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Associate feature: The new normal

Associate feature: The new normal

The scale of the change brought by coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown became apparent to Coca-Cola European Partners very early in the spread of the pandemic, according to Jim Fox.

For most people, the reality of how COVID-19 would transform our lives and our communities became increasingly apparent from the start of the year, with the announcement from Boris Johnson that the UK would go into lockdown in March confirming just how big the disruption would be.

But, according to Fox, Associate Director for Public Affairs at Coca-Cola European Partners, by the time the PM, and the FM, took to our screens to warn against leaving the house for any non-essential purpose, the company was already well into its planning. In fact, it had been working through various scenarios for weeks.

“Early on we realised that we would have to do things quickly and differently”, he said. “First of all, we had to make sure our people were safe and well. Even before all the different advice came through, we were working to prioritise this. We are confident that we did everything we possibly could for our people.

“In fact, it gradually became clear to us that we wouldn’t be operating anything like normal, but we were certainly ahead of the game. When the actual advice was shared by the UK and the Scottish governments, we weren’t surprised. We were ready for it, and I think that’s why they looked to us for support, both before the announcement and as they developed, on a day by day basis.

“I was on various government calls, trying to help the UK Government with their advice to other manufacturers – not just in food and drink but in manufacturing more broadly – about how factories could work and how factories could stay productive while also keeping their employees safe. I wasn’t directly part of the conversation with the Scottish Government, but I was connected with the Food and Drink Federation Scotland, which was doing that on behalf of most of the food and drink industry. Between the two of us we were trying to make sure things were aligned.

“We also had to look after people’s wellbeing. We decided very early on in this that we would do everything we could to support our people. We haven’t made any redundancies, we haven’t put anyone on furlough, and made it clear that anyone who felt they needed to isolate, or talk to someone, would be completely, totally supported. That has gone down really well. Our employees are happy with our response, but so are the trade unions. Unite were very supportive, they put a note on their website saying how well we had adapted and aligned ourselves to our employees’ requirements.”

The factories, meanwhile, stayed open, though, as in almost every sector, the approach to work had to change. Pinch points at the gates, changing rooms and canteens had to be navigated, with Coca-Cola European Partners also splitting the shop floor into zones, restricting employees from walking around as they normally would, but adding another barrier to transmission if someone was found to have become ill. The company brought in new PPE, cleaning stepped up and perspex screens were put in place, while, in an effort to reduce contact between people, all food in the canteen was free, to avoid employees handing over cash or cards.

“East Kilbride ran at pretty much full capacity,” Fox said. “We had to change a few things, because there were people absent while they isolated and due to additional family responsibilities, but it all worked pretty well. Where we had a lot of work to do for the bigger retail chains that were still open, pubs and clubs and restaurants were closed, so we were able to mix and match production and staffing levels to suit the circumstances at the time.”

Yet while Coca-Cola European Partners was working its way through a huge shift in its operations, its customers too were undergoing massive change.

 “We have lots of different customers, from the biggest retail stores down to the smallest pub and corner shop, so it was a pretty different experience for everyone and we had to make sure we were treating everyone uniquely. We had to communicate well, and listen to what they were saying, to make sure they were doing the best thing for them at the time. On a practical level that meant making sure they had access to the product they needed, so they were able to continue to sell. At the start of the pandemic there were queues and shortages, but we never really went short of stock. We were still able to supply most of our products.

“We had to focus on the hardest hit sectors and support them. When the pubs and clubs shut down, they had a lot of stock still in their stores, so to help them get back to work we managed to swap some of their old stock for new stock, free of charge. We extended some of the credit terms to mitigate any problems in terms of returning to work.

“But the biggest exercise came in terms of equipment. We have 30,000 pieces of equipment – coolers, pumps in pubs and clubs – that all had to be sanitized, it all had to be put back into running order. We have around 160 engineers in the field and they made their visits with full PPE, with social distancing, to get that equipment up and running again on day one after the lockdown. When you are dealing with food products those hygiene measures are absolutely essential.”

Meanwhile, The Coca-Cola Company created a $120m (around £92m) global support fund, which was used in the UK to support FareShare in supplying more than two million meals and a million drinks during the pandemic. Coca-Cola European Partners also supported the Neighbourly Community Fund, which is providing assistance to 1,200 groups and around 250,000 people, and donated stock to Company Shop, one of the largest redistributors of surplus food and household products, which has distributed more than 150,000 Coca-Cola products to support the most isolated members of the community.

Closer to home, it also provided products for free to health care workers in places such as the Queen Elizabeth and Hairmyres hospitals.

“We were putting products into the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to support their staff. They were working long shifts and you could see how stretched services were, it was a terrible time for them. We did the same thing for Hairmyres hospital too. Then local to the factory, we supported East Kilbride Hospice directly, but we also indirectly supported a sports club in East Kilbride.”

But while the UK is clearly still operating under a high degree of uncertainty over the future, and with the prospect of further lockdowns, Coca-Cola has begun planning for what comes next, with the launch of its new campaign called Open, Like Never Before.

Founded on the promise of new possibilities discovered as a result of the lockdown, the campaign encourages people to appreciate what was perhaps previously taken for granted, while finding opportunities in this ‘new normal’ environment.

The launch follows a seven month pause on commercial advertising due to coronavirus, with the crisis moving the company to redirect resources to support relief efforts around the world.

And clearly it will take time for the world, and Scotland, to adjust to the changes we have experienced, but the newly launched campaign aims to focus on supporting businesses, with a specific focus on customers, hotels, cafes and restaurants who are the lifeblood of local communities and are now reopening their doors.

 “We are determined to get people, not just back to work, and not just back to normal, but to make things better in this new world. To make it something people are keen to pursue into the future. It’s the belief that we don’t just need to go back to normal, but following this huge change in everyone’s lives instead we want to move forward and make the world, not just different, but a more open place.”

He added: “We have been working with our hospitality customers – hotels and pubs and restaurants – to find out how we can actually help them back to work. Smaller pubs have never had to deal with menus before, for example, so we’ve created a tool called a menu generator, which they can plug into our software and generate menus for their pubs. Outlets are being trained on that now. We are trying to think of every aspect in the chain, from where we make it, to where the consumer buys it, sells it and takes it home.”

This piece was sponsored by Coca-Cola European Partners

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - Q&A: Alex Cole-Hamilton on the health of the nation

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