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COVID-19 Case Study: Travel, Digital Transformation, and Staffing Challenges Top the List for Food Service Company

Organization: A U.S.-based food and agriculture firm that mainly services restaurants, with production plants around the world.

Key issues:
• Maintaining production of food supplies
• Keeping production workers and facilities safe
• Reputational and corporate social responsibility issues

6 July Update

The food service business still hasn’t arrived at an ideal solution for temperature checks, so it remains with an expensive third-party contractor. However, the company saved costs by renegotiating the contract, and it is looking into hiring its own medical personnel. The company has vetted thermal detection solutions, but it is balking on investing in them, says the CSO, because the systems represent a long-term investment into what might be a short- or medium-term need.

Meanwhile, the company’s COVID-19 task force, which initially met daily, scaled down to three days per week since early June 2020. “Meeting daily was too intensive and stressful,” says the CSO, and the group didn’t always have the content to fill each hour. The task force has distributed additional responsibility to other specialized teams. For example, one team that focuses on the future of health screenings has been charged with reviewing thermal detection technology and ensuring supplies of personal protective equipment and sanitizer. Another team is setting the stage for the staff’s return to the office.

Staff members are currently scheduled to begin the return to the office on 3 August 2020, but that date is subject to the extent of the outbreak in a given location. The CSO explains that the company has three main U.S. offices, one in a rural area, one in a small metropolitan area, and one in the suburb of a major city. The infection rates at each site differ widely.

“We originally wanted to go back to work on May 20, then we pushed it to June 1, then to August,” the CSO says, leaving open the possibility of additional extensions. “Nothing is inked into place. It’s more pencil and crayon right now.”

Security, facilities, HR, and other departments have been installing equipment and protocols for the return. HVAC systems have been revamped to enhance air filtration and flow, protective barriers have been added to public-facing areas such as reception stations, workstations have been separated, signage has been posted, and pedestrian routes have been created. Staff will return in phases, with new groups arriving every week or two.

To create physical separation, management has divided staff into two groups: those who interface frequently with interdepartmental staff, and those in more solitary roles or who rarely need to venture outside an assigned work group. This arrangement is expected to limit widespread intermingling of staff.

Upon return, each employee will receive a “Welcome Back” package from the company. It will contain face masks, hand sanitizer, and an antimicrobial device that can be used to open doors and press buttons. Cleaning schedules will ratchet up. Where previously a cleaning crew arrived at the end of the day, sanitation staff will arrive in the morning for a pre-clean and continuously wipe down handrails, door handles, tables, and other communal spaces and objects. Then a separate crew will arrive in the evening to perform a more thorough scrubbing. Another sanitation team is on call in case any worker has symptoms or tests positive—the crew will immediately come in for intensive disinfection.

Management is grappling with whether staff must wear masks at all times, or only at certain times or in certain places. Do you have to wear a mask if you are in a cubicle with walls of a certain height? If you have an office with a door? Is it fair to require some people to wear masks and not others?

And why come back at all when administrative staff from other companies continue working from home indefinitely? The company wants to return to a level of normalcy, says the CSO, and the infection rates are low where headquarters is located. Still, the company continues to consider its options.

Factory workers, meanwhile, haven’t had the luxury of working from home. The plants, generally located in small towns in rural areas, have seen a few outbreaks. As cases in the surrounding area spiked, some locations have had to be closed for several days for sanitation and disinfection. Contact tracing indicates that staff outbreaks are caused by transmission outside the workplace, says the CSO. “They do the right things at work, but then they get out and socialize and let their guard down,” the CSO explains. “We’ve doubled down on communicating about safe practices in and out of work, like at barbecues, but it’s been a challenge.”

No one has become dangerously ill, but staff absences have hurt production at these facilities. Do production staff resent that white-collar workers haven’t had to put themselves at risk by going to an office? According to the CSO, “Early on it was an issue, but not significant.” The company emphasizes that factory workers are essential, while most office staff are not, and that the company is an element of the critical infrastructure. “Employees understand why there are differences in treatment,” the CSO adds. “No one thinks there’s favoritism.”

On the travel front, in-country business flights resumed in some Asian countries, and some of the U.S. sales force have driven for business trips (equipped with PPE and protection training). Now the company is rolling out a plan for global flights. A four-phase plan is in effect, to begin in September 2020.

Phase one will cover staff needing to travel domestically for essential business. Next up will be staff traveling internationally for essential business. In the third phase, flights will open for nonessential domestic travel, followed, finally, by nonessential international travel. In each case, a manager will have to approve the trip.

According to the CEO, the company hasn’t suffered much without travel. He has asked staff to scrutinize the need for travel before submitting a request.

As a practical matter, it’s difficult to identify when the different phases of travel will begin, the CSO says. “The horizon for managing COVID-19 only goes three weeks out. It’s impossible to forecast for longer periods.”

In terms of business, the company is seeing a pickup in orders from restaurants. And the trend toward digital ordering has forced the company to speed up its digital transformation process. Moreover, the company has used the pandemic to innovate; it developed a product that helps keep its products fresher in transit, which customers have enthusiastically embraced. “It’s a silver lining in a dark cloud,” says the CSO.

17 May Update

Like many other companies, as of mid-May 2020, this food and agriculture company has set its sights on returning workers to its corporate offices. Administrative and office staff have been working at home since early March, while production workers, deemed essential, have continued to come to the plants.

According to the CSO, the corporate leadership team has decided that administrative and office staff won’t return to their offices until at least 1 August 2020—an intentionally conservative approach to allay staff fears of coming back too soon in the midst of a contagion. The company has started to reengineer facilities, adjust schedules, create social-distance barriers, and otherwise de-densify offices.

The company is also conducting planning over three, six, 12, and 24 months to account for multiple scenarios and developments as COVID-19 continues to run its course.

Acquiring protective gear is critical to maintaining operations. The company has provisioned a steady stream of personal protective equipment, making sure to maintain a 90-day supply for all staff in reserve. “We don’t want to reopen, just to have to close our doors again because we don’t have a continuous supply of PPEs,” the CSO says. Continuous provisioning could be challenging, the CSO adds, because counterfeits are flooding the market.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been identifying and seizing counterfeit or inadequate PPE (including masks, test kits, and medicines) entering the United States from all over the world, as profiteers aim to exploit the crisis.

In the initial report on the company’s efforts during COVID-19, temperature checks at factory doors were under consideration, as well what staffing changes would be necessary to facilitate such checks. Working with its security integrator to better understand and evaluate the use of thermal cameras for staff temperature checks, the company identified two types of products: largely ineffective cameras that had been jury-rigged from other uses such as license-plate detection, or more tailored products with better technology that suffered from limited efficacy or excessive labor requirements. It compiled a list of the top six vendors in the space, which it is still reviewing.

It is also looking at phone apps that conduct temperature checks and present questionnaires, activating or deactivating the staff person’s access control badge depending on the results.

While reviewing these options, the company contracted the service to a third party. That provider set up screening tents in parking lots with strict social-distance requirements (for both privacy and health reasons). Staff must answer a questionnaire about possible exposure or symptoms, then have their temperature taken. If any worker “fails” either of the two elements, they are sent home with full pay. So far there has been no indication that staff have lying about their health.

While the screening has been effective, it has been expensive—to the tune of an unbudgeted $3 million over two months. That cost, notes the CSO, is untenable in the long term.

Meanwhile, no additional factories have shut down beyond the three mentioned in the original report (see below); rigorous cleaning, hygiene, and distancing protocols have paid off. However, food factory workers can be a close community, and this company has been assisting other plants that have shut down due to mass infection. For example, it has shared best practices and worked with fellow food producers through trade groups. And the company itself benefits; because many factory workers across companies are related to one another, isolation and contact tracing protocols have been more effective.

Having pivoted production and sales from restaurants to groceries, the company is starting to see demand shift back to restaurants as states have begun easing restrictions on public dining. This likely will require only gradual logistical changes, as restaurants open up at limited capacity and to a cautious public. In Europe, where many restaurants are open, the trend of meals being cooked at home seems to have staying power, the CSO says.

As hearty as the company’s foods are, production and the supply chain have been equally hardy. There has been no disruption in supermarket delivery; any scarcity is due to stores unable to stock their shelves quickly enough, according to the CSO.

April 2020 Update

The COVID-19 social distancing and stay-at-home orders have ravaged the restaurant industry in the United States, and part of that loss has been borne by food and agriculture companies. As restaurant demand has slackened, this food and agriculture company has pivoted to retail, pumping much more product into supermarkets to match demand. The CSO notes that some retail orders have increased by 300 percent over last year, which has eased the pain of the plummet in restaurant orders.

As a critical infrastructure, the company has treated its manufacturing staff as essential, while office and administrative staff must work at home. Except during three brief plant closures, all plants have been operational.

Early on, the company assembled a COVID-19 task force that meets every morning for an hour to get up to date with what’s happening and to review various dashboards. Those dashboards cover such matters as global infection spread in regions where the company does business, availability of resources, and so on. This information is used to assign daily status tiers to plants in their locations around the world, which include Argentina, Australia, China, Russia, and the United States.

Strict social distancing measures are in place in the factories, with a requirement of at least six feet of distance between staff.

Because the company deals with food, and even an unfounded rumor of an employee having an infection could hurt the company’s reputation, it has rigorous protocols for hygiene. The CSO notes that three out of the corporation’s 27 plants have had to shut down due to staff illness. Cleanup and remediation are multistage processes. A professional sanitizing company disinfects the whole plant. Then a second team cleans up the residue from the first treatment, making the floor safe for workers. A third team inspects the facility to determine whether the plant is operational. With plants ranging from 150,000 to 1 million square feet, this process can range from a few days to two weeks or more.

As of early April 2020, the company had been considering stationing medical staff with thermometers at entrances, but the issue was proving controversial. Most companies lack certified medical staff to perform this work, and the company’s CSO feared that Walmart’s recent announcement that it would temperature-check staff would deplete the already lean market for these professionals. With plants operating around the clock, the company would need three shifts of these workers. They were considering third-party staffing options.

If the company does opt for temperature checks, the next issue is where to conduct them. If the checks are done inside, a contagious person could already have infected someone or spread the virus. The company, therefore, was considering performing testing in the outdoor parking lot. However, this approach still does not mitigate asymptomatic people spreading the virus, which called into question the whole point of screening.

Reputational issues loom large. Should the company order N95 facemasks for staff, or will they be depriving medical staff of personal protective equipment? The media fallout could be severe.

According to the CSO, everything on the other side of the crisis will reflect on brand and reputational issues. “You have to make the right decision for your organization rather than follow the herd,” the CSO says.

The company is leaning on its strong business continuity plan for ensuring the integrity of its supply chain. Resilience has been built in, including surplus inventory, and plants can be scaled up or down. During the early days of COVID-19, the company reduced the number of SKUs for quick-service restaurants to shift to retail. Various backup systems are in place for ground transportation, although trucking, warehousing, and delivery have been robust.

Supply chain issues are discussed in regular calls with a supply chain resiliency group led by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Discussions have included allowing drivers to sign paperwork without getting out of their cabs, and state and local regulations concerning documents to identify essential workers.

This company is making sure to donate cash and product to food banks where they do business, due to the scarcity of provisions at food banks across the United States. Because most donations come from grocery stores and restaurants, the company sees the donations as another element of brand and corporate social responsibility.

Spring plantings are beginning for the company’s agricultural products, following safe practices. There has been no evidence that the virus is transmissible through food, the CSO says. He predicts that the planting season will proceed normally absent excessively cold or rainy weather.

The CSO says that his department’s strategic and everyday work with the other business units helps prove the value of security. “We are looking several moves ahead from the rest of the organization,” he says.


Michael Gips, JD, CPP, CSyP, CAE, is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security, LLC, a firm that helps security providers and executives develop cutting-edge content, assert thought leadership, and heighten brand awareness. Gips was previously Chief Global Knowledge Officer at ASIS International, with responsibility for Editorial Services, Learning, Certification, Standards & Guidelines, and the CSO Center for Leadership & Development. Before that, as an editor for ASIS’s Security Management magazine, he wrote close to 1,000 articles and columns on virtually every topic in security. In his early career he was an attorney who worked on death-penalty cases.

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