COVID-19 has created a 'new normal' that all businesses - and particularly HR departments - are now working hard to keep up with.

One industry that is experiencing some of the biggest repercussions from the pandemic is food manufacturing. The sector and its related supply chains are facing a range of unique challenges that will require dedicated, effective solutions if organisations are to stay competitive during this time.

Research by Food Industry Executive has shown:

  • COVID-19 has exacerbated issues that were already present in the sector, particularly around employee safety and productivity.
  • Almost three-quarters (72.5%) of food processing and packing firms said they had changed their business strategy or operations in response to the pandemic.
  • More than half (54%) of respondents predicted the food industry will emerge from the crisis stronger than it was before.

To succeed in achieving this ambition of coming out of the current situation in a better position than before, companies must be ready to negotiate some unprecedented HR challenges.

Employee safety

Since COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis, employers must take responsibility for keeping their workforce safe and ensuring people aren't put at risk of infection.

Physical distancing has been central to efforts to tackle the spread of the virus around the world and must now be a priority for employers. But that presents difficulties for companies like food manufacturers, whose traditional way of working involves people being closely gathered together on production and processing lines.

Personal protective equipment and screens will become common sights in the manufacturing environment, as businesses look for ways to stop the virus from spreading while allowing people to come into the workplace and get on with their jobs.

Organisations will also be relying on each other to share best practices and discuss any successes or setbacks they've experienced in getting back to work amid the ongoing pandemic. Transparency between food manufacturers has been one of the most positive trends to come out of the current situation.

For businesses that have lots of questions and uncertainty about adjusting to this new environment, Randstad, in collaboration with other HR services industry leaders, has produced a range of resources on getting safely back to work in the new normal.

You can access sector-specific health and safety protocols and information on best practices to implement within your own business.

Staying competitive

Keeping people safe and healthy should be the primary objective for employers getting back to work during this health crisis, but companies will also be focusing on how they can maintain a productive, sustainable workforce that allows them to stay competitive.

In a sector like food manufacturing, factors like price and on-time delivery are critical to business success. On-time delivery has been particularly important during the COVID pandemic, as retailers have had to respond to sudden increases and fluctuations in demand from consumers, especially for items like frozen foods.

Research by Credit Suisse showed that, in the US, packaged food sales increased by an estimated 15% to 30% between March and May, due to a 'massive shift in eating patterns'. Frozen food sales spiked by 79% in the week ending March 15.

'We expect food consumption to remain elevated over the next 12 months as consumers choose to keep eating food at home to save money, much like they did during the last three economic recessions in 1990, 2001 and 2008.'

Credit Suisse research analyst Robert Moskow.

Many businesses are responding to this volatile environment by rethinking their HR strategies. Goals like finding the right combination of permanent and flexible staff in your workforce have become more important than ever, as you navigate the challenge of balancing cost concerns with the need to provide a continuous, reliable service.

Leveraging HR tech

HR technology can play a crucial role for food manufacturing firms in this environment. When your shift and workforce planning needs are changing on a daily basis, for example, you need effective tools to help you adjust and meet your objectives.

Practices like remote hiring and onboarding have become more common in recent years as businesses have become more flexible, but the restrictions created by COVID-19 have raised their importance even further.

For many businesses in the food manufacturing sector, this will all be very new. It could feel like a significant departure from how you're used to working.

The right HR services partner can help you meet these challenges and make the right decisions based on tech expertise, combined with sector-specific insights and local labor market knowledge.

Coping with change and unpredictability

Perhaps the biggest HR challenge of all for food manufacturers right now is adjusting to an environment where frequent change, volatility and uncertainty have become the norm.

COVID-19 is very much an ongoing situation, with governments and health authorities around the world warning that the risk of fresh outbreaks of the virus remains high. Employers should therefore be prepared for frequent changes in regulations and guidelines designed to prevent infection and keep people safe.

In this changeable environment, demand from consumers is likely to fluctuate in response to fast-moving trends and health concerns. Retailers will have to adapt quickly to these developments, which in turn will put more pressure on food manufacturers and supply chains to be agile and responsive.

These fluctuations require organizations to re-design the workforce both in numeric capacity as well as the flexibility that the workforce can handle. We are currently engaging with several senior HR leaders to discuss these challenges and investigate new roles and digital concepts to future-proof the workforce.

Furthermore, the HR department needs to be mindful of the pressure the current situation is putting on the workforce. Physical health is clearly a priority right now, but HR managers will also be thinking about employees' mental health and how they can help workers cope in such difficult circumstances.

While this is certainly a unique situation at the moment, the current challenges in the food manufacturing sector are closely linked to priorities that existed long before COVID-19, like ensuring that workforces are future-proofed and sustainable. This will further emphasize the need for HR managers to collect, manage and analyze data on their workforce, the labor market and new HR tech.

These are subjects that Randstad will be exploring more on our Workforce Insights blog in the coming months.

Contact us to start a conversation about your HR needs.