Reprinted from GRAIN JOURNAL May/June 2020 Issue
The federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency has designated the food and agriculture industry as “critical infrastructure” required to remain in operation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grain Journal spoke with operations and management personnel to learn about some of the strategies employed at grain elevators to operate safely and profitably throughout the pandemic.
“At our elevators, feed mills, and agronomy sites, our customers currently can’t come inside our facilities. We’ll send checks and ask them to stay in their trucks. They call us, and we load their trucks without having them get out. Interaction is still important, so we’ll gradually relax those precautions when it’s safe to do so.
“For the past four weeks, we’ve reduced home office staff to about 30%. In grain operations, we have one person in the office each day. We’ve set a precedent, so if COVID-19 comes up again this fall, we can make changes quickly.
“The most surprising thing has been seeing what we can do with people working remotely and telecommuting. We’re all learning how we can do grain business without many people in the office. We have some people in the office but not everyone. We all knew the technology was moving ahead, but grain is an old-time business.
“Going forward, we’ll look at situations and ask, ‘Do we need everyone at every location? What was the cost? What has been lost? What can we do to eliminate expenses while still serving our customers?’”
“Some of the things we’ve done training-wise have helped us be more nimble. Conference calls, webinars, and video – now everyone is used to these. Regarding safety practices, we’re more conscious about washing hands and distancing with regard to truck drivers.
“Regarding working smarter, the biggest thing is isolating in the workplace. Every employee has a radio, and they’re working individually. Managers conduct safety checks to ensure they’re socially distancing. Employees can digitally clock in using a cell phone. We communicate via radio or cell phone, and employees eat lunch in their vehicle, so they stay isolated in as many roles as possible.
-Pacific Northwest Director of Regional Operations
“All employees at high risk, due to age or underlying health conditions, we isolated early. With any type of sickness, employees need to go home and can’t return without a note from their doctor stating they can return to work.
“The most surprising thing has been the limited impact on production we have felt. Our productivity level has not changed much, and even with different policies in place, it’s almost business as usual.
“There’s been no employee pushback, as they recognize the need to protect our workers and customers. When this started, our end users told us we were essential and need to stay open. It’s good to show stability in ag and make sure the food chain stays open with everyone working with suppliers up and down the supply chain.”
“We’ve made drastic changes and instituted a lot of different practices and policies to socially distance employees and customers while meeting our customers’ needs. We’ve also changed our payroll and benefits policies, so employees at high risk can take a paid leave of absence or work from home, if possible, depending on the job.
“We’ve really adapted well and identified processes and procedures to isolate employees from customers and contractors. Our offices are locked; people can call ahead, and we have a contact-less system with vendors and contractors. If our customers need items, we encourage them to call ahead, and we’ll set things out for them or load it into their vehicle. We know what trucks are coming, and with our intercom system, we can remotely print and set paperwork out without anyone entering our offices.
“Surprisingly, we learned to perform all of our team toolbox talks and safety meetings digitally by phone or computer. Each day we send out two- to four-minute videos focusing on safety as well as encouraging daily messages that help our employees keep their focus on our strategies and goals.”
“We had cloth face masks made for our entire workforce to use at work, at home, and out in the community, though it’s not mandatory to use them. We’ve posted “Employees Only” signs outside our offices with a phone number, so customers can call and we’ll load them or give them a scale ticket without having them come inside.
“We’re having truck drivers stay in their trucks, not in the office. We have a standalone sample probe stand and a portable toilet outside for truckers. We’re washing surfaces two or three times a day with Clorox wipes, and we encourage handwashing and social distancing. We’ve canceled most face-to-face meetings and have our board meetings in a large room where we can maintain safe social distancing.
-Southern Great Plains Chief Executive Officer
“We’re getting cameras for computers to enable Zoom meetings and have ordered a fogger. If we get a COVID-19 case, we can fog areas where the affected employee has been. We also bought 12 noncontact infrared thermometers that we’ll use to take employees’ temperatures at the start of their shifts. We also have signs listing Care Act requirements, including information that employees should stay home when sick.
“We’ve learned how difficult it is to maintain social distancing for some jobs, such as grain grading in small spaces. Harvest will present some challenges as we work to protect our employees, and we may mandate wearing face masks.”
“We have been following the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, such as washing hands frequently, practicing social distancing, providing hand sanitizers, and wearing an N95 mask while working in the elevator.
“Employees have been encouraged to practice the guidelines at home. The employee breakroom has been limited to only
a small number at any time. Employees have been asked to eat lunch in their car or in an open area outside.
“Employees who may be at risk due to age or an immune deficiency have been working from home. Employees working in the office have been limiting the time together by being 6 feet apart and using email, text, GoToMeeting, and other social media to communicate with other employees as well as customers. The front door is locked with a notice with phone numbers to call if a visitor needs attention. Staff will then step outside to help visitors or get information they may need.
“The most surprising part of working through the pandemic has been the ability to conduct business by electronic means. Many producer customers had already been communicating and doing business by social media. The way we do business has changed during this pandemic. As technology improves, we will need to embrace new technologies to stay competitive and service customers.”
“We’ve asked all employees, if they’re not coming in for any reason, to call Human Resources to let them know so we can better monitor our employees’ health. We also want to improve our inventory system to maintain supplies better, including masks, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer. We have half of the office staff at a time working from home while still maintaining communication between traders and operations staff.
-Great Plains Director of Operations
“One of our employees has been riding the bus to work since his car broke down; however, buses aren’t always running on time so sometimes he arrives an hour later than anticipated. We’re looking at getting him (and paying for) an Uber driver so he can get to work on time and know he can keep his job.
“We’re using technology more to communicate while working apart, and using conference calls more effectively.
“The most surprising thing we’ve seen is how this experience has taught employees to better understand how the management team cares about employees and is doing everything they can to help them keep their jobs. There’s more interaction between Human Resources and management, and employees see we really care about them. We’re also going to look at travel in the future to limit time away from the office by working smarter using technology for meetings instead of travel.”
“After COVID-19 has passed, our extra precautions will go away except for extra cleaning. The locked office will go away when the time is right. We’re doing all our meetings via Zoom, and it saves us time and money on travel expenses.
-Great Plains Senior Vice President of Operations
“We’re working smarter by increasing awareness of our own health. We’re using social distancing and avoiding shaking hands. We also are asking farmers to stay in their vehicles to maintain social distancing.
“COVID-19 has taught us that despite being a large, spread-out company, we’re very intermingled. We’ve eliminated lines and borders that divide us, and we’re all working smarter to help each other whenever possible to meet our customers’ needs.”
“We’re trying to get everyone back to the office as soon as possible. We’ll keep washing surfaces, washing hands, and having hand sanitizer available at all times, because this could last a couple of years.
“A lot of us are working from home. Our IT department has stepped up, and every office employee now can work from home. We have one accountant and one grain buyer in the office at a time, and that’s working well. Our meetings are done remotely, and we have more conference calls than we’ve had before.
“The most surprising thing is that being in the office isn’t an absolute necessity anymore. Office workers can print tickets at home and invoice our customers. I’m old school, and I used to think we all had to work at the office.”
“I don’t think things will change too much long term, but if something like this happens again, we’ll be better prepared to work remotely. We do have a new policy: If you’re sick, stay home.
“We also have a new policy that no one other than employees can come into the office. Truck drivers just stay in their truck, and we take care of everything. It’s made their job easier, and I think they enjoy it.
“It’s surprising how many people we used to interact with daily. Now people look at you funny if you cough. We have hand sanitizer available at all times, and there are just two of us in the office now so we can practice social distancing.”
“Employees who can work from home are doing so. Our production teams split weeks working from home and in the office. It’s a little tougher now that we’re in our spring season. People in trucks and those working with equipment are self-isolating anyway, and our office staff is working from home.
“We haven’t had any group meetings since mid-March. We were pretty green using conference calls. We started doing video conferencing with Zoom, and after a little practice, it’s working well. Not everyone had laptops to work at home, but it’s working well now. We have several meetings a month, and people used to travel an hour each way for a two-hour meeting, costing them two half-days a month. We’ll continue to use Zoom and cut travel time in the future.
-Northern Great Plains Chief Operations Officer
“We haven’t had any COVID-19 cases in our company, while other companies have had sickness and have had to shut down. We’ve been very careful. We used to have groups of three working in pods, but we don’t do that any more.”
“We’ve implemented a vast number of changes, mostly around social distancing and working remotely, until further notice. What changes we pull back and when will be determined after the threat has subsided.
“The biggest change we made toward working smart was evaluating who could effectively work remotely by looking at day-to-day responsibilities and tasks. As safety protocols were established, some staff have returned to the office, including mid- to high-level operations management and maintenance workers. A fair number of jobs don’t need to be done in the office, and one-third of our employees work remotely.
“Surprisingly, we learned how lean we were already operating the facility. We don’t have much overlap in job functions. We were already running only essential staff and the bare minimum number of employees. It hasn’t been too difficult to practice social distancing.”