We have heard a lot about how the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in companies moving to hybrid working. However, what about companies that deliver frontline services? Sodexo is a French food services and facilities management company that provides services across 55 countries and more than 100 million consumers. It works with clients in a range of sectors, including healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
Frontline services for frontline workers
Sodexo is therefore in a unique position of providing frontline services to employees in organisations that themselves provide frontline services to clients. With around 430,000 employees, it is one of the 20 biggest employers in the world. Nadia Bertaggia is HR Organisation Director for Italy, Turkey and Israel for Sodexo, and also VP HR for the company’s Corporate Services Business Unit in Europe. She notes that workers at Sodexo never moved to remote working during the pandemic, except where home-working was mandated by law, such as parents of children aged under 14 in Italy. Nadia explains more.
“A lot of our staff are in frontline roles. They work in schools, hospitals, drug companies, and emergency services, and they simply could not work remotely. We therefore decided that it was only fair for everyone at Sodexo to carry on working in the office. We treated everyone the same, from our leadership and operational functions at HQ to those onsite at client offices. We felt this was a matter of equity and that it would be discriminatory to have different safety measures.”
She adds that the company put in place rigorous safety procedures to make sure that everyone felt fully supported during the pandemic.
“We ensured that processes and workplaces were rigorously managed, that the right tools were available and all forms of precautions in place at clients’ premises to make sure that people could continue working safely and securely at the office. We also provided services to our employees working on client sites. We educated our managers, so that they could offer psychological support to teams.”
Sodexo faced some genuine challenges early in the pandemic, because Italy was one of the first countries to be badly affected by COVID. The workforce therefore needed a lot of support to enable them to keep working.
“We had to support our people with training of the workforce and intensive training for our managers. Managers attended mandatory training to enable them to answer questions and support people when needed. We also opened a call centre offering more specific support on a range of topics. We felt it was important to enable our managers to support their people in any and all circumstances because the mental health and well-being of our people is essential.”
The company provided financial support to individual workers during the pandemic, where that was necessary. It also took steps to recognise workers’ contributions where that was deserved.
Actions speak louder than words
Nadia notes that Sodexo felt that its position on remote working was important for client credibility. When you supply services to frontline onsite workers, it is only reasonable that your staff are onsite too. However, there is a second reason why Sodexo felt that it was important: the company’s business model depends on people being in workplaces.
“Where is our business going if companies don’t go back to work? There is an HR consideration but our core business, or at least a big part of it, involves the delivery of services at the client’s premises. We need to have people at work. Obviously, this has been hard work to accomplish during these difficult times, but we have changed processes, attitudes and physical spaces in our strategy to keep the business operational without moving to a hybrid working model.”
Extending use of technology
Despite the lack of remote working, Sodexo has extended the use of technology in communications with clients, employees and suppliers. It now uses virtual communication for all its meetings. Nadia notes that Microsoft Teams allowed the company to discuss policy and plans, even at the height of the pandemic. This maintained communications, but also saved a lot of money on travel. However, Nadia is clear about the value of physical meetings. She emphasises the need to communicate face-to-face, especially in HR. She will welcome back physical meetings, even while recognising the many benefits of virtual communication. This is a unique hybrid model, but it certainly seems to work for Sodexo.