Long reads

How are people teams responding to coronavirus? ...Better Food

7 Apr 2020 By Maggie Baska

People Management finds out what employers are doing to tackle the logistical, financial and staff wellbeing implications of the global pandemic

The organisation

Better Food is a Bristol-based independent retailer and cafe, specialising in organic, local and ethically sourced food and products. The stores and cafes can be found in three locations in the city, and the company employs more than 120 people across the sites. 

The impact so far

Daisy Roach, head of HR and payroll, says coronavirus contingency planning started at the end of February. This included planning for the possibility of mass panic buying, which she says was “on the periphery” back then. At the time she thought the outbreak would be a “month or so away”, but almost immediately there was an influx of customers buying products. “It all changed within an hour and completely flipped on its head,” Roach says. “We saw a massive increase in sales, and we took in more in the second week of March than we’ve ever taken in any Christmas.”

At the beginning of the outbreak almost 20 staff were out of action because they were ill, self-isolating or needing to be at home caring for family members, so Roach and her management team all worked on the shop floor to help cover shifts. Roach says communication has been key to keeping each store running smoothly. 

“It’s very difficult to get 100 people across different sites working as efficiently as possible, and we have an online HR system through which all staff communication can go out to their personal email addresses,” Roach says. “We also hold ‘flash’ meetings, a short two to five-minute meeting at the start of shifts to share what’s going on that day or share updates on health and safety.”

Recruitment

In response to the outbreak, Better Food closed its cafes and redeployed staff to work across the rest of the business. Roach says she immediately set to work enlisting temporary staff to fill gaps as many employees were off sick. “We’re quite lucky in our recruitment that we have a great community of customers who want to work for us so we don’t pay to advertise,” Roach explains. “We put something up on our website and in store, and we got a really high response rate straight away.”

She says the company received more than 100 applications in three days. Her team streamlined the interview process to reflect the “criticalness of getting those staff in work in a short amount of time”. Roach says she wrote a new process for group interviews, which the business immediately rolled out: “We put up the applications on Wednesday, invited people to interviews on Saturday and Sunday and inducted them on Monday and Tuesday.” 

In total, Better Food took on 12 temporary staff, half on guaranteed minimum contracts and the other half on zero-hours contracts. 

Pay

From the start of the outbreak, the company put the health and safety of staff at the forefront of its planning, Roach says. Any high-risk employees, including those with lung conditions or recovering from cancer, were placed on paid leave. “At one point, we had 38 people self-isolating at one time,” she says. “But it’s a massive thing for us that our staff feel protected and that we are looking after their health and wellbeing.”

Roach says Better Food also changed its company sick pay scheme to accommodate absences caused by the virus – whether physical sickness or mental ill-health worsened by the outbreak. “We removed our initial nine-month waiting period to make sure that everybody would get a minimum of two weeks’ paid sick leave,” Roach says. “We knew everybody was, at some point, going to be out of the office – whether self-isolating, unwell or for other reasons, such as to look after their mental health.”

Wellbeing

To further support employees’ mental wellbeing, Roach set about communicating those wellbeing benefits and employee assistance programmes provided through Better Food’s partnership with charity retailTRUST. “Everybody’s anxiety levels are heightened because of the lack of control, and there’s no knowing what’s going to happen because of all the chaos going on around us,” she says. “It’s a perfect recipe for poor mental health.”

Roach also kept in constant communication with all staff who were self-isolating to check-in on their wellbeing; she even came up with creative ways to make sure they felt included. “I put together care packages and was delivering them but, as we got more people going off sick, that became something I couldn’t do anymore because of logistics,” she says.

“I also did a list of my Netflix recommendations because quite a lot of people were out, and the people I spoke to were saying they’d run out of things to watch or didn’t know what to do.”

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