Balancing Field and Office Time

I receive many unsolicited phone calls and e-mail messages each year from clients that sing the praises of their local Extension agents and/or office.  These calls are a joy to receive.  I also receive calls from Extension clients that are upset.  When this happens I do my best to listen and help facilitate a solution where warranted.  Paradoxically, within the past year a client called to complain that an agent was never in the office, and I also received a call from a client expressing concern that an agent was always in the office (i.e., did not spend enough time in the field).  This dichotomy begs the question, is there an appropriate balance of field and office time?  I have my thoughts on this subject, which I will share after I hear yours!

Dan Goerlich

5 thoughts on “Balancing Field and Office Time

  1. Chris Brown

    This is something that I struggle with as a newer agent (>2 years). I’m always concerned that I’m either one extreme or the other. For the most part, I feel that I’m in the office more than I should be. However, it seems if I make an effort to be in the field, I come back to find numerous missed calls and visits after having gone several days with no calls or visits. Another worry is that I feel I should be going to the field with a specific task or by request of a client. I feel guilty to make random visits and unsure whether a producer will be inconvenienced or actually appreciate the visit. Perhaps I’m over analyzing. I’m interested to hear other’s thoughts.

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  2. Laura Siegle

    I agree with a lot of the suggestions in the previous two comments. I tend to group my visits or scouting trips into days or half days, and then on office-heavy days, I mostly stay in the office. Grouping the visits helps me be more cost-effective with my travel.
    It seems that clients get “trained” over time to understand how you work (for example, what sort of response time to usually expect from you, the easiest way to contact you, etc), so I have tried to instill in my clients the suggestion that they call the office to check if I am in before they walk in with samples or questions, mostly because I feel terrible when I miss someone who made a special trip to the office to see me with questions. Most seem to have caught on, and distributing my cell phone number to the farmers has helped because most of them call the cell before they try anything else and many even text. Typically the homeowners seem to use the office number to call us before they interact with me for the first time, so that prevents many missed drop-in visits while I am out on visits.
    I guess I can see how balancing office/field can be problematic, but fortunately most people have been understanding so far in this county. For the few who are disappointed if I don’t call back same day/immediately due to being out, I try to make sure that they have an over-the-top good experience and satisfaction level with Extension when I do get back in touch.

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    1. Dan Goerlich

      Thanks for your thoughtful feedback Bill, Chris, and Laura! Not only have you addressed the field-office balance, but also brought in customer service elements as well as how to strategically approach field work in a manner that maximizes travel dollars. Great input!

      This seems like a good time to share some additional thoughts about this topic and expand the conversation even farther. So here goes…

      I have come to the conclusion that, assuming the agent is being responsive and returning communications in a timely manner, some clients become upset if the agent is not available at the exact moment the client needs assistance. In these cases I talk with the client about the necessity of agents spending time both in and out of the office, and that this balance will be different depending on local needs, the nature of the local program, and how individuals approach their work. Rather than focusing on time spent in and out of the office, in my opinion the main emphasis should be, is the job getting done, is it getting done in a professional manner, and is the agent addressing the needs of the locality?

      Speaking of the locality, what if it is the local government calling the agent or office into question on this topic? If the local government is raising questions about how an agent is spending his or her time, and assuming we do not have performance issue, then we may have a communications issue. Do the Unit Coordinator and agents have a relationship with the county or city government? Does the locality know what the Extension office does and what our accomplishments are? Do the local officials understand the need for agents to balance field and office time? My guess would be the answer to one or more of these questions is “no” if the locality is questioning the relevance of VCE or how agents are spending their time. District Directors generally don’t get questions about how agents are spending their time from localities where we have strong programs, strong relationships, and with whom we maintain open communications.

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  3. Cyndi Marston

    Well put, Dan. I agree that communication about schedules within the unit, county administration, and clients is one of the main keys to unit and agent success. Agents should have nothing to hide regarding their work schedule and should offer transparency of schedule to county personnel and clients. Within the office it is common courtesy and professional functionality to let the UAA or person keeping the doors open that day know where you will be and when you can be expected to return.

    As state employees, we should all be aware of how our actions are perceived by coworkers, clients, and funders around us. We need to be willing to go the extra mile to explain why we are grocery shopping at Walmart at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon (for a program later that evening), or perhaps to say, “Hey, good to see you! I’m taking some time off work today!” It is easy to take the attitude that its nobody’s business but the boss about where I am and what I am doing, but that is simply not true when you are paid by taxpayers. We are paid professionals and need to be accountable for our time and our quality of work.

    The balance of in-office and out-of-office scheduling will always be a struggle and never please everyone, but I believe with transparency and impactful programming, tensions over this struggle will disappear.

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