7 tips for motivating arable farm staff

Staff morale is more difficult to measure than crop yields or margins, however, it is equally important as unhappy staff are likely to be unproductive employees.

Not addressing morale problems could prove expensive, either through an inefficient workforce or high staff turnover.

The latter is especially important given the difficulty in recruiting good farm staff.

See also: Tips on how to recruit good arable farm staff

Fostering job satisfaction doesn’t have to cost the earth, but one limitation is managing and motivating staff doesn’t always come naturally to farmers.

Fortunately, it is a skill that can be learned and developed.

To help arable managers, Farmers Weekly asked Alistair Gibb of Cedar Associates for his seven tips on managing and motivating farm staff.

He is involved in the AHDB’s professional manager development scheme.

1. Performance appraisals

One-to-one discussions are a useful way to draw out workers’ ideas of where improvements can be made or how jobs can be made easier, as well as reviewing their responsibilities and development.

It also provides the opportunity to review and agree goals and recognise their contributions, says Mr Gibb.

“Investing time in these reviews helps keeps staff in the picture of forthcoming plans, such as cropping, machinery or other larger expenditure.” 

Understanding how individuals see things and where they can contribute is a powerful way to help increase job satisfaction and motivate them further, he advises.

2. Planning

Getting ahead and staying ahead is down to planning in general, even though weather and other factors might change, says Mr Gibb. 

Plan and agree daily and weekly work targets, as well as machinery upgrades and maintenance work, with the team to manage expectations.

Involving staff when choosing and trialling new machinery and equipment helps keep them engaged, as ultimately they are the end users.

Encourage forward holiday planning, as holidays have a tendency to accumulate, so look at how labour cover is spread out.

And when interviewing for permanent or casual staff, allow the team to spend time with potential candidates to get their impressions of them and how they will fit in.

3. Developing knowledge and skills

There are lots of different ways of developing skills, from farm visits with producers who do things differently, to machinery demos or shows, and local training groups.

“Staff are dealing with more and more technology so knowledge transfer is important to ensure operators are getting the best from both machine and technology,” says Mr Gibb.

It is important to continue to stimulate development of employees, even those who have been in the business for a long time.

“Developing a learning culture keeps staff abreast of changes and new things which come along. It also bridges any skills gaps in the team, reducing risk to the business.

“Developing new skills and knowledge can also motivate people as they can do their job more effectively.”

4. Delegating responsibility

Delegating responsibility can range from accountability for equipment to specific jobs and tasks.

Mr Gibb advises appointing leadership responsibility in the absence of the normal manager, as well as making sure staff are clear about what decisions they can make.

“Appoint someone who will step up if there is a crisis or if an accident happens and make sure they are clear about what to do.

“Developing people to take more responsibility creates more engagement with the business and more pride in what they do,” he says.

5. Standards

Setting and maintaining standards on farm, whether in field work, on machinery upkeep or general tidiness is important to instil pride in what people do.

“The farm is a window to the public and neighbours, which can invite recognition or affect reputation.”

Mr Gibb suggests entering local farm competitions can give employees a real boost, particularly when recognition is given for how the farm is operating and looking.

Events such as Open Farm Sunday also help to keep standards up and educate the public.

6. Sharing results

Find a good time to review performance at team and individual level and celebrate what has been achieved.

“It can be as simple as breaking out the beer when harvest finishes, or something more organised like a harvest supper or event at Christmas,” says Mr Gibb.

Recognise what has been achieved; be specific on what you are pleased about such as results, yields, good ideas, extra effort.

Then look at what can be developed or done differently in the future to develop a culture of continuous improvement. 

7. Communication

Effective communication underpins all of these points and is needed at all stages of the motivational process.

It helps set up effective delegation, clarifies targets and standards and leads to better decisions.

“The easiest way to be effective as a leader is to ask questions first and add your views afterwards,” advises Mr Gibb.

This puts the manager in a better position to engage staff in appraisals and discussions, or gets them on board with plans and decisions when they have had a chance to add their views and experience.

“Using open-ended questions is a useful way to get staff to review their standards of performance and to understand how they see things.

“You can then gauge more easily what additional feedback is needed,” he says.

The most humbling of questions is getting feedback on your own management, such as what they value and what they would like you to do differently.

“Working on all of these motivational aspects delivers results and raises morale in the team, which helps make building and managing relationships easier.”

AHDB professional manager development scheme

Alistair Gibb of Cedar Associates is the main tutor on the AHDB professional manager development scheme (PMDS), which sees successful participants attend 10 meetings over a course of 14 months.

The PMDS is targeted at challenging and developing the skill base to meet the needs of the agricultural and horticultural industry.

It uses current experience and knowledge to develop discussion and explore topics, covering areas such as working as a team, managing workloads and solving problems, leading the team, motivation, communication, planning and managing change, and performance appraisals.

For further information, contact Tess Howe, project manager at AHDB, on tess.howe@ahdb.org.uk or 07779 321 078.

The business feels more organised now and in general’

Ian Lutey, Cambridgeshire

Attending a training course helped to improve Ian Lutey’s confidence and helped him tackle issues while they were small.

He attended the AHDB professional manager development scheme last year and found it to have multiple benefits to himself and the business.

Ian Lutey

Ian Lutey feels the AHDB professional manager development scheme help his business become more organised

Mr Lutey is the farm manager for RH Topham and Sons at Monks Hardwick, St Neots, Cambridgeshire, farming 1,619ha of arable land, split between wheat, oilseed rape, spring beans and spring barley.

He says the staff are what makes the business work.

He insists the course equipped him with skills to deal with personnel matters as well as managing his own time better in order to focus on business planning and staff management.

Mr Lutey sees a big gap between the skills of the older generation nearing retirement and the younger generation coming in, who are in need of training.

“The course re-emphasised the importance of labour and that staff are needed to grow the business.”

As a result, he has focused on staff development and has drawn up a definitive career path for employees, giving them more personal development and responsibility to create job enrichment.

Mr Lutey has also increased his employee appraisals from being annual to quarterly, as well as having regular team meetings.

“I involve staff more in planning to make them more a part of the business.

“They can then raise any concerns and have an input towards decisions.

“I have also freed up my own time by doing less day-to-day work, so I can focus on the bigger picture and strategically plan for the long term,” he explains.

“The business feels more organised now and in general, staff are more motivated.”