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How are people teams responding to coronavirus? …Total Produce

15 Apr 2020 By Siobhan Palmer

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

The organisation 

Total Produce is one of the world’s largest fresh produce providers, sourcing and distributing fruit and vegetables to supermarkets, restaurants, schools and hospitals worldwide. Following a recent investment in agricultural giant Dole Food Company, the organisation oversees a group of businesses employing around 40,000 people across the world, 1,500 of whom are employed at Total Produce UK. Holding stakes in various fresh produce companies around the globe, Total Produce aims to operate a decentralised model, leveraging collective commercial strengths where appropriate to extract costs and add value to the supply chain, but also affording individual companies the entrepreneurial freedom to guide their own operations, while overseeing their financial performance from its headquarters in Ireland. However, as the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the globe, various operations have valued sharing their approaches to the situation, says David Frost, organisational development director.

Impact so far 

With the business operating all over the world, locations are facing the peak of the pandemic, and coping with different measures, at various times. Frost says the company is encouraging HR leads in different parts of the group to share their approaches so staff can learn from each other. For example, the UK’s plans have been informed by the experiences of colleagues in Italy and Spain, who were hit by the coronavirus – and had to negotiate social distancing measures – earlier. 

In some sectors the company has been stretched by increased demand at a time when workforces have to be organised to keep staff safe. As a result, HR’s focus is mainly on managing the immediate business requirements and communicating day-to-day updates across management teams. 

Adapting the workplace 

For the majority of office workers based in the UK and Ireland, the transition to remote working has been relatively smooth, Frost says. Most are at home, aside from employees who use systems that cannot be accessed remotely. They have been placed on a rota system so fewer staff are in the office at once and can maintain a safe distance from each other.

The bigger task, Frost says, is making factories safe to work in and keeping them staffed. This has involved sourcing extra PPE (personal protective equipment), such as face masks, and zoning factories in a new way to keep workers separated. “Our operations [have] had to very quickly work out safe methods of working,” Frost says. “They've had to invent all of these techniques to make sure people are safe when they're at work.” 

The home working curve

Liaising with colleagues in other countries has given Frost extra insights into the potential future effects of the pandemic. His Italian colleagues, who have been under lockdown measures for longer than the UK, have observed a pattern when it comes to adapting to remote working – something Frost calls the ‘home working curve’. 

“What we’ve seen is [in] the first week to 10 days, it was quite a novelty for people,” Frost says. “They were perhaps with family a bit more, or with the people they want to be with, and it’s quite nice not to have to commute. Then we move into a phase where it’s just normal… When you have a conference call, there’s no ‘how’s it going [at home]?’ It’s just ‘right, let’s get on with business’.” 

But Frost says this sense of normality doesn’t last. “It will then move into a phase where they get tired. The frustration starts to come in, because those people who like being with their colleagues and having that face-to-face interaction are not getting it,” he says, adding that as well as missing their working routine, staff begin to get nervous about when the measures will end. 

For employees working from home in mainland Europe, counselling has been offered to address this curve and support staff – something Frost is encouraging in other areas of the business too. 

The future

While the pandemic is creating challenges for every business, Frost says the new ways of working are creating some positive shifts in attitudes too. “Being spread across lots of different places, it would be quite normal for people to say ‘well, we need a couple of hours to meet, I'll fly to you for the day’,” he says. So not being able to take a flight to Dublin or Rotterdam for a single meeting is changing people’s approach to business travel. While travel will resume after restrictions are lifted, Frost believes it will be significantly reduced, with remote meetings now the first option explored. 

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