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Millennials navigate complexities of virtual working, communication

Editor’s note: “Mind of a Millennial” is CMN’s segment tapping into the unique perspectives of dairy industry professionals born between 1981 and 1996. As this segment of the population takes on increasing leadership roles at companies across the industry, we delve into the challenges millennials face in today’s fast-paced workforce, from communication to management style to work/life balance.

MADISON, Wis. — As the dairy industry enters its 11th month of grappling with the global coronavirus pandemic, companies continue to find innovative outlets for communication, collaboration and sharing news on their latest products and services.

Dairy industry millennials remain at the center of a complex web of navigating virtual meetings, working remotely and balancing the preferred communication styles of different generations. As the industry continues to adapt to “the new normal,” millennials are uniquely positioned to lead the charge and discover new opportunities to spread the positive story of the dairy industry.

Leaders from the millennial generation dig deeper into the intricacies of these challenges in our latest round of “Mind of a Millennial.”

This round’s participants are:
• Shelby Anderson, communications specialist, Center for Dairy Research, Madison, Wisconsin
• Amanda Durow, vice president-dairy specialist, CoBank ACB, Minneapolis
• Emily Harbison, technical specialist, Dairy Connection Inc., Madison, Wisconsin
• Rebekah Henschel, fourth-generation owner, Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese, Kiel, Wisconsin
• Emily J. Rogers, marketing manager, RELCO LLC, Willmar, Minnesota

1. In another year of decreased in-person events, how is your company working to make connections with new customers and share news about your products and services?

Shelby Anderson
Center for Dairy Research

Anderson: The Center for Dairy Research (CDR) has worked hard to move short courses, trainings and meetings online. CDR staff have been able to provide the same technical knowledge and trainings in a digital, online format. In addition, CDR launched a new website last fall, which has allowed us to better promote and share CDR resources and services.

Durow: CoBank launched CoBank Connect and transitioned our regional customer meetings to a virtual format to continue to provide customers and partners market insights. Additionally our Knowledge Exchange research group provided regular virtual presentations to keep customers and prospects informed about the rural economy and COVID impacts to agriculture. Our relationship management team continues to stay engaged with customers, prospects and stakeholders to provide them customized financial solutions with many in-person calls shifting to virtual.

Harbison: Necessity is the mother of invention, and this more virtual year will offer a new set of opportunities. We have become better versed in web communication and have found that online avenues allow for new interactions with clients who may otherwise be inaccessible. Some of our customers seldom leave their operations, even during non-pandemic times. They appreciate making connections from the comfort of their home, in the evenings or during off-hours. We have found that creating content that may be viewed on demand is also very beneficial. We prioritize partnering with artisan, specialty and farmstead creameries and look forward to continually sponsoring and participating in more online educational opportunities this year.

Rebekah Henschel
Henning's Wisconsin Cheese

Henschel: 2020 made every company look at things in a new way. Last year we were able to reach more people via online meetings and virtual tastings than ever before with in-person events. You cannot take away the value of meeting in person. However, the resources we saved from not having to travel were put toward sending more samples and offering promotions to our customers.

Rogers: RELCO has taken a stronger digital approach in the past year to counteract some of the impact of the decreased in-person events. We are producing content that focuses on our solutions and equipment and positions it in a customer-centric way. We want to position ourselves as more of an industry thought leader to increase conversation and engagement with our content — and learn from our network base. We like to include raw images of installations, customers’ successes and content that aims to solve a problem. The idea is that we are better articulating the RELCO experience.

2. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in more people working virtually than ever before. What is your preference when it comes to working from home or virtually versus a traditional office setting?

Anderson: I’ve been primarily working from home and there are pros and cons. When working virtually, a lot of communication happens via email, which isn’t always the best method to communicate, especially when working on detailed, complicated projects. However, I think that it can be easier to concentrate at home. At the office, you can sometimes get pulled in several directions at once. I do a lot of writing for my job, and I think that working at home is better suited for writing.

Amanda Durow
CoBank ACB

Durow: I have enjoyed working from home during this time and found improved productivity for certain tasks due to not being interrupted as often as I might normally in an office setting. In the future, I would prefer a balance between working from home and working from the office. There are benefits of working from home and benefits of working in the office. The plus side of getting back to the office is going out to lunch with colleagues or a team happy hour to improve connections and communication.

Harbison: I spent extended time at home last year but have largely been back in our facility since June. Functioning remotely was easier than expected, as our leadership luckily opted for virtual-friendly tools when upgrading our software a few years ago. I found that both environments have benefits and drawbacks; interfacing with customers and co-workers is far superior in office, but completing project-based tasks at home is ideal. While increased in-office accessibility is convenient, it can be distracting. I really learned the value of “deep work,” where I better-planned meetings and interactions to increase deep work time and maximize progress. A blended schedule seems best, with a few days each of at-home and in-office time.

Henschel: We’ve been blessed to keep our small office, retail store and plant up and running throughout this period of time. In my opinion, working in a traditional office with others, at least a few days a week, is healthy for the chemistry and camaraderie of the team as well as the individual. I won’t argue that working from home has many benefits. However, it takes a highly motivated individual to work from home full time and do it well.

Rogers: I was a remote employee prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and prefer to work that way. I work more productively in a setting that allows for balance. The traditional office setting is helpful in certain scenarios, but by adapting to a more flexible work world that takes advantage of technological improvements, work and home are more harmonious. There are so many ways to connect today that collaboration can take place anywhere.

3. How do you communicate with workers of different generations? Are there best practices for effectively communicating to workers regardless of age?

Anderson: Sometimes face-to-face conversations are the best way to communicate, especially when going over complex, technical topics. Obviously, face-to-face meetings have been difficult lately since a lot of us are working from home. The next best option is a video call. At CDR, I think that all staff, regardless of age, are now comfortable communicating via video calls.

Durow: Growing up on a family farm with three generations and foreign labor working together, I learned clear, direct communication is important. When it comes to the workplace, I have found that it is essential to first set communication expectations on the best mode of communication, frequency and urgency. It also proves valuable to model the other person’s communication style — if it is a person that responds quickly via email, use email, or if it is someone who likes to talk on the phone, leave them a voicemail to call you back. The first best practice to communicate with colleagues is to listen well and ask clarifying questions so you can provide a proper response. Then it is important to be responsive, and if you can’t get them an answer immediately, let them know when you will provide a response.

Emily Harbison
Dairy Connection Inc.

Harbison: We should resist becoming frustrated, confused or surprised at the response (or lack thereof) from any colleague. Those feelings get in the way of understanding each other. Taking time to consider the source and medium of information, as well as the individual’s background, have been more productive for me. Context always matters, and unfortunately, instant messaging, phone calls and email all fall short in conveying one’s response and intentions. Tone of voice, facial and body expression matter more than words. Video calls are probably the closest substitute for in-person discussion, but Zoom and other programs are not always practical. Nothing can replace face-to-face conversation.

Henschel: I love the quote by Epictetus that says, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Regardless of age, this is true.

Rogers: Great question! I approach it from the position of goals; when communicating to a sales group, goals are key. If I can show how a digital solution can help our sales team achieve their goal, I tend to get better buy-in with implementation and execution.

4. What are some of the top qualities you look for in a manager? If you’ve been or currently are in a management position, what are some leadership qualities you feel are important?

Anderson: I think good managers have strong “soft” skills — communication, collaboration, etc. Good managers provide clear leadership but are also open to new ideas and encourage their employees to take ownership of their own roles and responsibilities.

Durow: What I first look for in a manager is someone who is honest, innovative and operates with high integrity. Then I want a leader who challenges me, encourages me and promotes my development similar to a coach. I have been fortunate to have had managers that exhibit these skills, and when I have the opportunity to more closely manage people, I hope to emulate similar traits.

Harbison: Working in a small company, our culture is to troubleshoot, find a solution or lend a hand whenever we can, as soon as we can. I appreciate the teamwork involved to make continual improvements, and the biggest hinderance to individual initiative is unnecessary scrutiny. In Miles Anthony’s words, micromanagement is the destroyer of momentum. Managers who value autonomy can keep their teams focused on the big picture, ensure boundaries remain in view, but otherwise watch the progress happen. I really value being able to make the change for which I see the need while having the freedom to succeed — and to fail, at least a little bit.

Henschel: Finding good managers can be difficult. Most would agree that being accountable, decisive and having a vision beyond the daily tasks are all qualities we want in our managers. However, I feel that leading by example, listening, empathy, encouragement and good communication are all traits that make managers great.

Emily J. Rogers
RELCO LLC

Rogers: No matter the position, empathy goes a long way. Everyone has circumstances going on that impact life and work. I try to bring compassion and understanding to my co-workers and customers. As a manager, I have found that empathy lends itself to a variety of positive outcomes — greater ideation, teamwork and satisfaction.

5. Many companies today are offering more innovative office settings, with open floor plans, standing desks, exercise ball chairs etc. Is this something that appeals to you, or how important do you think it is for companies to offer these kinds of options to current and future generations entering the workforce?

Anderson: The majority of my work takes place at a desk, and I can tell that sitting all day at my computer is not good for the mind or body. So, I think options like standing desks, exercise ball chairs, etc. are good for people like me who work mostly on their computers. I also think it will be interesting to see if the pandemic will result in long-term changes to traditional office layouts and practices.

Durow: I found office innovations intriguing, but a collaborative environment can be created in a traditional office setting as it comes down to company culture rather than cool exercise balls. If 2020 taught me anything, I feel that millennials and future generations will demand flexibility more than a specific office setting. We want the opportunity to be successful and productive but integrate work and home life. Although your millennial employees are asking for flexibility, we are committed to our organizations and advancing the dairy industry for the next generation of consumers.

Harbison: The importance of these options certainly varies based on the type of work being performed, where a cheese plant is “open floor plan” enough for some personnel, and traveling account representatives may find innovative seating inherently irrelevant. I view some of the new innovations as overtly trendy, but I am currently standing at an adjustable desk that receives daily use. What never falls out of style are employers who remain open to new ideas and consistently prioritize the health, safety and well-being of their employees.

Henschel: For any business to thrive, it must be willing to evolve. We as humans do not like change very much; however, whether it is sales, quality, production, packaging or even innovative office settings, we need to be open to new ideas. If this helps recruit good talent for our company, then we should be willing to look at it.

Rogers: Anything to make working in an office more comfortable and flexible is a win. The pandemic has showcased how versatile employees can become to get the job done, so I imagine in the future there will be a higher expectation from employees that employers improve circumstances and comforts.

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