Transwestern Startup Stories: Michele McDuff – Ceres Imaging

Transwestern, Ceres Imaging, Oakland
(Michele McDuff and Head of Talent Acquisition for Ceres Imaging)

By Victor Valenzuela 

This series profiles innovative companies and how they are adapting to the challenges of Bay Area Shelter-In-Place orders in the wake of COVID-19.

Ceres Imaging is a farming solutions company headquartered at 360 22nd St. in Oakland, California. Founded by Ash Madgavkart in 2014, Ceres aims to help growers and farm advisors make proactive decisions using aerial imagery and data analytics to maximize resources, yields and profits. Through its onsite and on-location experts, the company serves growers across the U.S. and Australia. 

Head of Talent Acquisitions, Michele McDuff, spoke with me about how the Ceres team is approaching productivity and comradery while sheltering in place, and what lasting lessons can be found through this experience. 

ValenzuelaHow have you measured employee productivity in the shift to WFH?

McDuff. We want to ensure our customers are being served and ensure we’re meeting our commitments, so we have been implementing aggressive [Service Level Agreements] for the season even before COVID-19. If we’re making that happen, we’re pretty flexible with our employees in terms of how they get work done. We completely understand that folks have different situations at home. Some people have children, some have roommates, some have bad Wi-Fi. There are all kinds of things that can make it difficult, so productivity looks a lot different than it did before. We’re trying to be mindful of that because folks are going through challenging times, but we’re still meeting our commitments to our customers and our commitments to each other, and that’s really what matters right now.

Valenzuela. With your office partially occupied at most, have you had any conversations with your landlord around how to manage rent payments and going back to the office?

McDuff. We’ve talked with our landlords carefully about what it looks like to go back, but we haven’t talked about rent deferrals. We’re fairly lucky in that our industry is pretty insulated from what’s happening, and we’ve been lucky with how that’s impacted our bottom line. We’re thankful to have the extra space because we’re able to keep folks safe and make sure people have a lot of distance if they’re in the office. It’s going to be an asset for us as we return.

Valenzuela. What are some of the cultural shifts you see in terms of how offices will change in the future?

McDuff. I think employees are really going to want to maintain flexibility in their lives moving forward. We now have this bizarre case study for how people can be productive working from home. The big shift that will be interesting is for people who are interacting with the public for their job. We’re fortunate because we don’t do a ton of face-to-face interaction except with customers, which is fairly low risk because it’s a contained group. But that’s not everybody. So, if I had a startup that was serving coffee to the public, or a grocery store doing on-demand delivery, those are different challenges and will be tough to tackle. 

Transwestern, Ceres Imaging, Oakland

 Valenzuela. What steps have you taken for the eventual return to the office?

McDuff. We have a COVID-19 taskforce consisting of folks at all levels of the company. We want to make sure we’re considering all angles when thinking about bringing people back. What’s most challenging is, news changes every day. The shelter-in-place order gets extended, or there are different restrictions for bringing people back. So right now we’re scenario planning for what things might look like when we start bringing folks back. We’re assuming there will be less folks in the office and we want to make sure we give everyone enough space. We’ve already worked with our building management to increase cleaning and disinfecting on our floor, which will continue as we bring folks back.

Valenzuela. Do you think Ceres will have a larger percentage of staff WFH going forward?

McDuff. More than likely we’ll have a larger group of folks working from home for a while, especially around schooling. A lot of schools are closed, people are really struggling for childcare, people are really struggling with things like commute or what it looks like to get on public transit. We want to make sure we’re really mindful and careful about that. We’re very fortunate in that our workforce has successfully pivoted to working from home. As long as we’re making decisions that support our employees and ensuring their safety and health, that’s our main focus.

Valenzuela. Will that shift change your hiring criteria?

McDuff. We don’t know how this is going to affect the economy long term. We’re fortunate in that our company is small enough that if we want to spend a year focusing on being as lean and impactful as we can, we can do that. I think a lot of startups will shift from the growth-at-all-costs mindset to focusing on being as efficient as possible to weather the storm. We’re going to be really strategic about hiring in the next two quarters, but we still need people to go out and talk to farmers. We still need people to support our customers, and that won’t change.

Valenzuela. Are your distributed team members in farming areas having one-on-one interactions with your customers?

McDuff. We do have a number of remote folks across the Central Valley in California. Some in the Pacific Northwest, some in the Southwest and Midwest. Even some in Australia and South America. It’s been a good system for giving really good service on the ground for our customers. Fortunately, we’ve seen a big shift with an industry using technology that wasn’t necessarily known for using technology before. Farmers have been adapting really well with the technology curve. A lot of it is family driven. People are motivated to adopt technology because they want to see their kids, grandkids, siblings, etc., and it bleeds into work.

Valenzuela. Has your team implemented anything related to the mental health of Ceres staff?

McDuff. We have a great HR team that is very passionate about making sure people feel supported. We put together several groups and initiatives for people to get together and talk about things that aren’t work related. We’ve got a cooking group, a parenting group, we’ve got a few affinity groups, especially around women or LGBTQ+ in the community. We want to make sure people have channels to build that virtual community. Even then, it can be hard, so I’m always excited to hear about people using resources that we provided, be it mental health, or paid leave, or even if it’s just putting together a virtual happy hour. We’re trying not to give people too many things on their plate because people are busy enough.

Valenzuela. Are there practices Ceres has adopted in this transition that will be permanent?

McDuff. We’re going to keep some of the cultural aspects of being able to video Slack somebody without putting time on the calendar. A lot of what we’ve implemented is trying to solve for those times where you’re walking next to somebody in the kitchen, or you bump into somebody in the hallway, those ad hoc conversations are valuable and we’ve worked to implement solutions for that. We’ll also be more flexible, so if a person needs to work from home for a week it won’t be as daunting. I’m also hoping that we come out the other side of this stronger as a group, because this has been a really difficult, really emotional, very new and scary time. Our team is going through this together and coming through the other side. We’re all going to have a better understanding of who we are as people, and I think it’ll make us a better company for it.

Transwestern, Ceres Imaging, Oakland

Victor Valenzuela is a Vice President at Transwestern, focusing on the Oakland market. He represents tenants from the finance, technology, legal, and healthcare industries by helping them evaluate their office facilities strategy on a local and national level. He and his team also provide strategic commercial real estate services for owners on East Bay projects. Throughout his career, Victor has been involved in over 120 leasing and disposition transactions with an aggregate deal value of over $113 million.


Transwestern Real Estate Services (TRE) adds value for investors, owners and occupiers of all commercial property types through a comprehensive perspective and by providing solutions grounded in sound market intelligence. Part of the Transwestern companies, the firm applies a consultative approach to Agency Leasing, Asset Services, Occupier Solutions, Capital Markets, and Research & Investment Analytics.

About Ceres Imaging

Ceres Imaging is a farming solutions company that helps growers and farm advisors make proactive decisions using aerial imagery and data analytics. Backed by university-validated science, Ceres Imaging seamlessly transforms precise crop imagery into actionable insights that help growers maximize resources, yields and profits. Ceres Imaging is committed to giving farmers the power to solve with certainty.

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