Georgia’s foresters and logging educators pivoted to virtual communications during the pandemic. Here’s what they’ve learned.
By Susan Bernstein
Pictured: Andres Villegas, president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, interviews Senator Raphael Warnock for the virtual Forestry in Focus event.
In every season, Georgia’s forestry industry keeps moving. Even during widespread shutdowns forced by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Georgia’s logging operations and mills stayed open to provide essential products for shipping and construction. Forestry businesses and industry agencies turned live events and training sessions into virtual meetings.
As employees slowly return to work in offices, and in-person conferences returned in mid-2021, forestry professionals say virtual meetings and on-demand education will remain part of the mix due to the benefits, including convenience for busy forestry professionals working across our large state.
Fast Transition to Virtual Early in the pandemic, forestry professionals adapted quickly to keep operations going amid unprecedented restrictions like physical distancing, a new term for most of us.
“Before 2020, I had heard of Zoom, but I hadn’t used it much,” says Todd Mullis, vice president of operations with Forest Resource Consultants, Inc. (FRC) in Macon. FRC manages approximately two million acres of timberland from Texas to the Carolinas with just over 100 employees in 12 offices. They ramped up videoconferencing capabilities, but this limited important personal interactions with clients and stakeholders. “Especially in our business, relationships are key. It hurt some of our business development activities, like meeting with clients, or taking them to a Braves game or hunting. Most of those activities ground to a halt for about six months.”
FRC’s leadership created a plan to keep small, core staff teams working on site, with everyone else working from home, says Mullis. Huge, nearly empty offices allowed on-site workers to stay relatively safe.
“The heart of our operations are foresters. They’re outdoors 75% of the time. We manage property, and part of that work is supervising contractor harvesting operations. We saw many instances where contract logging operations were impacted by COVID among the logging crews. Early in the pandemic, there were also many mill operations that were shut down for a period of time. Many wood-consuming facilities are still working through reduced hours at times, due to employee shortages,” he says. “Our operations adapted, because we had to adapt.”
Continuing Education Continued In 2020-21, logger education programs also shifted to COVID-safe virtual formats. Georgia’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Implementation Committee trains loggers and foresters on techniques to meet sustainable forestry initiative standards, such as responsible wood procurement, through its Georgia Master Timber Harvester Program.
About 1,500 Georgia forestry professionals participate in Master Timber Harvester workshops and continuing logger education programs each year. The Georgia committee is directly responsible for the program’s introductory workshop, while the committee coordinates with member forest-product mills, technical colleges and others to provide continuing logger education events.
In early 2020, the committee, which consists of members from 32 forestry companies and 12 supporting organizations, halted all in-person meetings, including its Master Timber Harvester workshops, then adapted them to virtual formats, says Chase Cook, the program coordinator, who works out of the UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources in Athens.
“We decided we couldn’t afford to stop and wait around. Forestry is an essential industry in Georgia. Forestry companies never took a break, but they all implemented rigorous rules and COVID safety protocols. They couldn’t stop production, because the demand was still high, including paper products for shipping pharmaceuticals to home remodeling projects. Would the pandemic be over in three months? Six months? We didn’t know. We didn’t want to put our training programs on hold indefinitely, so we decided to invest in virtual options,” says Cook.
The SFI’s training program usually begins with a two-day workshop. To avoid subjecting loggers to a two-daylong Zoom call, the committee developed an on-demand virtual training platform for meeting the training requirements. Cook shipped camera equipment to trainers to create videos or air live presentations and reached out to neighboring state SFI implementation committees, including South and North Carolina, for relevant training content and advice.
Within five months, the committee pulled together a complete training library and worked with SFI Inc. and Michigan State University to launch the virtual training system. Over 150 loggers and foresters completed the on-demand introductory training in the last 12 months. Thanks to similar efforts from collaborating providers, continuing-education completion rates among the program’s active Master Timber Harvesters remain about the same as before the pandemic shut down in-person events. Due to this success and the positive feedback from participants, the committee will continue to offer virtual training options in the future.
“I am very proud of what we accomplished,” Cook says. “We are happy to say that we never had to take a break from our essential operations, including our logger education responsibilities.”
Flexibility Is Key On-demand and virtual meetings offer flexibility to accommodate unpredictable schedules. On the day of a scheduled meeting or event, a forester may realize that they need to be in their mill, says Matt Hestad, vice president of engagement at the Georgia Forestry Association (GFA). The GFA’s events include an Annual Conference, Forestry Day at the Capitol, and regular advocacy and educational events for members.
COVID-19 caused the GFA leadership and staff to adapt the association’s content for both live and on-demand access, and they plan to continue this hybrid approach even as Georgia emerges from the pandemic.
“We give people the space to access our content at their convenience and in their way,” says Hestad, who has been with the GFA since 2011. “For our American Forestry Conference, we approached it almost like a TV show. We told attendees, ‘You can catch it live, ask questions and interact with speakers and other attendees. But if you can’t, you can still access the content later on.’ COVID changed how we think about education and membership value.”
To adapt successfully, the GFA invested in technology upgrades and staff training, says Hestad. During virtual conferences, the association created a hotline with a dedicated staff person to assist participants who had trouble with access. “This should not be the person running the event,” Hestad notes.
Technology allows the GFA to maximize its resources to increase efficiency, he says. While the GFA once met with legislators for coffee in downtown Atlanta during the General Assembly session, now, it can set up Zoom calls with legislators while they are in their districts.
“It’s easier to set up a video call. We could have spent months trying to set up an in-person meeting with Sen. Raphael Warnock, but we had a virtual meeting instead, and this allowed our members to join the discussion,” Hestad says.
High-Tech Tools to Prompt Discussion The Georgia SFI Implementation Committee’s budget and planning meetings also pivoted to a virtual format in 2020 and 2021, says Cook. Committee members who live and work hours away from the meeting site often prefer the virtual option. “Foresters like to be out in the woods. Our members enjoy hunting and fishing. They’re not indoor folks. But some can be reluctant to embrace virtual technology and open up on Zoom calls. We don’t want anyone to be shy during these business meetings,” he says.
To generate discussion and debate during virtual meetings, the committee utilizes tools like live polling. Cook posts a question, reveals the group’s responses during the meeting, and then asks participants to discuss their different opinions.
“It’s hard to pay attention to multiple conversations in a virtual format,” he says. “Some people are just more comfortable direct-messaging me as the meeting facilitator, but that makes it even more challenging to juggle ongoing conversations.”
In virtual meetings, a creative touch keeps attendees engaged in the discussion, Hestad says. For the GFA’s event with Sen. Warnock, the association filmed several members asking questions ahead of time. The Senator watched the video and offered responses.
“It was more like a TV show. You can use a combination approach with prerecorded videos and slides, and also create a virtual room with a moderated discussion,” he says. “You don’t want to plan a virtual meeting that people don’t want to attend. We have all been on Zoom meetings with a speaker talking and very disengaged attendees.”
The 2021 GFA Annual Conference in July was held in person, but livestreamed to allow remote attendance for those who wanted it.
“In order to keep people engaged in our work, we will have to innovate continually,” says Hestad. “We are constantly thinking about new ways to make the virtual space matter.”
Everything Can’t Be Done Remotely Adapting to remote work and virtual meetings taught forestry professionals some valuable lessons about technology’s benefits and challenges.
“Just getting to know people personally is harder in a virtual meeting. You can’t have those small group chats around the coffee pot,” says Cook. The SFI committee plans to hold its first in-person meeting in November 2021. Remote access will continue to be offered, but “the desire to get together in person again is growing.”
Day-to-day business at FRC has returned to normal, says Mullis. The company meets with clients and stakeholders in person once more. Because FRC has greatly expanded its holdings in recent years, about 50% of FRC’s employees have been with the company for less than five years. To build camaraderie and company culture, both new and longtime employees need to interact in person, not just over phones or screens, he says.
“During the pandemic, we had to ask ourselves, ‘How do we keep our culture, keep our people safe, and get our work done?’ We certainly learned to collaborate better, and that has been a positive outcome. We have increased our efficiency,” says Mullis. “We can work from home and get things done if needed. But company culture is all about engagement with leadership. Leadership is all about influence through personal engagement. That is how we work and how our business works.” ■
Susan Bernstein is a writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience in interviewing, custom content creation and marketing communications. As a native of Atlanta, Susan cares deeply about Georgia’s industries and environment.
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