As offices closed across the world, employees took to home-working, often with more flexible hours. Lucy Britner explores the challenges and opportunities for major packaged-food companies as new working habits look set to stay.

In early September, UK-based international sandwich-shop chain Pret a Manger, in the face of the Covid-sparked slump in trade in central London, announced a shift in its approach to business. CEO Pano Christou revealed Pret had binned its corporate mantra, ‘Follow the skyscraper’, in favour of ‘Follow the customer’.

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The future of Pret, Christou said, is about reaching customers where they are, not waiting for them to return to the office.

Worldwide, Covid-19 lockdowns have seen office workers take a different approach to the 9-5 as well as use more technology to connect with our colleagues. 

Globally, Ernst & Young’s Future Consumer Index, which surveyed around 14,000 consumers in August, revealed 24% of people feel uncomfortable going to work, with over a quarter (27%) expecting the way they work to change in the long term. Meanwhile, almost half believe they will work from home and work more flexibly in the future. 

There are benefits for workers and companies alike, with reduced commuting costs, more time with the family and greater flexibility for the former, and reduced overheads as well as larger talent pools for the latter. There are also challenges: humans are social creatures and communicating company culture or on-boarding new team members from behind a computer screen can be tricky.

But major players have accepted that some of these changes are here to stay and execs, including in the packaged-food industry, are paying close attention to what this could mean going forward. 

On a results conference call in August, US manufacturer Post Holdings’ CEO Rob Vitale highlighted three concerns. “One is how do you maintain culture? Two is, how do you on-board people effectively? And three, how do you develop young talent? If we can solve those problems, I think it starts to upend the way we think about organising work and people,” he said, also highlighting the removal of geographic constraints when it comes to attracting talent. 

A week earlier, Mondelez International CEO Dirk Van de Put told Wall Street analysts the way people work is evolving, drawing attention to a “better balance of life-work”. 

“For instance, going forward, we see more people working more time from home,” Van de Put said. “Some of the changes due to Covid will be permanent.”

A spokesperson for Mondelez tells just-food that the pandemic has shown the company can work in different ways. 

“We’re also managing through different realities in different markets geographically as each adjusts and responds to the current situation in that location,” the spokesperson says. “Globally, there has been a dramatic shift in workplace culture in the face of Covid with a renewed focus on flexible working and hybrid workplace models.

“This is here to stay. Overnight, we shifted to having office workers fully remote where possible; that transition has been seamless and enabled by improved collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams, enhanced workplace/worktime flexibility and more self-serve HR and internal development materials such as Mondelez International University.”

The Cadbury owner says it’s found staff largely enjoy the flexibility, which will lead to wider changes at Mondelez. “Over time as we develop new offices or renovate existing spaces, we will move our workplaces from 75% desks and 25% meeting spaces to the inverse, to allow our offices to serve as more of a collaboration point,” the spokesperson adds. 

At Arla Foods, a spokesperson for the the dairy group was “positively surprised at how efficient” flexible, home working has been. “Coming back into the office is our goal, but we do expect to see a more fluid transition between working at the office and working at home going forward,” the spokesperson says.

In-house initiatives are also helping to make remote working a success. David Souperbiet, chief human resources officer at PepsiCo’s European arm, highlights a scheme called ‘One Ask’. The initiative, which launched earlier this year, allows teams to take control of what flexible working means for them by making one ‘ask’ of their manager that will simplify their personal or professional life. “Everyone had such different schedules and situations during the lockdown, so this has given autonomy to our teams as they reshape their way of working to suit their circumstances,” says Souperbiet. 

Strategy and recruitment 

Though the outbreak put pause to many initiatives, Arla says the co-op is “back to working on business strategy and taking learnings from changed consumer behaviour, such as more cooking and eating at home, into our innovation process”. The spokesperson also highlights Arla’s “transformation” and cost-savings programme, Calcium, which includes working more online. “So when we were forced to have all communication online for a period of time, we were all secure in the how-to and could transition very efficiently.” 

Multinational companies are accustomed to online practices and PepsiCo’s Souperbiet also flags existing measures to manage innovation across teams and geographies. 

“One example of how we are virtually fostering an innovative and inclusive culture is ‘The Next Big Idea’ – an internal innovation competition. Our employees across the world are challenged to think of a ‘Big’ idea that will help PepsiCo grow faster, strengthen our capabilities or do better on sustainability.” He says 2020 has seen the highest numbers participating yet, with ideas on how to emerge from the crisis stronger than before.

“We’re also continuing to create a culture of celebration through our online recognition platform, Smiles. It’s an entirely digital platform that lets employees send ‘Smiles’ to thank colleagues for their hard work or congratulate them on a recent life event. Although we can’t celebrate in person, we can share photos, videos and supportive messages to keep a sense of solidarity in our teams and ensure people are recognised for their outstanding efforts.” 

As for recruitment, PepsiCo’s virtual graduate innovation challenge ‘Dare To Do More’ sees graduates compete in a gamified programme that offers candidates the chance to show their personality and critical thinking skills via a virtual assessment.

From an on-boarding perspective, Souperbiet says first impressions count. “We quickly adapted the on-boarding process to the new virtual reality,” he says. “It was critical to ensure new recruits were given a good experience and could immerse themselves into our culture without stepping into the office.” He underscores the company’s ‘buddies’ scheme for new joiners as well as virtual coffee breaks across teams.  

Maintaining culture

Bryony Wright, partner and executive coach at executive coaching specialists The Preston Associates says many of her coaching sessions with senior leaders are, at the moment, focused on how they can adapt their company culture to ensure that permanent flexible office and remote working continues to drive pace and performance. 

“It’s about the crucial importance of embedding trust at all levels,” she explains. “A high trust environment is one in which employees are empowered and motivated to work to their full potential. It means having the psychological safety to be open and honest about what you think, to be able to take calculated risks and embrace failure in order to innovate and learn.” 

Wright says a big part of this is about mutual respect and being comfortable to admit vulnerabilities. 

As for maintaining a sense of team, once the vision, collective goals and success, expectations in terms of roles, responsibilities and behaviours are clear, Wright says it’s about focusing on human connection. “Leaders need to find ways to keep in touch with their people as people and to embrace a coaching style of leadership. To understand how they are and what they need and want from their roles, where they see their futures, what is important to them.” 

Food manufacturers will face some challenges as they adapt but executives do see potential benefits.

At Post, Vitale says if the Weetabix owner can solve those three problems he outlined to analysts, it would “start to upend the way we think about organising work and people” and could help the manufacturer to find talented executives.

“Instead of thinking about our talent pool as those who are willing to relocate to whatever is the appropriate metropolitan area, we recruit from the country or the world and we managed differently,” Vitale said. “I think that’s a fairly profound change in the way we think about talent development.”

It seems likely flexible and remote working will be a bigger part of the future but PepsiCo’s Souperbiet believes there will still be a place for the office. “People have the natural inclination to collaborate in person and we need to get a balance between providing the right environment for that and flexing to allow people to work in a way they find productive.”

The office might not be a thing of the past, but it will certainly look different in the future.