I could fill several pages with everything I’ve learnt since the start of the pandemic.
But instead, I want to dedicate this column to the frontline workers of our food and beverage industry, for they are the unsung heroes of COVID.
And the uncomfortable truth is that they deserve better.
We (by “we”, I refer to all of us who have leadership roles in this industry) have, for too long, considered our frontline people as cogs in a machine.
We don’t really involve them in the business, and sometimes don’t even ask their opinions. We focus on efficiency, forcing them to rigorously adhere to processes. We rarely ever think about their freedom to innovate.
And then we blame them when they don’t show up for work.
My work, every day, is focused on making food more sustainably, with three fundamental principles: planet, profit and people.
95% of the calls I receive from F&B companies concern planet and profit: how to save money by reducing an environmental footprint or create new growth by telling a better environmental story.
Very few companies want to talk about their people….
Late last year, we carried out a survey of F&B manufacturers and processers to see how they’d been coping with COVID. Almost every firm we interviewed told us of their struggles with absenteeism, with up to 66% of staff choosing to stay at home and collect CERB rather than come to work. They also told us that their investment dollars post-COVID were going on automation, to replace as many of these “unreliable” humans as possible with machines.
But this makes no sense. Absenteeism is a symptom, not the cause.
We are blaming frontline workers for staying at home, yet the truth is that we haven’t given them a good reason to come to work!
Would you put yourself in danger and show up every day if you felt like you were simply a cog in a machine, replaceable and disposable, whose opinion didn’t matter and whose ideas weren’t valued? No, neither would I.
If we want frontline employees to care enough to show up in a pandemic, they need to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, that they are making a difference to something they truly care about, that they are seen as human beings (not machines) and that they have space to grow.
When we work with F&B companies on sustainability, we examine the overall “health and wellness” of their people and organizational structures. By applying a scoring system that is used across many other industries, we can see if companies are Degenerative, Transactional or Regenerative.
Degenerative companies are inconsistent in their decision-making and information flows and have staff who feel undervalued and disengaged.
Transactional companies perform a little better with some staff feeling a sense of pride in their work.
Regenerative companies, on the other hand, have empowered employees who feel like they are making a meaningful contribution to something they care about.
The second uncomfortable truth is that in our current system, the best most F&B companies can hope to be is Transactional.
And this is not something to be proud of, nor is it sustainable.
We need to do three things, urgently.
The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Future of Work Report lists “analytical thinking,” “complex problem solving,” “active learning,” “critical thinking and analysis” and “creativity” as the top in demand skills for 2025.
The first priority is to train frontline workers in these skills so that they can add more value and be future-fit for the world of work.
Automation is replacing the repetitive, manual tasks in manufacturing – as it should. People are not machines, but nor are they necessarily unreliable. The second priority is to transform our manufacturing environments so they are focused on employees’ freedom to innovate rather than their obligation to comply.
Which takes us to the third priority, embracing Purpose.
Purpose-driven companies are outperforming their competition by a factor of three to one. And much of this performance comes from the higher levels of employee engagement and retention (40% higher on average).
Companies that focus on these 3 priorities become Regenerative - places that you or I would really want to work, with strong growth and the resiliency to deal with the next global shock.
A year on from the start of the pandemic, it is time for us to not just thank our frontline workers but invest in them and start seeing them as inspiring human beings rather than sub-functional machines.
That would be something worth coming to work for.
View the original Food in Canada Sustainable Change Column on page 13 here
Cher Mereweather, CEO of Provision Coalition Inc., is a Food Industry Sustainability Expert based in Canada