon depending on what suits them.

The Australian Dairyfarmer, Mar-Apr 2009

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Build your capacity to adapt to change

In some instances, consultation is not a choice, but required by law. The Fair Work Best Practice Guide: Consultation & cooperation in the workplace has a flowchart ‘Consultation in practice’, which sets out a recommended step by step approach for best practice consultation.

Farm teams that are working well together can be highly innovative, more able to adapt to change, work effectively in complex situations and improve the processes adopted by the business. This is achieved through combining the knowledge and talents of individual members, exploring initiatives and opportunities that fit with the broader farm strategies and actively seeking relevant input from other people.

Encourage a culture of innovation in the team by:

  • Approaching issues with a future focus and an open-mind. Develop a more global perspective, get in tune with trends in the industry and continually explore how they might affect your business.
  • Continue to improve processes by regular reviews conducted with the team. Step through how the current system works and identify what is critical for its success and what outcomes are desirable.
  • Consider alternatives and what the outcomes may be without change and be open to new approaches and advances in technology that can improve things.

New people bring new ideas

Listen to the questions new employees ask about your work processes as any challenges to the status quo may present an opportunity for improvement.

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Often the introduction of new technology or process falls far short of its promise. Plans focus solely on implementing the technology (be it a new piece of equipment, product or knowledge) and overlook the processes, training and ongoing support needed to incorporate it into the business.

When changing an approach or introducing a new technology:

  • assign a leader to the project or change effort;
  • communicate in ways that help each team member understand the scale and scope of the change and how the new system will work;
  • discuss how to best implement the change
    • involve people in decisions that impact them,
    • establish structures and roles to support the change,
    • make sure necessary training or retraining is provided;
  • track whether you are achieving the intended outcomes from the new approach and create opportunities for people to comment on progress;
  • be flexible in the implementation;
  • look for small wins to help maintain momentum and build confidence in the viability of the new initiative.

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