December 21, 2020

It wasn’t always pretty, but we made it to the end. What will our new normal look like?

 

By Entira Staff

 

What. A. Year.

Who could have predicted that in December 2020, we’d be reflecting on what might have been the weirdest year on record?

The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic were tough to absorb in the beginning: The news told disturbing stories. People hoarded toilet paper. Supply chains wobbled. Schools closed and non-essential professionals left their corporate offices in droves and set up home offices.

“In the early weeks, my wife Belinda was constantly on my case, telling me, ‘You’ve got to learn to relax,” said Mike Karst, Senior Partner. “So, finally one afternoon I gave in and decided to chill out in the hammock…and then it broke and I fell to the ground.”

“If that isn’t the perfect visual for a #2020 meme, I don’t know what is.”

We’d all like to kick 2020 to the curb, but the year did have a few redeeming qualities. Do those unexpected perks make up for the nightmares?

Here’s our perspective on what can stay and what can go from 2020 (and the awkward middle where we’re still undecided):

What Can Stay

Flexible Work Arrangements

2020 work-from-home arrangements weren’t new to Entira because we’ve been a virtual company from the start. But for many companies, this abrupt leap into virtual work was a gamechanger and a real test to productivity.

Barney Bernstein, Senior Associate, said, “I’ve talked to many larger companies that are realizing the advantages of letting their employees work from home. They’re finding they don’t have to be in the office every day to be productive, and their staff appreciate the flexibility and better balance – I believe this setup, or a form of it, will become permanent.”

And for many professionals, it’s about time.

“When Barney and I started working together 20 years ago, we said someday technology would allow agronomists to stay in their office and send others with cameras out to fields to look at problems remotely,” Mike said. “That’s an efficient way to leverage agronomists. This year it finally happened.”

A Slower, More Orderly Pace

The challenging task of getting people from point A to B in a safe and socially distanced manner required more planning ahead, but it ultimately gave us more room to breathe.

Entira Director of Operations Nancy Appelquist said, “Of course, nobody would want to have a pandemic for the sake of convenience or fewer crowds, and this is not to minimize people’s suffering from illness or losing loved ones, but for people who like to plan ahead and don’t like crowds, there have been some upsides to life during a pandemic. Here in Philadelphia, I’m a member of Longwood Gardens, a beautiful old DuPont estate turned into a horticulturalist’s dream.  Every year they transform their gardens and conservatory into a Christmas wonderland, and in normal years it’s very crowded. This year there were capacity limits in place but I was able to get timed tickets in advance and it was the most enjoyable trip to Longwood I’ve ever had.”

Many aspects of life certainly have toned down. Buying goods and services has moved on-line at an unprecedented pace with companies like Amazon making it so easy that many people don’t  leave the house.

“Just last week I drove my son to the airport, and it dawned on me that it was the first time since March I’d ventured from my suburb into the city,” said Amy Thornbury, Controller. “There’s just been no need! My car needs an oil change once a year and it reminds me when I turn the engine on that its past due. I’m just going to wait until I put more miles on it to worry with that. All of the miles were from November to February for holiday travel and to help my parents after surgeries. All pre-pandemic!”

Old School and High Tech, Working in Harmony

Our makeshift reality of 2020 seems equal parts high tech and primitive. While technology clearly kept business and life moving this year (and connected us with loved ones we couldn’t see in real life), by this century’s standards the year felt very “old school” in many ways.

Mike said, “I spent more time meeting in fields with growers this time of year than any other time in my career—you just don’t do that in November and December in Kansas or Montana. You can’t get more a more basic meeting place than that.”

“Normally those meetings would take place at a kitchen table, but we can’t do that. Growers want to show us their fields, and I certainly don’t mind the extra boots-on-the-ground time…though it’s been hard on the rental cars I was driving.”

But, technology really saved the year. Case in point is the fact that platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have become essential business tools for everyone—even growers.

“We conduct meetings with growers regularly, and of course our preference would be to do those in person. But that’s just not always possible right now,” Nancy said. “Growers really are embracing the technology and are far more comfortable using Zoom to join meetings, because they’re doing Zoom calls on the personal side. We’re holding the sessions virtually and they’re going very smoothly.”

Perhaps this experience will prove to be a trigger event getting growers over the hump for greater technology adoption in the future (just as we saw autosteer be the clincher to get many growers into the world of precision ag).

What Can Go

68-hour Road Trips

Entira’s return to business travel this spring was intense.

“Who knew flying in planes would be safer than dining in restaurants?” Barney said.

For Mike and Barney, their pandemic-era business travel started off with long road trips. The two made back-to-back cross-country trips to Colorado and Montana—Barney drove from the coast of North Carolina, picked Mike up in Indiana and they continued to their destination, fueled by 5-hour Energy and powdered donuts.

“This proves the lengths we’ll go to for customers,” Barney said. (And as a side note, stay tuned for an upcoming article to learn about the exciting projects we’ve been working on in Montana and Kansas.)

Barney said, “When we determined it was ok to start flying again, seeing dozens of planes sitting idle on the tarmac was surreal.”

Mike added, “My entire career, I’ve wished for one thing in business travel, and that’s business traveler-only airport terminals … and this year I finally got it.”

No-contact Everything

Curbside pickup is convenient, but we miss people.

In-person meetings are few and far between now, but they were nonexistent for many weeks. We enjoy meeting face-to-face with growers and clients and we’ve conducted in-person meetings when it’s safe and possible to do so—they just look much different than before.

“Under normal circumstances, I would consider nine participants in a room that seats 30 an absolute failure, but nowadays that’s a full house—talking to a room that’s 80% empty is a success,” Mike said.

We’ve all taken advantage of the no-contact delivery and curbside pickup most restaurants and retailers are offering. Even hand-delivering rebate checks to ag retailers looks different -- leaving a $2 million check on top of a mailbox outside and standing back from a safe 12-foot distance while your customer walks outside to grab it. It’s a COVID-friendly no-contact delivery, but it’s sure not the same without a handshake.

The Awkward Middle

Hey, Can You Mute Your Phone?

The sights and sounds of our personal lives are on display more than ever before.

Barking dogs, noisy children and door chimes used to be annoying distractions on virtual calls, but they’re just a normal part of business now. Your whole household is part of the meeting.

But as isolated as we are, we’ve never been more vulnerable, more exposed, and more real with each other. Maybe that’s a positive.

A Makeshift World

One force on full display in 2020 was people’s spirit of ingenuity—when times are uncertain, you’ve got to get scrappy and figure it out.

“In the early weeks when supply chains were discombobulated, one steakhouse near me temporarily opened a market to customers, selling packages of raw meat, eggs, rice, and other essentials—a smart way to handle the excess when they had to close their dining room,” Nancy said. Some restaurants started including a roll of toilet paper in delivery and takeout orders.

We’ve marveled at the creative ways businesses found to serve their customers (and continue to do so today)—that’s a much more welcome sight than empty parking lots.

Amy said, “One of the weirdest discoveries for me was learning Macy’s is now offering same-day delivery of merchandise through DoorDash. My son drove for DoorDash early in the pandemic, so I'm familiar with how it works. Their tagline is 'Get Any Meal Delivered'—so I guess I can order that last-minute Christmas gift…with a side of Taco Bell?”

Small local businesses are finding ways to be creative, too. Nancy said, “There’s a guy who works for a seafood company on our Nextdoor community page, and he is offering deliveries of fresh seafood on his way home from work for free. He’s doing it to help his employer stay afloat—they also supply restaurants, so business is down.”

Here’s to 2021

We did it, we made it through 2020. Despite all the best contingencies, there was no game plan for this year. But as an industry, we think we’ve done a great job executing the makeshift solutions as we go…accepting that being a little rough around the edges is just fine.

Let’s hope 2021 stays on the rails. (But, what about sweatpants culture…is that here to stay?)

While some of these changes made for a very disappointing year, some of these COVID-driven inconveniences are turning out to be the way we think life should be all the time.

We do miss talking to people face-to-face and look forward to the day when that becomes safe and normal again. Maybe we’ll even change back into real pants.

So, please tell us your 2020 stories … and what are the extreme things you did to keep your business going in 2020? Email us, or better yet, share on our LinkedIn page and see what others have to say.