Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Produce Business.
As society transitions into a post-pandemic world, the question of labor — employees, employers, working conditions and requirements — becomes top-of-mind. Right now, there are terrible labor shortages, but to some extent these are artificial. One problem is that the government’s failure to open schools and offer summer programs in many jurisdictions has left many people with the need to stay home and watch their children. Large unemployment benefits also have made it financially sensible for many to decide to not go back to work.
President Biden has supported supplemental unemployment in part as a tool that encourages employers to offer higher wages to entice people back into the work force. This might actually work, but the comeuppance is not likely to be particularly beneficial to the employees. The problem is that wages are, in the end, always connected to productivity. If we just double everyone’s wages but have no increase in productivity, we will see massive inflation, which will reduce the value of those just-raised wages.
Over on page 79, our European Market column is written this month by Nic Jooste, who has spoken at our Global Trade Symposium at The New York Produce Show and Conference. This month, Nic argues that the post-pandemic world must be different:
“Has due consideration been given to how much people’s behavior has changed since it all started? For many young employees, the new-found rhythm of working from home for 2 or 3 days a week has brought a completely new life balance. In between calls and meetings, they were able to answer a child’s question about homework or do a quick load of washing during a tea break whilst on the phone to a customer.”
There is no question that many have found joy in being able to be with their children and loved ones, that they have avoided the pain of commuting and enjoyed the flexibility of being able to work from their vacation homes. What is not at all clear is that this all results in higher productivity… or even greater happiness.
Certainly, due to the pandemic, many have come to realize the value of having great internet and wi-fi systems to have remote meetings and so forth. Yet, our experience is that the top people, the ones most dedicated to their careers and their companies, do not, in fact, want to have their work days interrupted by having to do a load of laundry.
Our experience is that the people most dedicated to their careers and their companies do not want to have their work days interrupted by having to do a load of laundry.
Even interacting with children can be somewhat problematic. Surely part of what we want to teach children is that they must learn self-sufficiency and how to plan… that the world will not always be at their beck and call. One of this author’s produce industry friends was taking his son for golf lessons, and the instructor insisted that the teenager carry the golf clubs. He told the boy’s father that learning to carry the golf clubs was, by far, the most important thing the teenager would learn in the lessons.
When we read Nic’s piece, the crucial line is when he quotes an employer as saying “going back to a full week at the office is not viable, or sensible. I have learnt to trust that my people will go the extra mile if I give them responsibility and the freedom to use it well.”
We think this is a bit more complicated. The idea that everyone will go “the extra mile” cannot be true. After all, if the average employee would do this, it would be average, not extra.
There are many things that theoretically could work, but practically are very difficult. So, of course, employees could lock themselves in bedrooms converted to an office, ignore family, friends and neighbors and commit 100% to a job. In practice, though, if the next door neighbors need someone to watch the kids, and they ask, it is a lot harder to say no when you are sitting in the house as opposed to having gone off to the office.
The truth is that, among the most dedicated and productive people, the ability to use technology to work remotely will lead to these people working more, not less. Once this author was in his bathing suit at a hotel in Maui at a family reunion, CNN called and asked that I appear on the nightly news. In a few hours, I was in jacket and tie in Honolulu speaking on CNN about food safety.
Alan Siger, then of Consumers Produce in Pittsburgh, once wrote about how the cell phone had liberated his life, and in my own family, I recalled how my own father, back in pre-cell phone days, would never take a vacation of more than a week and two weekends because there was too much perishable produce at risk.
It is true that, all over the world, people in the produce industry rose to the challenge, became super-productive and helped their companies survive and the world to be fed.
Yet, as the pandemic fades, the situation changes. Sure, some will always enjoy working remotely, but most of the young and ambitious will want to interact live and in-person, will want to delineate times when they are 100% working and when they are not. Success is likely to come to those who seize the new normal to prioritize in-person engagement as the tool to a greater tomorrow.