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Will the fresh produce office environment ever be the same?

Nic Jooste

It feels like a lifetime ago that we were able to walk into a restaurant and order a meal without having to think twice about disinfecting our hands on arrival, registering our health situation, and in certain cases having our temperature checked. Or walk the streets without a facemask. Or have family over for dinner. Or go to the offices and do some bear-hugging and back-slapping without risking a fine. Life has changed radically since February 2020. The ‘new normal’ has almost started to feel normal.

The Dutch government recently announced that our restaurants will be allowed to re-open in June. For exactly 9 months and 7 days, they have been closed. Never in our history has this happened. During this time, we witnessed some amazing inventiveness on the side of the Dutch horeca (hotels, restaurants, catering). It was a case of ‘adapt or die’. And they certainly adapted!

Nic Jooste

In my own village, chef Tom Becker of the acclaimed Restaurant Calva immediately changed gears when the lockdown was announced. He introduced his ‘Calvataine Menu’, which saw him cooking top-level 3-course menus that one could collect at the restaurant, and, guided by Tom’s short instruction videos, finish off and serve at home. Soon after introducing the Calvataine method, Tom was preparing hundreds of 3-course meals every weekend. A 5-star meal, personally prepared by yours truly, became standard fare on Saturday evening in our household.

In the same vein, there are literally hundreds of examples of restaurateurs who, faced with closed doors and no turnover, changed their business models, colored outside of the lines, and managed to survive during this awful time.

The fresh produce industry had a different challenge. As the public became increasingly concerned about health issues due to the pandemic, the consumers’ need for fresh produce increased radically. Turnover increased rapidly. Importers and traders had to operate at full speed to keep supplying retailers.

But with the government extremely focused on limiting personal interaction, there was no avoiding a situation in which only a third of staff was allowed to work at the office at any given time. This created a “Whoa!” reaction by old-school directors of fresh produce companies. For decades, our fresh produce industry was built around arriving early, working the phones, putting orders into the computer, and leaving the office late. ‘Working from home’ was a foreign concept.

I have always believed that good people will always rise to the occasion, especially when they experience a strong sense of being given responsibility. Within weeks after the restrictions came into action, it was as if working from home had always been standard operating procedure. A CEO told me that ‘My people have never been this productive’.

Travelling overseas to visit growers is also part of a fresh produce trader’s DNA. In 2020, Zoom and Teams replaced a walk in the orchards. In the beginning, it felt quite strange, but very soon we were having many more face-to-face interactions (albeit digitally) than ever before. Steadily the feeling grew that ‘working and meeting digitally is here to stay’.

This past week — as our government announced that the end of restrictions was in sight, I started to sense that a new dilemma was in the making. A CEO said the following to me: ‘In two weeks, I am bringing all my people back to the office fulltime, and then I expect them to put shoulder to wheel.’

I am seriously wondering how this will work. Has due consideration been given to how much people’s behavior has changed since it all started? A lot of employees have installed proper workplaces at home and developed completely new daily routines. For many young employees, the new-found rhythm of working from home for 2 or 3 days a week has brought a completely new life balance. In between calls and meetings, they were able to answer a child’s question about homework or do a quick load of washing during a tea break whilst on the phone to a customer. And now we are saying that they must get to the office and work as if the past 15 months did not happen?

I think many employers are underestimating the effects of transitioning back to what was previously ‘normal’. A red flag popped up when I read about an employer who now offers employees a monthly voucher for ordering lunch from the online meal delivery services. The company restaurant has scaled down to service the fewer employees who are at the office. The employer in question says that he simply has to install this system, because ‘going back to a full week at the office is not viable, or sensible. I have learnt to trust that my people will go the extra mile if I give them responsibility and the freedom to use it well.’

This situation calls for deep thought and strong action by CEOs. Visionary leadership is now required to reverse or neutralize the adverse effects of the ‘going back to normal’. Sustainable and credible leadership is needed in order for management and employees to relate to the changing environment. CEOs must understand that they will have to address and find solutions to the new way of working and interacting that has developed. Our new generations of employees will not accept a brush-off in this regard. Of course, there are paradoxes and there will be tensions. My advice? Address them or run the risk of losing your best young employees.

This column first appeared in the May editions of Produce Business magazine.

Nic Jooste, owner of NJ Immersed, is a fresh produce marketing and CSR specialist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.



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