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Food and drink industry primed to adopt flexible working


In our latest HR leaders’ webinar, we considered how Covid-19 has impacted working practices in the food and drink industry. Our presentation also focused on broader trends changing the structure of talent and work including demographic shifts, technological innovation and environmental awareness. Attendees at the event agreed that moving forward, food and drink manufacturers will attract and retain talent by adopting more flexible approaches to work.

Multi-generational workforces

Most businesses now employ people across the 4 generations:

  • Baby boomers: 1942 – 1965
  • Generation X: 1966 – 1980
  • Millennials: 1981 – 1996
  • Generation Z: 1997 – 2010

Manufacturers are often worried that when older employees retire, the business will lose tacit operational knowledge. Today, those concerns are amplified by the gradual disappearance of a prevailing attitude that work is a permanently site-based activity. Soon, Millennial and Gen-Z employees will dominate the workforce and it’s clear that the younger generation expects something different from working life. Manufacturers should acknowledge this now and start thinking about evolving working practices to meet the needs of younger employees.

Embracing adaptable workplaces

In a recent study, when asked which employee characteristics or behaviours are the most critical to success, Millennials and Gen Zs selected flexibility and adaptability. Businesses that demonstrate flexibility and adaptability are more successful too, according to Deloitte’s Global Resilience Report. Covid-19 has reinforced these research findings. Businesses that adapted quickly to the challenges imposed by the pandemic (e.g. in the on-trade brewing industry) are doing well 18 months since it started.

Generally, the pandemic has highlighted that change is possible and businesses should be more adaptable and open-minded to doing things differently. Driving change within manufacturing is never easy, and firms anticipate that enabling flexible and agile working practices will be as challenging as any other process and systems change. But it’s not too late to start thinking about how to enable more flexibility at work – offering a proposition that will appeal to the younger generations.

Doing their part to help the environment

Periods of extended lockdown during the last 18 months have had a temporary impact on reducing carbon emissions, demonstrating how curtailing polluting activities could help heal the planet. Doing their part to help the environment is very important to younger people, especially Gen-Zs. Many candidates are interested to learn about company CSR strategies and how businesses enact their values by getting involved in environmental related initiatives. Factors like the packaging and raw materials that companies use are important to younger people too.

The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey confirmed that:

  • Over two-thirds of millennials and Gen Zs agreed with the statement, “Environmental changes seen during the pandemic (less pollution, cleaner water, etc.) make me more optimistic that climate change can be reversed.”
  • About 40% also believe people’s commitment to take personal action for environmental and climate issues will be greater, post-pandemic.
  • And almost 40% believe the pandemic will create a future where individuals are better able to act on environmental issues.

Businesses should be communicating their sustainability credentials to attract talent. For many young people, a career isn’t about the job anymore, but a broader range of factors related to working life. This is how companies will differentiate themselves from competitors in the future.

Utilising technology

When it comes to doing things differently – whether that’s working practices or manufacturing processes – technology will determine how successful the change is. And new technology is always available to facilitate change. Before the pandemic, no one believed businesses could move to homeworking as quickly as they did. But when firms were forced to, they invested in the necessary technologies to allow staff to do their jobs at home.

Manufacturers are now able to utilise technologies that allow some degree of flexibility for factory-based employees. This includes access equipment for engineers to identify and diagnose machine errors remotely and add them to maintenance schedules. Investing in this type of equipment will make hiring young engineers easier in a post-pandemic world.

Learning & Development

Non-monetary rewards such as learning and development are increasingly popular. Companies are being creative around initiatives to support learning and development too. For example, some firms are getting people from across the organisation to interview potential new employees. This even includes adding individuals from graduate or apprenticeship schemes to interview panels. While this represents a great learning opportunity for less senior staff, businesses also get more diverse perspectives on the candidates being interviewed.

Furthermore, millennials today often leave jobs and go back into full-time education. Businesses would therefore benefit from supporting employees who want to study, by offering to pay towards their education or allowing them to work fewer hours while they complete qualifications – even if the qualification isn’t 100% related to their job. This will help with talent attraction and retention too. “If the employee wants to keep working while studying, then it demonstrates a level of commitment on their part, and employers should be nurturing that.”

Moving people cross-functionally is something manufacturers should also consider. This approach taps into the diversity agenda too and is attractive to younger people entering the workforce. If an engineer has excellent soft skills and emotional intelligence, can they move into another leadership role outside of engineering? It’s a great time to consider cross-functional roles.

Changing employee sentiment

Research carried out by PwC in the last 12 months confirms that:

  • 68% of employees want to work from home 3 days per week or less, with 1 in 4 stating they want a permanent home-based arrangement.
  • 33% of workers would no longer accept a new role if they were unable to work remotely at least some of the time.
  • 30% also stated that they would take a pay cut in exchange for the option to work from any location they choose.

Some companies have had a very muted response to remote working, driven by practical as well as cultural factors. Other firms will adopt a hybrid approach, whereas some businesses will offer highly flexible or even completely remote approaches to working.

The impact on leadership

The pandemic has reinforced how leaders should be ambassadors and role models, “protecting and supporting the workforce” rather than adopting a command and control leadership style. Some manufacturers acknowledged how Covid-19 exposed poor soft skill competencies in their management teams. Companies have therefore “gone back to basics” and delivered training for managers on how to empower people, as well as developing emotional intelligence at leadership level.

During the last 18 months, managers have had to build deeper personal relationships with their people. With mental health and wellbeing high on most company agendas, training managers to establish closer connections with team members is helping businesses identify and address mental health issues sooner. This means that employees are getting the necessary help they need at the right time.

With new starters working remotely, it’s been particularly important for managers not to become strangers to their employees, especially during induction periods. New starters have received induction packs and "other goodies" in the post. And managers have received additional training on how to get the best out of their people via Teams.

The impact on culture

Retaining organisational culture will continue being a challenge for businesses as they transition to a hybrid working model. Some companies are already reporting some surprising successes when it comes to changes in working practices and the impact they have had on culture.

Having smaller groups of people in offices, for example, has facilitated informal interactions between employees from different functions. Some companies say this has “enhanced” their culture as well as improved the induction process, whereby new staff members have got to know a broader range of colleagues sooner than they would under normal circumstances: “The office seems more relaxed with a greater sense of camaraderie amongst staff than it did before the pandemic.”

HR leaders acknowledged that preventing a cultural divide emerging between factory floor and office-based staff was a priority during the early stages of the pandemic. Companies used weekly sessions to update shop floor workers on how the business was responding to the pandemic and why. Some firms have offered rewards (e.g. free food) to factory employees as a way of thanking them for their sacrifices. And companies have also enabled factory workers to get involved in community projects such supplying food to the NHS, care homes, etc.

Many firms are considering what the purpose of the office is moving forward. It was agreed that the idea that the office is the place where you go to do your job is now redundant. Rather, offices should be about facilitating collaboration and embedding culture: "It’s a mentality shift and one which, if communicated properly, will make sense to factory workers too."

Employees valued communication more so than anything else this year. Companies have made a genuine effort to acknowledge and respond to staff needs. Some firms highlighted how retention levels have remained the same while sickness has fallen to the lowest it’s ever been. Overall, HR leaders were proud that despite all the challenges of the past 18 months, companies have maintained positive working environments.

A clear message is that if firms listen to their people then they will perform well and stay at businesses long-term. If change is managed properly and communication is regular, open and transparent, then you can build on your culture and achieve great things. As one HR leader stated: “None of us has been to the university of Covid-19.’ No one understands how best to approach this situation but keeping our people happy is our main focus.”

Impact on Ts & Cs

The consensus was that flexible working will likely remain at the discretion of businesses but that it will become more widely accepted. This may impact Ts & Cs with regards to business travel expenses, company cars, London working allowance, etc. Though, few (if any) businesses are currently making permanent changes to Ts & Cs:

“It’s not right for leaders to make any decisions at the moment – we’re viewing these as possible future changes. To rush into things now could disrupt the routine that employees have adopted during the last year."

Moving forward, the expectation is that it will become harder to refuse flexible working requests. Or, that a formal request is no longer necessary and rather is something employees will agree informally with managers.

At the start of the pandemic, most Covid-19 responsibilities were redirected to HR teams. Generally, it was agreed that HR has used the unique challenges created by the pandemic to raise their profiles within organisations. This period represents a major transformation and step-change for HR:

“Employees have certainly appreciated our efforts. I think that it elevated the perception of the food industry as a great sector to work in too.”

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