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Millennials reflect on work/life balance, diversity, mentorship

Editor’s note: “Mind of a Millennial” is CMN’s segment tapping into the unique perspectives of dairy industry professionals of the millennial generation. 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 much of the working world went virtual this past year, companies now are looking at how best to facilitate office hours, work meetings and other communications as workers return to a “new normal.”

Working professionals from the millennial generation have a unique perspective on various forms of communication as they’ve experienced a world that evolved from in-person events and traditional office settings to webinars and remote work.

In this segment of Mind of a Millennial, panelists reflect on work/life balance, generational diversity and communication, and what lessons they’ve learned from their mentors throughout their careers.

This round’s participants are:

• Beth Crave, director of quality assurance and customer service, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, Wisconsin
• Ilana Fischer, CEO, Whisps, Fairfield, New Jersey
• Stacy Schnabel, sales and marketing coordinator, Loos Machine & Automation, Colby, Wisconsin
• Jackie Seibel, director of R&D, Sartori Cheese, Plymouth, Wisconsin
• Alex Walsh, associate vice president of regulatory affairs, Northeast Dairy Foods Association Inc., Syracuse, New York

1. What are some of the pros and cons of using virtual meeting platforms versus in-person meetings? How does video conferencing technology add to the atmosphere of a remote meeting instead of traditional conference calls?

Beth Crave
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese

Crave: Virtual meetings or events have become the new norm. They definitely have their advantages and disadvantages. Being virtual, I’m still able to work and be available to my team members right up to the start of the meeting, not needing to leave the building. I find that I can complete more work during those times since I don’t have the drive time to and from meeting and events. The one downside of this is not physically seeing people outside of the workplace. I’m a very social person and I extremely miss getting together in person, whether it be meeting a new sales rep for the first time or giving a hug to a colleague you haven’t seen in a while. Virtual meetings just do not give me the same atmosphere as in-person meetings.

Fischer: What’s interesting is that going digital has made our business more inclusive as many of our sales and field marketing teammates worked remote before and couldn’t participate in all team building activities. Going 100% digital has made us a more inclusive company for everyone and helps us all feel more like “one team.” One thing has become clear: Working from home works for most companies. I believe, however, that in 2021 you’ll begin to see hybrids of companies strategically combining in-office and remote work. Offices will be the place for people to gather and brainstorm together, something our team has noted within internal surveys they’ve found harder to do remotely. Simultaneously, our day-to-day work is happening seamlessly at home, thanks to instant messaging for short conversations and video chats for longer discussions.

Schnabel: Online meetings, like any other thing in life, have their advantages and disadvantages. Virtual meetings tend to be a bit more structured. They are the most cost-effective, convenient and time-saving mode of communication, but they also greatly reduce personal connection. In my opinion, the best mode of communication is face-to-face communication. Many things can be understood from a facial expression or body language. With the absence of this, there is a chance of misunderstanding.

Seibel: Virtual meeting platforms are very efficient. It enables people to meet, even when they may be across the world. It can be difficult, but not impossible, to build relationships by meeting virtually. There can be hurdles when others are not familiar with a platform or if there are bad connections/audio. It’s important that we can each be patient with one another and also be good teachers to get us all comfortable. I appreciate the flexibility that video conferencing offers since you can treat any platform just like a conference call and go without video, but the video is there if desired. Being able to screen share has been a huge help when training or trying to problem solve, too.

Alex Walsh
Northeast Dairy Foods Association

Walsh: The No. 1 pro to using virtual meeting platforms for meetings is flexibility. You don’t need to account for drive time, finding parking, weather or other things that make a one-hour meeting a half-day affair, and really lessens the stress of my schedule. In my role as our association’s lobbyist, I can meet virtually with a New York legislator at 10 and a Maine legislator at 10:30. It has really opened up peoples’ availability and made it easier to “meet” with people and coordinate an available time. The biggest con for me is missing that authentic interaction, like being able to shake the person’s hand. Not to mention the usual tech-related problems that we (yes, even millennials) run into.

2. How can millennials help to encourage generational diversity in the remote work environment and foster greater collaboration with more acceptance and understanding?

Crave: Being a manufacturing facility, it is not possible to work remotely. My job is very hands on in the day-to-day operation as is all other staff members at Crave Brothers.

The one piece of advice I would have to foster greater collaboration would be for everyone to turn on their camera and participate during a video call or meeting. It is very disrespectful to others who have taken time out of their schedules not to actively participate and be involved.

Fischer: Our company culture of showing up for each other isn’t just limited to in-office meetings or our internal team. Our team pushed us to “do cheddar” — our version of do better — when the pandemic and other cultural events occurred. Every teammate having a voice and open space to provide feedback free from fear has been critical to our culture and company growth.

We work to have inclusive company discussions and events for all generations, like an upcoming overview of TikTok, sharing favorite family holiday traditions and guessing who is who from baby photos.

We also try not to be closed off to what is happening in the world. For example, when COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. last March, our team quickly recommended and then created a program to donate more than 500,000 Whisps to frontline health care workers across the country needing a healthy, individually packaged snack to sustain them during their extremely long shifts. Additionally, as part of our country’s national dialogue on racism, our team committed to educating ourselves on the issue though books and speakers, raised significant funds for the NAACP, and looked internally at our marketing and sales strategy to ensure we reached and amplified the voices of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles.

Stacy Schnabel
Loos Machine & Automation

Schnabel: Organizations that embrace generational diversity in the workplace develop an environment that encourages participation and collaboration between age groups.

Employees simply want to feel valued for what they can add to an organization as an individual. While each generation has different norms when it comes to doing business, we all have unique skill sets, personalities and work habits that we bring to the table and make us stand out. Embrace different working and learning styles. Unique perspectives and ideas are a benefit to a workplace. If an employee has a unique way of doing things but still gets the job done, it should be respected — not changed.

Seibel: The first step is recognizing that diversity exists, and that people have different backgrounds and experiences. It is important to take that next step and invite inclusion. Be curious and authentic. Ask others how they are doing and ask more specific follow-up questions if the reply is generic. Make the time to take the time to form a symbiotic connection. You will be surprised how much you can help each other.

Walsh: I think that even as we start transitioning back to more “normal” routines, virtual and remote work will still remain in place to some degree. It’s easy to get frustrated when someone can’t get their camera or microphone to work, or a toddler is screaming in the background (I know that one from personal experience), but you have to have patience and realize that it really isn’t a huge problem. My advice is to make it as fun and interactive as possible for all participants. I once threw up a virtual background of the Oval Office for a meeting and it generated a few laughs but also turned into a teaching moment, and I showed other folks how to make a virtual background. I come from a generation that, generally speaking, would rather text or email than make a phone call. And there’s other generations that are opposed to virtual meetings. So no matter what generation you are a part of, we all need to remember that we are making the best out of a not-ideal situation, and need to work together to accomplish the goal we are seeking. Hopefully, the concept of being understanding to others’ situations lives for a long time past the pandemic.

3. What sort of hours do you work? Are you traditional 9-5, second or third shift or do you have flex hours? If given the opportunity to choose, what sort of schedule would you prefer?

Crave: My typical work schedule is 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but I am very flexible in my schedule. I am part of the team at Crave Brothers, so if I need to come in early or stay late, I do. Whatever it takes to get the job completed successfully.

I also value the flexibility my job has. Being a family-owned business, they understand different situations that may arise personally and are willing to work with you.

Fischer: It is important to build flexibility into schedules to help people work from home more efficiently and practically for their lifestyle. We’ve found success in implementing “meeting-free Friday afternoons” and do not believe in a “no emails after 5 p.m.” philosophy. With many parents on our team, including myself, we want to make sure we really support them so that they can balance family and work and have the flexibility they need to succeed. To me, this means not being prescriptive about hours, so that people can get their work done when it works for them, as long as it works for the rest of the team as well.

Schnabel: A typical work week is 45-50 hours Monday through Friday. Over the years, I’ve managed to maintain a high level of efficiency at work, which allows me to have a consistent full-time work schedule.

However, I am willing to work late nights or weekends for difficult or important projects.

Seibel: I mainly work normal business hours and flex time according to business and family needs. If I could choose, I would like to flex my hours more, for example working more hours for 4 days/week a few times a year.

Walsh: Technically, I have “normal” office hours — 8-4:30 Monday through Friday, which is what I prefer. But, you can usually find me answering emails, phone calls or handling the association’s social media accounts before I leave the house and when I get home or on the weekends. Sometimes, in my line of work, an issue happens that needs immediate attention, which as we all know, the dairy industry is 24/7, 365. But, with a wife and two kids and other hats I wear, I am fortunate to have a great work/life balance.

4. How can dairy and cheese companies successfully attract, hire and retain the different generations? From a millennial perspective, what are some of the inclusive recruitment strategies that can be implemented?

Ilana Fischer
Whisps

Fischer: I believe a solid company culture and clear, individual growth opportunities are paramount to attracting and retaining fantastic teammates.

Our culture is ingrained in our core values, particularly how we look to spark more joy in people’s lives, especially for our team! Oh, and we must celebrate our love of cheese, too (we’re all cheese fanatics!).

From poems of appreciation to very “PUNny” birthday celebrations, we make sure to provide endless amounts of team-bonding and recognition activities, especially now that we’re remote. This includes our weekly wine and cheese happy hours (which have continued over Zoom while working remote) and our employee recognition awards for doing a “Wheely Grate” job.

As far as career opportunities go, Whisps is a very lean but mighty team, so management provides numerous opportunities for employees to grow and do meaningful work that directly impacts the business and the world. Our leadership team is goals-oriented and instills that ethos across the company along with positivity, proactivity and transparency. They ensure the whole team is clear on what success looks like and tracks and shares our performance against those goals weekly. As one employee states, “Our leadership team is very goal focused but always positive in achieving and making those goals happen. It brings a real sense of clarity and prioritization to my work. ” Employees also stated that seeing their work directly contribute to the success of the company is one of the things that makes them most happy about their job.

Schnabel: Opportunities for an improved salary or prospects to climb the corporate ladder will obviously entice top employee talent to search for new job opportunities that will allow them to advance their careers. However, better workplace environments and healthier company cultures also lure employees away from their current jobs.

Working for a smaller company, I don’t think inclusive recruitment can be automated. It takes careful processes and approaches to be successful, and as with all things related to diversity and inclusion at work, it isn’t just a box to be ticked. Every time you recruit, it requires new thinking and questioning to ensure you are doing everything to attract the best candidates and allow them to succeed.

Seibel: Treat people well. Ask and listen to feedback, and try to accommodate people’s needs to meet them where they are in life. For recruitment, try to be transparent about pros and cons of a position to find the best match.

Walsh: This has been a hot topic with members of our association for a couple of years now. There is a shortage and struggle with obtaining and retaining qualified employees in the dairy food industry. We need to attack this in a few different ways. The first is by planting the seed early and start introducing these types of jobs and careers to middle and high school students, and get them involved in apprenticeship or internship programs that can transition into a full-time job. The second is by highlighting the benefits these jobs come with: great, competitive pay, sign-on bonuses, retirement plans, advancement opportunities, certificate or higher educational compensation, and the other perks many companies are offering. Lastly, we need to rewrite the narrative and highlight and emphasize why someone should work in the dairy food industry, something like “help feed the world.” The message needs to resonate with all generations and make them feel like what they’re doing has a larger impact than what they may think.

5. Has a mentor or co-worker from a different generation shared a piece of advice with you that still resonates with you to this day? How has it helped you grow professionally?

Crave: I have been in the dairy industry for 15 years now. Looking back when I first started, I had very little knowledge about the industry. I have gained so much knowledge from our production manager, Kurt Premo. He has been in the dairy industry his whole life. He has a wealth of knowledge, and I try to obtain as much as I can each day I work with him. Everything I’ve learned from Kurt I’ve been able to apply each and every day. It has enabled me to be more confident in my work and be able to better communicate with our customers.
Fischer: Yes, many! Neal Schuman told me once that all operations projects cost twice as much and take twice as long as they are expected to, and that has certainly turned out to be true! In all seriousness, watching Neal run a company helped me to see that, in spite of all of the remote and electronic ways of communication we have today, sometimes the best thing you can do is pick up the phone or stop by someone’s office for a personal chat. And he taught me that it is always, always most important to invest in people and relationships, and to treat your customers as partners.

Schnabel: Listen to your elders. People who’ve lived through generations play a vital role in how our society functions. Listening to the stories and experiences of older generations — whether it’s a family member, neighbor or coworker — can help us understand history and how to better shape our future. So, keep an open mind. Listen and follow advice when needed.

Jackie Seibel
Sartori Cheese

Seibel: There is a lot of advice I collect and try to use at the right moments. One I think of frequently is intent versus impact — conflict generally is derived from a gap between the two. I try hard to state my intention when entering a tough conversation, and I work to understand others’ intentions when something hits me the wrong way. Also, it comes in handy to separate the two when mediating conflicts from individuals or teams.

Walsh: My previous boss passed away about a year ago from cancer. He was a tremendous mentor and a passionate advocate for the dairy industry. When he learned of his prognosis, he emphasized the importance of how short life really is, and how, yes, your job is important, but so is spending time with family, cherishing moments with friends and doing things you enjoy. There will always be other jobs, but not always another family or friend. Don’t let work consume you. Be there for your spouse and kids. This is easier said than done some days, but I try to remember his voice telling me, “it can wait until tomorrow, enjoy the time with your family.” You can still get your work done and be successful, but take care of the really important things, too.

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