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How Coca-Cola HBC transformed its company culture during Covid

11 Feb 2021 By Thorsten Klein

Strong leadership and employee engagement helped drive change despite the challenges of 2020, says Thorsten Klein

I am a big fan of Mr Drucker’s statement: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ With 77 per cent of people saying they would consider a company’s culture before applying for a job and more than half considering it more important than salary, this statement never gets old. 

Evolving company cultures is not easy, especially when you work with nearly 30,000 people across 28 diverse markets on three continents. With a global pandemic in the mix and remote working from one day to the next, things become even more challenging.  

Let’s take a few steps back. I joined Coca-Cola HBC two years ago, with an ambitious plan to unlock a new culture of sharing and learning where people radiate and activate purpose. What I found when I arrived was already solid – a culture of performance, with passionate and resilient people, driven and energised by results. The feeling of being a family with a ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude complemented the picture. We began our transformational journey with unlearning and relearning behaviours and mindsets, together with our leaders, focusing on more cross-functional collaboration and on how we achieve our results.

When the pandemic struck, our culture faced the ultimate test. For everyone’s safety, we asked our colleagues who could work from home to do so and most of them still are. We implemented strict health and safety measures for our colleagues in production and those working in the markets, and secured a constant supply of protective equipment for them. 

Our focus on employee wellbeing also had to change from one day to the next. In line with that, we shifted fully to digital working across all domains, while enabling networking and collaboration and maintaining productivity at the same time. Ongoing dialogue and listening, as well as constant check-ins with team members and their personal situations, helped us to get through 2020. 

Our employee assistance programme, which is available for all our people and their families, continues to offer additional 24/7 professional, free and confidential support to our colleagues, and has helped many through personal challenging situations.

Maintaining visible and engaging leadership to take care of our people in a transparent and authentic way was crucial. We held regular virtual meet-ups with senior management, reinforced messages from our senior leaders, and supported our managers to support their teams. 

We constantly stayed in touch by running pulse surveys to see how people were doing and how we could help them. And we acted upon their pulse feedback in real-time. Our mobile feedback app also became prominent as it allowed teams, colleagues and everyone to stay connected and provided an additional opportunity to ensure we offered the right level of support. 

We provided a range of virtual opportunities for our colleagues to interact and learn in the new normal. With summer festivals being cancelled, we set up our own first virtual learning festival (10 days, three stages, 40+ inspirational speakers and more than 5,000 participants). All participants also contributed to a good cause, which led to a €20,000 charitable grant for an NGO. 

The strength of our culture shift also showed in many other creative ways: colleagues setting up cooking classes for others, and organising virtual coffee meetings and after-work drinks, as well as supporting each other throughout the year one to one. We also celebrated the holiday season by creating our first virtual Christmas festival, thanks to our amazing people. This was culture live in the making. 

We digitised the entire employee experience and activated new digital learning platforms, available anytime and on any device across all our 28 markets. We also introduced a digital platform for mentoring and coaching, which we scaled up and democratised. This enabled us to make it accessible to everyone virtually and support our 30,000 staff through the pandemic and beyond. As a result, we received the 2020 CIPD People Management award for the best mentoring initiative, and are the subject of a Gartner case study as proof that our approach is working. 

With Opportunity Marketplace, an online platform where people publicise and support short-term projects, we further encouraged cross-country and cross-functional collaboration and helped our people acquire new skills through projects, enhance their personal network and learn new skills. For our new colleagues, we have digitised and fully automated onboarding, aiming to provide a great employee experience from the very start to connect to our culture.

Despite all initiatives, the biggest culture shift was that we empowered our people and trusted them to make the right decisions. At the end of 2020, our sustainable engagement index remained high. Collaboration scored high, with almost 90 per cent of people saying colleagues are willing to help each other even if this means doing something outside their usual activities. 

Despite a challenging year, more than 90 per cent of our employees feel proud to be part of Coca-Cola HBC, indicating the strength of the culture we build together. 

Upon reflection, 2020 was a truly unique year. Despite all the tragedies and challenges we had to experience, it also helped us in new ways – we experimented and we reinvented ourselves, and we continue to do so. The key thing we learned was that nothing is set in stone and any crisis can easily be turned into opportunity if you are up for it. Everything we co-created in 2020 shifted our culture, thanks to our amazing leadership and culture team and the Coca-Cola HBC HR teams that have made this all happen. They’ve built strong foundations for the future of work – a fine achievement.

Thorsten Klein is group director for leadership and culture at Coca-Cola HBC

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