Since March 2020 and the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone has had to adjust to new working conditions and protocols, whether at an office, at home, or on the front lines of a factory or retail store. The way we live changed in an instant and the way we work is evolving very quickly. A panel discussion at the virtual FMI Midwinter Executive Conference on Monday morning moderated by Kimberly Betts, managing director of Deloitte Consulting, asked the questions: What does work look like today and tomorrow, and what trends are coming…maybe sooner than we think? As we move through the COVID-19 crisis, how are these forces shaping the consumer/ retail industry?

Joining Betts for the discussion were Nicholas Bertram, president of Carlisle, Pa.-based The Giant Company, a division of Ahold Delhaize USA that operates more than 180 supermarkets under the Giant and Martin’s banners, as well as the Giant Direct and Martin’s Direct e-commerce arms, and Steve Presley, chairman and CEO of Nestle USA, one of the world’s largest food and beverage manufacturers and suppliers.

“Obviously everything has changed over the course of the last year,” Bertram said. “But what hasn't changed is the impact that our collective industry has on society and how important the work is. And what hasn't changed is all of our shared commitment to safety and quality and just health for everyone. But they've all come under a different microscope as the events of the pandemic and the racial unrest and everything else that we encountered together took place. And so one of the things that in the workplace, if you look at retail, that had to change was just the protective measures to make sure that our teammates could stay safe. And there was a lot of innovation across the country to do that. whether it's plexiglass or personal protective equipment.”

Bertram noted that while plexiglass and other supplies were difficult to obtain early in the pandemic, “now I think we all have more than enough to last through the events of 2021. But that was so important to our teams whenever they kind of got to experience the investment in making sure that their work could still be done safely, to take care of the customers the way they were accustomed to.”

He added, “On the corporate side, it's probably even more change because, for instance, I'm in a building that usually has 1200 people in it  and right now, there are maybe 40 or 50. That's just the nature of work now. We still progress forward and get the work done to support the stores and to support e-commerce operations, but also to collaborate with supplier partners to make sure that we kept moving forward.”

Digital and virtual platforms have become the norm for workers across the country, Bertram pointed out, a development that has one unexpected up side.

“I think the humanization of each of us has come in if we've had interruptions by children or dogs or whatever else might come in,” he said. “There's just a little bit more humanity that's on display now, as we get things done. I think that's beautiful. I've actually enjoyed it.”

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Nestle’s Presley (left) agreed that while there have been many changes to the work force in the past year, his company has placed more emphasis on what hasn’t changed.

“We say in our organization, ‘Look, the strategy of what we're here to do didn't change.’ We're still here to serve and win with consumers and serve our customers better. And that doesn't change for us, whether it was pre-pandemic or post pandemic. Our role is to try to serve our consumers better and deliver great-tasting, safe products to them all the time. The goal hasn’t changed, but how we did that is really what changed.”

Presley added, “The biggest part is the psychological mindset of making sure people know that you've done everything to make sure it's safe, making sure they know that, ‘Hey, we really are most concerned about your safety and we're going to do whatever it takes regardless of the cost to make sure you continue to feel safe and come in and feel like you can work in an environment every day.’ Because as an industry, I think we've done an incredible job, our retail partners, my competitors and the other manufacturers, of stepping up to the challenge through the pandemic. You’ve got to remember, it seems like forever ago in March when people didn't know what we were dealing with and the grocery industry and the grocery manufacturers continued to show up every single day. The first step of normalcy is when you go to the store and there’s food on the shelf. If you want to keep the country calm and moving forward, make sure the scarcity doesn't explode.”

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On the retail side, Bertram (left) noted that it was really interesting to see how everybody in the stores “really became kind of the ambassadors of hope to consumers,” adding that consumer confidence really did get shaken because nobody had never seen the supply chain issues they were facing.

“They weren't accustomed to empty shelves or not having every single flavor or variety that they've looked at,” he added. “And when the grocery store is like the only thing that was normal for people during this period of time, and then they saw it kind of shake a little bit as well, it was shocking to see just how much anxiety and frustration really did kind of bubble up during that period of time. And so all of our 35,000 teammates at The Giant Company had to become like ambassadors of the whole industry, not just their particular store and say, ‘Hey, do more for all. You don't have to take everything. Hey, you don't have to worry. Hey, it's going to come back in maybe a few weeks and maybe a different flavor or different label, but it's going to come back in.’ And that seemed to be really challenging at times to get across to consumers. And we tried a variety of different ways to do that, partnering with food banks, with other manufacturers locally and everything else. But I think the pressure that came on the retail community was quite interesting and challenging during that period of time. But the byproduct of that is actually a bit more pride in the role.

“We love what we do as an industry, but there's a bit more pride in thinking of yourselves as on the frontline and the response to solving a world crisis that none of us have ever experienced before. And so you can tap into that pride. And especially if you're a purpose-driven organization, tapping into that shared value of care was huge during the spirit of the time, for our teammates, for our partners, but also for our customers.”