The job roles within food retailers and product suppliers vary drastically. The labor pools for frontline workers and office workers vary to the same degree, making it very difficult to speak in generalities. However, we see two important factors are at play in talent attraction and retention beyond short-term concerns about pandemic-related unemployment subsidies, which primarily affect frontline workers. First, companies in other industries, including technology, are starting to drop their four-year degree requirements, and are now hiring from the less-credentialled labor pool upon which the food industry has long relied. Second, the ability to work remotely creates national competition for employees, including those from higher-paying markets and sectors of the economy. Most of the food executives interviewed said offering flexibility and hybrid work options, where possible, will be key to retention. As one senior vice president of human resources put it, previously “companies have gotten by based on their name and their reputation” but that now “no flexibility is a dealbreaker for employees” who feel like they have new options.
Beyond retention, the two sectors diverge somewhat on the key challenges they cite. Product suppliers, for example, place as much emphasis on cultivating company culture as they do on retention. Both food retailers and product suppliers recognize the need for the workforce to employ more technology, but they see the challenge differently. Food retailers are looking to get there through retraining and reskilling, whereas product suppliers are perhaps more likely to try to hire in those high-demand skills.
Some companies are looking to address the need for talent with more automation. Three in five execs say they are aggressively seeking to automate work where possible. “It's so hard to find people that have a desire to do these manual labor types of roles now,” said one director of plant operations. “And so, we're trying to automate as much as possible, wherever possible because it normally gives you speed and consistency. Depending on how much we want to spend, I would say we could automate 50% or more [of the work].” Ideally, this technology will be incorporated in a way that facilitates people and machines working in partnership in a rearchitected workflow, producing better outcomes than either could alone.
The road ahead
The FoW isn’t about waiting for tomorrow. On the contrary, it is created by the investments made today. Organizations that are not already considering how to rearchitect work, unleash the workforce, and adapt the workplace risk falling behind their competitors that are already further down the FoW path. Earlier we framed “a glass half empty” in terms of industry readiness, but leadership is being shown by the half of food companies that do have the vision and strategy in place to meet the future. Those trailing behind now should take the opportunity quickly follow their lead.
How will they get there? Deloitte believes that the biggest motivator for people is the work itself.6 Food industry companies should seek to humanize work and rally around outcomes that inspire and energize. In fact, people should be placed squarely at the center of an FoW vision that’s focused not on past performance but instead on achieving new, better outcomes. Companies in the food industry would be well advised to develop their own FoW vision and put a strategy in place now to hit their goals, whether they’re related to market share growth or something else. That is likely to require real investment of both time and money. A path through the competing priorities getting in the way of making these investments should be defined. FoW deserves to be a top priority and, perhaps as companies exit the many crises brought on by the pandemic, that will soon be easier.
We recommend that companies ask themselves several questions:
• What steps can we take now to make FoW a higher-priority agenda item?
• How can we formalize an actionable FoW strategy, even in the face of uncertainty?
• Who is sponsoring this strategy? Are the appropriate leaders involved? Do they represent the entire company, and are they empowered to make change?
• As we redefine work, are we making roles that are more worker-centered and interesting? Are we preparing for a fluid future and thinking beyond “optimization?”
• Are we creating opportunities to redesign the physical and digital environments to enable collaboration, human connection, innovation, and creativity?
• Are we using technology to transform work in ways that allow people to and find purpose and meaning in their work and perform at their best?
• How can we ensure that leaders create a culture of trust and confidence that provides a sense of belonging and safety where the entire workforce can thrive?
• Do we have a strategy to recruit women and minorities who disproportionately exited the workforce during the pandemic?
Instituting a cross-functional and inclusive FoW leadership team can be an effective way to address these questions and create momentum. An effective team would be responsible for providing clarity of purpose, breaking roadblocks, and creating accountability for outcomes. Fortunately, many in the food industry appear to have taken this first step.
As we reflect on the overall state of the industry, we have a final observation. The food industry is an interconnected system. It comprises not only food retailers/wholesalers and product suppliers but also packaging companies, service providers, and others. As with any complex system, communication and feedback loops are essential to finding better outcomes for the FoW and for the industry overall. In other words, a single company can’t create the FoW on its own. Going forward, leading food retailers and product suppliers should strive to unify their approach and to seek solutions that are beneficial to all parts of the ecosystem. There may be a role for industry groups to aid in establishing goals and ground rules that coordinate efforts and conquer their shared challenges. Shared technology platforms may also help coordinate efforts more effectively once those understandings are in place.