Pivoting to digital HR in a pandemic

Story originally published in BioTalent Canada’s Close-up on the bio-economy: National report

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the HR team at Farmers Edge barely missed a beat — embracing remote recruitment and retention to broaden its pool of candidates. A switch to digital HR practices is helping the company find the highly skilled people it needs to grow and develop a common corporate culture to energize its diverse international workforce.

Q: What were your HR goals before the pandemic hit, and how did the lockdowns affect them?

COLLEEN COATES, VICE-PRESIDENT OF PEOPLE AND CULTURE: Our goal is to lead the next agricultural revolution. We were expanding our workforce at the outset of the pandemic, building our multinational team to create smart farms — capitalizing on the strong growth in digital agronomy, new insurance partnerships and carbon credit sales. Obviously, the lockdowns required us to shift our tactics.

Q: What did you do about it?

CC: We switched to virtual interviews and remote hiring. We brought on people who’d never set foot in our offices and shipped equipment to them. It’s opened more opportunities: we can recruit from anywhere, and candidates aren’t limited to looking for jobs only in Winnipeg, for example, or having to travel to the middle of Alberta to attend a career fair. As things evolve, we’ll be switching to more remote recruitment and hiring.

Q: With those options and that flexibility, do you still face HR challenges?

CC: Oh, sure. We need to attract people into really unique roles that require particular skillsets: agri-meteorologists, for example, or people with specialized skills in agronomy and technology. We operate in a highly fluid, fast-paced environment that isn’t suitable for everybody. We want people who are trailblazers: thinkers and doers passionate about reinventing customer experience, creating disruptive technologies, and open to learning and adapting as we go. That talent can be hard to find.

Q: So the challenge is to find the ‘sweet spot’ of technical skills, soft skills and personal culture, is that right?

CC: Right. We’re building a diverse workforce — people with different backgrounds, opinions and ideas who can bring new perspectives and passion for what they do best. We have people in six countries from a variety of cultures; we need to align their personal and professional values, create a motivating environment and work together toward a common goal. Also, in a tight talent market, employee retention is critical. Our development of succession plans helps with that.

Q: Do you have digital strategies to nurture culture and drive retention?

CC: Our CEO leads a series of virtual Town Halls that bring teams together, provide important updates, celebrate achievements, give team members an opportunity to present ideas, voice opinions, ask questions and discuss what they can do to help the company succeed. We follow those with a survey to see how we can continue to improve. We also implemented a “Disruption Box” that lets team members submit ideas, suggestions and questions digitally.

We’re always looking for different ways to engage with our team members and communicate effectively with everyone: How do younger employees want to hear from us? Does the tech team want internal chats or face-toface conversations? We need to continually work on our retention strategies, building a fully engaged workforce, facilitating skills growth, and at the same time capturing the changing nature of work.

Q: How critical is solving the talent challenges to your ongoing success?

CC: Our talent will drive our results. The pandemic quickened our pace for growth. We’re positioning ourselves to disrupt the industry and get people thinking differently. We need to make sure we’re prepared for that future.

Company profile: Farmers Edge

Location: Winnipeg
Employees: 500
Bio-economy sub-sector: Agri-bio

A digital agriculture company at the forefront of innovation and clean tech, Farmers Edge provides analytical solutions and technical support to help farmers increase yields, boost soil health, streamline operations, implement climate-friendly practices and measure results.