The chief executive of corporate services for UK and Ireland at Sodexo speaks to Caroline Baldwin about how the foodservice giant is dealing with the changes to office life after Covid-19.
You joined Sodexo after more than two decades at the Bank of Ireland and you've just completed your first year as chief executive during a pandemic. How have you found it?
I started at Sodexo as managing director of the Irish business on 1 February 2019 and, for my sins, I was lucky enough to take on the role of chief executive of corporate services for UK and Ireland just before Covid-19 hit on 1 March 2020. It has been a whirlwind going straight into a pandemic – probably not the start I would have anticipated – but it's been good in lots of ways and there have been lots of challenges.
I'd just completed an MBA, and I was fascinated by the foodservice industry because it's so complex. The services we provide are hugely important; I liken it to the importance of WiFi when running a business.
We help companies operate and make sure their employees are looked after. It's a very broad client list, with lots of different services, working with the likes of Microsoft and AstraZeneca.
I was also interested in the global nature of the business – although it's been a lot of global calls as I haven't been able to get on a plane, just like everyone else. Technology is fantastic, but it doesn't replace face-to-face. I'm quite a social person and I like to get in front of people and that's probably been the biggest challenge for me. I like to be out and about, not sitting behind a desk.
What changes were you planning on bringing in when you took on the chief executive role?
Covid has accelerated plans that were already in place. As an organisation, we had a transformation strategy based on consumer trends and the take-up of working from home more frequently, which we had seen already. This was something a lot of clients were already shifting to – albeit not overnight! Covid has been the catalyst for dramatic change.
Those habits have now been formed over a period of time, but they have been made around similar changes to flexibility, convenience, efficiency, choice and also digital, which has been a critical enabler for us as a business.
How are you incorporating the digital trend into your business offering?
We had big plans around digital transformation. Simply put, our customers expect the same seamless experience at work as they would have sitting on the couch ordering some food on their phone. Whether at work, at home or in a third space, they expect this same experience. We want to give employees on-site the ability to pre-order, scan and go, or click and collect. We're also looking at improving queues in restaurants and avoiding shared touchpoints to improve hygiene.
The digital strategy plan was already there, but it has had to be tweaked slightly and accelerated nearly at light speed. We've achieved a huge amount in the past 12 months – probably more than we would ever thought we could have.
My attitude is adapt or die – we didn't have time to sit back. We knew from the pandemic what our business needed in terms of flexibility, agility and service, so we are offering different operating models to provide experience and services for clients who want to be flexible for 50 or 500 people in the office from one day to another.
My attitude is adapt or die – we didn't have time to sit back
How can foodservice be ‘digitised' when it's focused on people?
For me, it's not about taking the people away, but giving them an opportunity to add value. So instead of having people sitting behind a till, put them out there, supporting and greeting guests – much like in a concierge role – making sure the experience is the right one. If people are coming into the office two or three times a week, it needs to be a really compelling environment.
How do you feel about city centres and the continued message from the government to work from home, despite other areas of the economy planned to reopen in the coming months?
We need to get people back into city centres, absolutely – the economy thrives on employees being in city centres. I recognise we're not going to go back to business as usual, and that's something we all have to get comfortable with.
We've done a huge amount of research throughout the pandemic, and that research has unequivocally told us the office is a really important location for organisations – however, the pattern and usage of those offices will absolutely change. Offices are being repurposed as collaborative spaces, because there has to be a compelling reason to go back.
What level of business do you expect in office settings when employees do return?
The research we have done suggests consumers want to be back in the office two to three days a week. For people in contract catering, that's a 40% drop-off, which is a challenge, and that's why we have to change our operating model and look at more flexible solutions, from delivery to convenience options.
It'll be inevitable that people will go back with the rate of vaccinations going on in the UK and it will be positive for the UK economy. We all know we can work remotely, but it's being forced upon us right now. We want to be back collaborating and having social interactions to feel the creativity and culture of our organisations. And collaborative spaces with really good food will encourage those employees back.
Have you had to alter the structure of the business to reflect this change?
We've had to make changes no business has wanted to make – the tough decisions have been the really difficult part of Covid. We had already made changes in terms of the right size of our business to the client needs and we've had people leave the business; we haven't been able to get away from that, which is the really sad part, especially when we're focused on the quality of life of our people. But I don't foresee significant changes from here, as we addressed those changes earlier on in the pandemic.
What else are you seeing from your research in terms of shifting consumer habits?
Despite the continued trend for flexible working, consumers are still saying they want to meet and have social interactions – those water-cooler moments and impromptu meetings all fuel creativity.
But if we look closer at the consumer trends, a lot of it is around health and wellbeing, and there's of course a huge focus on cleanliness and we need to make sure we are demonstrating that in terms of touchpoints. I think customers need to see it as well as feel it.
What was interesting for us when we did the research is that consumers rated free food and beverages as one of the top five employee benefits – which is great for us. Creating an experience which is centred around good food and coffee gives employees a really compelling reason to go back to the office.
The other part of health and wellbeing is the sustainability trend and promoting a mindful diet – there's definitely a theme around wellbeing. When you are sitting on Zoom or Microsoft Teams for up to 10 hours a day, there's a conscious effort to eat healthily, to get outside and get some physical activity to help support mental wellbeing.
How can you plan for flexibility in foodservice models?
One thing that will support flexibility is technology. Think of the technology that supports meeting room bookings and pre-ordering food – there's a lot of tech which we can leverage to support that.
We also recently took a majority shareholding in an offsite food production and delivery business in London called Fooditude, which has a 22,000 sq ft production unit and is capable of turning on and off in terms of ordering and prepping.
We're talking to clients all day every day about their workplace strategies and helping them co-design what the new office will look like. The problem is clients can't let all their employees choose to go into the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and not go in Mondays and Fridays.
While it'll take some getting used to, we're creatures of habit. We can support clients on things like space utilisation and people flows throughout the building and into the restaurant and dining areas. No client will have 100% occupancy on day one: this is a gradual return, so we can work through that and support them.
What does the Fooditude partnership bring to the business?
As part of our regional transformation and global strategy, we were looking for ways to innovate and create more flexible types of service models. We could see the trends were changing and people were trying to work more remotely and there was a need to be a little more agile and flexible.
A traditional foodservice catering team operates on-site, producing food for employees in the office building, so in terms of labour, resources, kitchen facilities and utilities, partnering with Fooditude – which creates and develops all fresh food off-site – means a client doesn't need a big catering team, which is a real cost benefit but also offers flexibility.
Fooditude is a brilliant team, with a strong brand and a family-run business, so it was a good cultural alignment for us. It also has a commitment to sustainability and a focus on local sourcing and provenance. It has looked at its entire supply chain to make sure what it is delivering is by far the most sustainable way of doing things in terms of carbon emissions – by using compostable packaging and electric vehicles for deliveries – and we've pledged to reduce food waste so it was a good fit. We have a food waste programme called Waste Watch, which reduces waste by 50%, which we deploy around the globe. It's not just that our clients expect it, it's the right thing to do.
Sodexo's digital innovations
Back in September, Sodexo partnered with food technology expert Dynamify to help create a mobile-first experience for its customers, which supports scan-and-go, pre-order and pre-pay, delivery, table service, reservations and loyalty. The ‘Twelve Pay' app-based canteen enables personalised content and tailored promotions, while also removing shared touchpoints and eliminating physical queuing. The app also powers the Good Eating Delivered workplace delivery offering launched by a subsidiary of Sodexo Good Eating Company back in summer 2020.
Sodexo has recently launched hot and cold food lockers, which allow customers to pick up freshly prepared meals when it suits them.
These are unmanned retail outlets that let employees choose their meals and check-out and pay on their mobile phone without needing to queue at a till.
Portrait photography by Barry Cronin
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