“Never has a focus on the quality of life been so important,” says Raj Verma, Global SVP HR at Sodexo. Raj built his career around a passion for understanding people, the changing world of work, and the evolving digital trends that affect it. So, naturally, when the pandemic hit, as a company, Sodexo was able to build a transformation program quickly. Prepare, Protect, Enable, Support and Optimize were the five pillars they worked around for their global response which enabled them to reinvent the workplace in just three weeks.
Here Raj tells UNLEASH how rapid decision-making and an employee-first mentality steered their global success:
UNLEASH: When did you first realise the severity of COVID-19 and what were your immediate responses as a HR Leader?
Raj: From the very first signs of the December 2019 COVID-19 outbreak in China, Sodexo began mobilizing its resources to ensure its consumers stayed safe and healthy and that business continued to operate for its clients. We were able to take key learnings from our experience in China where the pandemic started and in Italy and Spain – early hotspots – which we then used to coordinate global, regional and local responses based on the situation on the ground.
Never has a focus on quality of life been so important. Fortunately, we built our mission around this over 50 years ago. Today, our responsibility is to work with our clients to build resilient, inclusive and sustainable communities that preserves quality of life.
As the 19th largest private employer operating in 67 countries we have the unique capabilities and resources to combine a complete range of services – from disinfection to safety services and healthy, convenient meals, wellness services and space transformation.
4,000 employees were reassigned to hospitals and retirement homes, which urgently required additional staff.
We introduced enhanced measures in addition to physical-distancing guidelines that all staff adhered to, including the modification of our services. For example, we redesigned restaurant spaces, menus and reinvented how the service was offered (think to-go & delivery) to name a few.
As the virus spread and the lockdowns began, our clients started to close sites, required lower service frequency and canceled or postponed some services. Therefore, we had to immediately adapt our operational management.
Whenever possible, we reassigned our people whose workplaces closed to other sites urgently requiring additional team members. For example, in North America and Europe, almost 4,000 employees were reassigned to hospitals and retirement homes, which urgently required additional staff. We worked proactively with other business sectors like retailers, e-commerce and manufacturing firms to find and reinvent jobs for our employees hit by the COVID-19 economic fallout.
Our care for people has always been our utmost priority and we established a global Sodexo Employee Relief Program to help on-site staff, who faced layoffs or difficulties. This €30 million ($35m) program was funded by our Chairwoman, Sophie Bellon, our CEO, Denis Machuel, the global executive committee and all our senior executives.
UNLEASH: When planning for a safe workplace, what were your top three priorities?
Raj: The safety of our employees and their families is, and always will be, our top priority. We were (and still are) focused on their physical and mental health, financial wellbeing and how best to support them. One of the ways we have done this is through the Sodexo Medical Advisory Council. The Council is comprised of experts from around the world in epidemiology, family medicine, nutrition, occupational health and behavioral health, as well as pandemic planning and operations. Its role is to provide technical guidance and validation on continually evolving and quickly emerging health & safety protocols for services, as well as the ways Sodexo engages with people and encourages safe behaviors. In addition, the Council provides the latest information to ensure agile adoption of best practices, aligned with local requirements.
As a service provider, most of our work is done on client sites. So, in addition to our employees, the safety of our clients and consumers is paramount. Sodexo partnered with Bureau Veritas to introduce the Rise SAFE hygiene verification label. Bureau Veritas helps ensure assets, products, infrastructure and processes meet client specifications, standards and regulations, while improving performance in quality, health & safety, environmental protection and social responsibility (QHSE).
Bureau Veritas has vetted Sodexo and recognized us for our aligned dedication to solving these challenges. This label forms part of Sodexo’s global response to help clients and consumers resume work in complete confidence.
UNLEASH: What were the biggest challenges you faced when preparing employees for a Covid-19 workplace?
Raj: The biggest challenges were the speed of the change, the rapidly evolving situation (sometimes regulations changed several times a day) and aligning our operational procedures globally while still following a broad variety of different local regulations and guidelines. In addition to that, we also had to focus on managing the safety of client sites (on their premises) and making sure their employees and consumers were safe.
we developed a systematic approach to helping clients resume, adapt and thrive, taking learnings from our experience at the outbreak of the pandemic
To respond to these challenges, we developed a systematic approach to helping clients resume, adapt and thrive, taking learnings from our experience at the outbreak of the pandemic. We call it rise with Sodexo. Our rise with Sodexo program prioritizes safety, wellbeing and productivity. It provides a comprehensive range of essential and innovative services centered around five pillars: Prepare, Protect, Enable, Support and Optimize. Through this program, we can support our clients in restarting and taking their business to the next level, considering the new behaviors, protocols and services required to enable a sustainable recovery.
UNLEASH: In your opinion, what were the key reasons Sodexo managed to reinvent the workplace in just three weeks?
Raj: Quality of Life has been our mission for over 50 years. The health and safety of Sodexo employees and consumers is and has always been paramount. In a way, we were already prepared.
We had already started to reinvent the workplace in a series that we called “Work Reimagined” where we looked at employee expectations driving workplace change, having an accurate picture of the workforce and uncovering employee needs and motivations.
Since 2012, we’ve been highlighting industry trends in our annual Global Workplace Trends Report. By understanding the key trends that are shaping both the nature of the enterprise and the future of work, we’ve been able to more effectively help our clients plan for the future that lies ahead.
Simply put, we’ve always put people first. That’s illustrated in our client offers, through Wx, our team of workplace design and optimization specialists and our focus on putting the employee experience at the heart of new ways of working.
UNLEASH: How did you manage to maintain employee wellbeing in countries with limited government support?
Raj: As I mentioned before, we established a global Sodexo Employee Relief Program to help on-site staff, who faced layoffs. We also helped these employees through outplacement hubs giving them access to professionals to help them with CV writing, personal branding, interview techniques, job workshops, partner vacancies, internal moves, etc.
We’ve created a health and wellbeing programme for all to provide daily opportunities for Sodexo’s global workforce and customers to participate in live meet-ups covering mental and physical wellbeing topics intended to evoke a sense of unity and togetherness as we all cope with our new reality of physical distancing resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic. Each session is 30 minutes and it’s recorded so people can view it later as well.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are ideally placed to address this aspect of the crisis. Our EAP, ‘Sodexo Supports Me’, provides our employees and their families counseling to help them meet the challenges of everyday life, both at work and outside. It is free and accessible 24/7. In the context of COVID, we gave access to a wide range of information from many sources about COVID-19 infection and prevention.
We have a regular pulse check for the top 1,500 leaders. Leaders answer how they are feeling today with one word. This allows us to check in on how they are feeling and coping through the pandemic.
In today’s ever-changing world where competencies such as resourcefulness, resilience, managing ambiguity and communicating effectively are more critical than ever, we launched virtual learning courses on these topics for our senior leaders. It is self-paced so people can manage on their own time.
It can feel much harder to connect virtually but through times of uncertainty it is even more important for people to feel like they belong and the most impactful way to do this is by “checking-in”.
As businesses restart and our client sites reopen, we have a “re-entering the workplace programme” that our front-line employees go through focusing on health & safety, site changes etc.
In these unsettling times, with most individuals temporarily restricted to virtual connections, it is very important to be extra mindful of the impact people are experiencing and our interactions. Our Diversity & Inclusion team pulled together resources and examples to educate and encourage employees to be mindful of this. It can feel much harder to connect virtually but we know that through times of uncertainty it is even more important for people to feel like they belong and the most impactful way to do this is by “checking-in”. As I look back on all this, I’m very proud.
UNLEASH: Are there any new technologies you have implemented to maintain engagement or well-being in remote employees?
Raj: Yes, we have a health and wellbeing programme for all employees. These 30 minute live sessions take place on Microsoft Teams. The programme provides daily opportunities for Sodexo’s global workforce and customers to participate in live meet-ups covering mental and physical wellbeing topics.
We also use Yammer. Our colleagues share ideas, best practices, celebrate and support each other with the impact being made and lessons being learnt, while keeping in touch whenever and wherever they are located.
Putting people first and prioritising their wellbeing and engagement in the design of spaces and activities is key to success – pandemic or not.
UNLEASH: HR has been at the frontline of managing Covid-19 crisis for companies. Are you seeing any of the changes becoming more deeply embedded in the world of work?
Raj: Changes were underway before the pandemic, as businesses came to realize how important a meaningful employee experience is. Putting people first and prioritising their wellbeing and engagement in the design of spaces and activities is key to success – pandemic or not.
In terms of changes, on the one hand, we’re seeing an acceleration of certain trends, for example working from home and a more fluid workplace. Employees want and expect more flexibility.
On the other hand, Covid-19 has employers re-thinking the workplace and what it brings. The purpose of a workplace is more than productivity. Just because you can have everyone working remotely doesn’t mean you should – because you will more the likely lose levels of engagement and chances to collaborate and innovate.
I believe the real power of a workplace is in how face-to-face, as human contact creates an intangible essence – a culture and collective set of emotions that are greater than the sum of its parts. Even with easy access to technology, online meetings and constant contact, there is no substitute for physical presence. Our creativity, trust and empathy are all deeply intertwined with in-person contact, the product of human evolution and the primal urge to be part of a group.
UNLEASH: What one piece of advice would your share with other HR Leaders as they prepare for the next ‘normal’?
Raj: Yes, I would say, get ready for the next change, adapt, be flexible, keep reinventing what you do. Don’t underestimate mental wellbeing and the value of togetherness.