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How To Measure Your Farm Business Culture
Why use an employee survey to measure culture?
Sound employment practices geared toward attracting, training, retaining, and rewarding employees must reflect a clear understanding of employee views and experiences. The farm culture represents “the way things get done around here,” and it can be positive or present a challenge for employees. No two farm cultures are alike because the people who make up the farm team are unique!
The culture on a farm may not be obvious or visible, but it is there. It is often overlooked in employee management but can be reflected, for example, in the level of attention put on safety, animal welfare, or type of working environment (relaxed/collegial vs uptight/stressful). Speaking up with ideas may be encouraged and decisions are made by teams, or information may come with a top-down approach. Farm culture affects the day-to-day operation of the farm and the relationship between manager and employee.
Leaders may aspire to provide a culture that fosters a positive workplace, but ultimately it’s what employees actually experience that truly defines that farm’s culture. In other words, the workplace culture is not what the farm leadership team believes it to be, but what the farm employees perceive it to be. Getting at those perceptions is the value of an employee survey.
Pros and Cons of Culture Surveys
Culture surveys can provide leaders with valuable insight on the farm’s employee experience. If well designed and properly executed, these surveys can provide feedback that would often not be shared directly through conversations with the team. Steps initiated toward improving culture have been shown to result in higher employee retention, lower absenteeism, and improved morale – all of which in turn lead to improved productivity.
However, there is a downside to employee surveys that should be carefully considered. If the management team is not fully committed to listen to the feedback, and most importantly to act on what is being said, employee surveys can falsely raise expectations that can have a devastating effect on morale, leading to worsening employee issues.
How to successfully implement a farm culture survey
As farm managers seek to understand more about their farm culture, UW-Madison Extension can play an important role in that process. By working closely with an Extension Farm Management educator or specialist, survey administration, tabulation, and interpretation are valuable services Extension can provide. Employee confidentiality and anonymity can be ensured by having the survey facilitated by an objective associate. Creating this safe means of capturing employee feedback is essential for employees to feel that they can be candid and open with their feedback without career limiting retribution or hard feelings. The Extension Farm Management program is ready to help with all aspects of survey administration and interpretation with follow-up and assistance from county-based Extension staff.
How to Communicate the Intent of the Survey to Employees
The first step to communicating a survey is to prepare farm managers and supervisors in advance regarding the rationale for soliciting employee feedback. Without proper planning and explanation of the purpose of the survey, this group of leaders can actually undermine the outcome. While employee feedback is a “gift” not every leader will view it that way, particularly if they feel blind-sided by the delivery. A copy of the survey questions should be shared, with an opportunity for Q&A on how the results will be interpreted and used. Make sure managers feel equipped to answer questions about the survey that employees may have. Buy-in from this group is a critical first step.
Next, share the intent of doing a survey with the broader workforce. Stress the key aspects of anonymity and confidentiality so that participation is high and respondents are assured that there will not be negative consequences from answering the questions honestly. Use this sample employee communication to develop a letter to your employees about a survey.
How the Survey Information is Used
Survey information is specific to an individual farm’s culture and is shared, confidentially, with that farm’s leadership team to drive change.
On any farm, some survey questions will consistently show favorable responses, while others will score lower, indicating room for improvement. While questions with high scores are encouraging, it’s actually the lower scoring questions that prove the most valuable feedback for building farm culture.
For example, low scores on the question “I have the training I need to do my job well” points to an opportunity to revisit employee training efforts, review training documents, and perhaps revise employee onboarding methods.
Accessing the UW-Madison Extension Farm Business Culture Survey
The farm culture survey developed by the Extension Farm Management Program, Working On This Farm is available in a variety of formats to accommodate farms across Wisconsin. The survey is brief, easy to read and understand, and should take farm workers just a few minutes to complete. Respondents are asked to answer 12 straight-forward questions about the farm where they work with a simple scale of “Strongly Disagree”, “Disagree”, “Neutral”, “Agree”, or “Strongly Agree”. A “Not Sure” response is also an option for workers who may not have an opinion about a certain question. In addition to the 12 questions, an open ended question 13 allows respondents to provide any other feedback they wish to share.
The electronic version of the survey provides for the best user experience and ease of interpretation. The electronic survey is easy to use on virtually any desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone and is available in English or Spanish versions.
For farm workforces uncomfortable with an electronic format, paper surveys are available. When paper surveys are used, an Extension professional should be physically at the farm to facilitate completion of paper surveys so that workers need not turn in their responses to farm personnel. A Spanish version of the paper survey is also available.
In addition, an audio-only version of the survey is available for teams or individuals uncomfortable with reading survey questions. To get started with a business culture for your farm, contact our Extension team at email@example.com
Once the survey results are tabulated and reported, the next key and critical step is to put ideas to paper with formal action plans. Make sure desired outcomes are clear, attainable, and specific. Assign completion dates that are realistic but with a sense of urgency that the process deserves. A word of caution, if action plans are never acted on, or if action plans linger for months, the outcome can be very negative for culture improvement. Employees may become distrustful of the process and reluctant to provide any feedback in the future. Each action plan should have an Employee Champion, which is typically a senior leader who has the authority to enact change. Assigning an Employee Champion can also be used to develop future leaders, as long as the individual is given enough autonomy to make the necessary changes.
Tips for Action Plan Communication at the Farm
- Share the summarized survey results along with the completed action plans with all employees. Thank them for their survey feedback and point out that the action plans are a direct result of their feedback.
- Regularly check in with the Employee Champions on progress – ensure the goal is still applicable and working – if it is not working, adapt the goal to ensure progress.
- When discussing the action plans, ensure leaders know it’s a top priority for the team throughout the year.
- Use multiple communication methods to reinforce action plan progress to all employees (staff meeting updates, status emails, message boards, newsletter, etc.).
- Recognize the team for accomplishing goals – celebrate in a way that is meaningful to them.
- As the team accomplishes their goals, revisit the next tier of survey results and develop new action items for improvement – keep the process alive throughout the entire year.
Ideally, the process of offering a Farm Culture Survey is just the start of continuous improvement towards becoming an employer of choice. From survey administration to communication and corrective action, followed by celebrating and recognition – the farm leadership team continues to identify areas to address and improve, and the cycle begins again.
Surveys can be used annually to see how efforts toward improvement are trending over time. Where a deeper-dive is needed, strategic conversations with certain employees, focus groups and/or 360-degree feedback can be used to explore key issues in more depth. Farm workforce leaders are encouraged to leverage the Extension educators and specialists on this topic to explore next steps for farms embarking on the Employer of Choice journey. Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Maria Fuenzalida Valenzuela, Dane County Extension Dairy and Livestock Educator
Liz Y. Binversie, Brown County Extension Dairy and Livestock Educator
Simon Jette Nantel, Extension Farm Management Specialist
John Shutske, Extension Agriculture Safety and Health Specialist.