Managing at the frontline: inside the food industry

Written by Ann Francke Tuesday 26 May 2020
Food companies have been running flat-out during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's a vivid insight into managing key workers, communities and communication from two of the most senior leaders in the industry.
Ann Francke

I was delighted to speak with two former colleagues and CMI Companions who are leaders in the global food industry. Fiona Dawson is global president of Mars food (multisales and global customers); and Steve Axe is chief marketing officer of Nomad Foods. Both businesses have been running flat out to manage increases in demand, a global network of factory, office workers, and partners since the beginning of the pandemic. Here are their learnings:

Keep it speedy, simple, safe - and set global standards with local implementation

Both Mars and Nomad Foods swiftly implemented safety and social distancing measures in their factories ahead of any government guidelines on lockdowns. This meant screening for temperatures, eliminating non-factory visitors, introducing sanitisers and PPE, slowing factory lines and simplifying ranges to only ‘blockbuster products’ so that social distancing could be observed. Educating employees on the new measures and ways of working was essential.

Both Fiona and Steve stressed the importance of instilling pride in the ‘key worker’ status of their manufacturing colleagues and of providing recognition and reward both in financial and non-financial ways. Putting people and their safety first, frequent surveys to check that their employees feel safe, and lots of listening are also key. Fiona acknowledges that ramping ranges back up will be a challenge in this new environment: “We're going to have social distancing until the foreseeable future... we’re not going to go back and ease that even if countries say it’s okay.”

Even though the measures were taken and managed in a global framework, local teams were a vital part of successful implementation, says Steve. “We have global protocols, but we very much leave it to the local leadership teams to operationalise that… But I think we tried to manage in a framework particularly for the factory. So everybody feels like they’re being treated fairly and consistently, everyone’s got a fair voice, whether you’re in Italy or Norway… your wellbeing is our number one concern.”

In some cultures, situations such as conflicting information, have made implementing the measures more challenging, says Fiona. She recalls working with a local mayor close to their US factory to reinforce the message of social distancing and ensure that local government supported their efforts. “Working with your local communities as well as your local management teams has really been a definer for us,” she says.

Phase returns carefully and give people options

Mars uses a traffic light system to class various global markets in terms of where they are on lockdown easing; few markets are currently on green. Fiona stresses that long-embedded practices such as hot-desking and open-plan offices will need to change: “you need to be cognisant of the fact you will have people who are in very different places: those who are scared to go in; those who feel the need to be seen to be in; those people able to work from home; and those having to work from home with poor WiFi or with housemates. People will deal with this crisis in their own, very personal, way; so give people optionality to come in if they feel comfortable.”

Steve agrees: “I think personal circumstances and listening to people is important… you can’t force people in that situation on their health. Our overriding priority is employee safety and welfare. For this reason, in this first phase of returning to work, we will be limiting those that can return to the office to just those who need to be in the office for business-critical reasons and cannot work effectively at home.”

Both leaders emphasise how much they are putting into the issue of mental health. Steve cites the return of ‘walk and talk’ phone conversations that take place with no computer screens, and Fiona emphasises the importance of reaching out when you haven't heard from someone in a while. “It is so important we keep our antennae out,” she says.

Phasing people back in who are ‘mission critical’ is important, but so are individual situations. We all agree that the office will certainly change and flexibility is key. “Whether it becomes more of a meeting hub, with only essential people, or do we all go to work two or three days a week and we flex it… we’ve proven we can be flexible,” says Steve. “What’s harder to manage are the ongoing challenges.”

Innovation everywhere - and meetings with a human touch too

Both leaders have seen many positive examples of innovation. They hope these will bring about lasting improvements in working practices. Fiona loves the spontaneity, efficiency and informality of video-enabled meetings; she cites a three-day team meeting covering time zones from Australia through to Chicago, which “was without doubt the best meeting we had... It was more disciplined, efficient and everyone got to speak… no PowerPoint presentations, just chatting about what was happening.”

Steve says: “I actually think we’re getting higher quality output from our discussions because we haven’t got just the senior people in the room.”

Asked about their favourite innovations during the crisis, Fiona cites two: the speed at which they’ve changed their processes, and the way in which people have embraced these changes; and the elevation of purpose – “people really understanding the communities in which they interact.”

Steve references the speed with which advertising campaigns happen. “Advertising campaigns used to take nine months. Now they can take 14 days,” he enthuses. He also mentions the importance of employees. “Putting people at the front and centre of what we do every day is also something I’ve been really proud of.”

Fiona is chair of the Women’s Business Council – an industry-led, government-sponsored body. From that point of view, she sees two positive consequences from the crisis: one is that flexible working is no longer taboo; the second is that social distancing has introduced a more respectful, less ‘macho’ culture in some industries.

Steve believes the crisis has changed how brands should communicate. Initially, he says, his advice was “Be helpful or be quiet.” He opted for the former, with lots of activities and recipes aimed at his family customer base. In the medium term, he cautions brands – “Don’t go dark… Brands are part of people’s lives. If you go dark for too long, it will hurt your brand in the long term.”

For more fantastic content which can help you manage through the crisis, visit CMI's Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

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