As many parts of the hospitality industry are busy adjusting to reopening and seeing varying levels of footfall return, workplaces are still largely unoccupied as people continue to work from home.
Websites, social media channels, TV stations and newspapers are all reporting on people not returning to work and as a consequence cities, towns, high streets and side streets are all too bare.
Only recently employers were preparing for a return to work, as were caterers working alongside employers to ready workplace foodservice provision, but a return has not materialised.
We have reported throughout the Covid-19 crisis on initiatives to welcome people back into workplaces by catering businesses that look after foodservices for employers.
In one article catering consultant Tracey Fairclough gathered the thoughts of 23 leading caterers on how they were readying workplace catering. They were collectively adapting, evolving and innovating to support the rebooting of the UK economy, in the workplace.
Fairclough had previously gone through a similar exercise with 50 leading employers, many of whom were working with the caterers previously referred to above. Their priorities were ensuring workers return to a safe environment through minimising health risks.
Both articles were written a few months ago now, and despite the positive attitude of both employers and caterers to welcome back employees, plans so far seem unrequired and unrequited.
The current situation was possibly best illustrated when catering consultant Chris Stern wrote for us asking the question, what are we waiting for? Stern’s article asks questions and suggests some interesting answers.
A return to the workplace is now the biggest single factor in the hospitality industry recovery process and it needs to happen soon. Wider consumer confidence at the same time sits right beside it, and both are interrelated.
The big question now is if the current workplace situation will change and how that might be choreographed?
We spoke with leading workplace caterers to ask them the question and gauge where they see things currently.
Bill Toner, CEO of CH&CO, told us: “The longer employers continue to encourage their people to work from home, the harder workplace catering is being hit. We saw a glimmer of light when Boris Johnson encouraged people to return to their ‘normal patterns’ a couple of weeks ago, however, it’s clear that the latest developments, Covid-19 spikes and local lockdowns may cause this to stall.
“We completely understand that this is a question of confidence in uncertain times. We’ve been working closely with each client to understand the needs of individual sites and to implement strict measures to deliver a safe food offering for when they’re ready to reopen.
“A number of our essential sites have remained open and safely operated throughout the pandemic.
“We have a robust remobilisation plan in place for reopenings and our people are trained on best practice and safety measures so we’re confident that ‘normal patterns’ in the workplace can be safely reintroduced.
“We’re ready and keen to welcome workplace customers back with great food and service and we remain hopeful that this will steadily build throughout the rest of 2020.”
Simon Houston, Director of Houston & Hawkes said: “Houston & Hawkes, along with the rest of the industry, have been ready and waiting for customers to return for many weeks, if not months.
“Workplaces are safe, our teams have been trained and additional safety measures have been put in place to keep our customers and clients very safe. We now need client businesses to have the same level of confidence to get their employees back into the workplace before our sector can begin to normalise.
“These delays are impacting peoples’ jobs and livelihoods – the short and long-term effects of which will be devastating for our sector, and the wider economy. We’re raring to go, we just need people to return to work.”
Ian Thomas, CEO, Bartlett Mitchell shed some light on when their clients are returning telling us: “Whilst I broadly agree with that the situation we face is incredibly challenging, we are reassured in two ways; firstly with B&I clients now deciding on August and September re-openings and/or team ramp-ups, secondly how quickly the new business tender market has re-opened.
“In addition, comments from business leaders like Jes Staley at Barclays help counter earlier statements from tech firms suggesting long term working from home. Staley recently stated that it’s important to get people back together in physical environments.
“I do think that many of us in the Food Service Sector have the agility to quickly adapt and pivot our service offer. So rather than roll over, we have focused our passion and energies on alternative service offerings, plus exploring new areas altogether. We are delighted to see this approach is starting to pay dividends so quickly.”
We also spoke at length with Chris Stern, Managing Director, Stern Consultancy who took the following view: “Looking to the longer term, there’s much talk about how the world of work will change as a result of the pandemic. It’s probably premature to be planning wholesale office closures as the full long term impact isn’t clear yet. We also need to take care in assuming that working from home is a realistic long term sustainable option for large portions of the workforce, as not everyone has the facilities at home to do this successfully for more than a limited period of time.
“If we assume that many businesses will take this as an opportunity to restructure and completely change how their personnel work, now’s the time to start planning.
“If we also assume that sooner or later organisations will remember that face to face contact is essential for team building, cultural development, creativity and business identity, we can see how important catering might be.
“If staff are still coming to the office but less often and for clear reasons, it follows that this time will be spent with colleagues, rather than sitting alone at desks. And when people are together, they tend to eat and drink.
“Catering therefore needs to be woven into the future workplace. More, but smaller facilities that are scattered around the workplace seem an obvious solution. High quality and effective appeal will be essential to drive use, as it’s highly unlikely that firms are going to want to offer much by way of subsidy. The use of social enterprises and of course trumpeting sustainability are bound to return, and catering is a great shop window for this.
“The future workplace is potentially quite exciting, and I can see some good coming out of the pandemic in terms of quality of life. So food at work does potentially have a great future.
“As for the rest of the market, the short term shock of the pandemic is clearly forcing a complete reconsideration. It’s a horrible truth that only the strong will survive. But even then, if there’s less footfall, the market really won’t be able to sustain a Pret/Costa/Starbucks on every corner, however strong the brand and great the product.
“The current market is revealing weaknesses in too many organisations, especially provincial independent pubs and restaurants which may lack the essential sophistication in marketing themselves that’s essential to success in a tough market.
Tracey Fairclough, Managing Director, TAF Consultancy was keen to emphasise that some employers are actively preparing for a return to work, and she is busy working alongside them. Fairclough told us: “It is almost sad seeing the city of London still all too sparsely populated, but in the background, employers are looking at a return to workplaces.
“Our priority is working with them to enable a safe working environment and that includes special projects like face mask testing and evaluation.
“Foodservice is now more than ever a priority for employers, creating workplace foodservice that helps employees to choose to stay inside workplaces during work hours minimises transmission risk, and maximises productivity.
H&C News would like to thank all the contributors for their time and valuable insights. We look forward to reporting on the experiences from the return to workplaces in the weeks and months ahead.
Return to the workplace – 6 August 2020 – Return to the workplace