Food companies anxious to get back to the office


Canada’s protein processors and their workers didn’t miss much work in 2020 and the first few months of 2021.

Regardless of temporary plant shutdowns and office lockdowns, Canada’s food companies kept working, with white collar employees moving their operations off-site to home offices. They hardly seemed to miss a beat.

But some of Manitoba’s big food companies say they’re looking forward to bringing workers back to the office.

“I think we need some remote-working tools and lessons (from the pandemic, but once the crisis ends) this will allow us to go back and be together in the office,” said Dominique Baumann, chief executive officer of Roquette Canada, which is opening a huge pulse protein plant in Portage la Prairie, Man.

“Working from home 100 percent of the time is really difficult for the teams and it’s difficult to on-board people (train new staff) 100 percent remotely.”

Baumann’s views were echoed by representatives of Cargill and Hylife Foods.

“We are a people-driven business. We miss those connectivities, those connections with them,” said Sheldon Stott, senior director of corporate sustainability for Hylife, which operates a hog slaughter and pork plant in Neepawa, Man.

“Though we’ve shifted to a remote work situation utilizing technology, I think there is a desire to get back to that personal touch.”

Stott, Baumann and Leon Fletcher of Cargill North America spoke during a panel discussion at the Manitoba Protein Summit about the likely shape of the post-pandemic protein business.

The three saw the crisis accelerating pre-existing trends in the food and protein markets. All sounded relieved that the food industry has fared better than some other sectors in being able to handle the shock of the pandemic and its impacts on processing operations, employees, customers and global value chains.

Fletcher said the shock of the COVID-19 impact forced it to change many things quickly, and to become more flexible and able to make faster decisions.

“I think the pandemic allowed us to become quicker to react towards our stakeholders’ needs, our customers’ needs, the consumers’ needs, and really to balance the global economy at scale,” said Fletcher.

“I don’t think a year ago we would have said we were swift to action. I think we had a lot of red tape.”

Fletcher said he thinks the new-found flexibility and quickness will survive the pandemic.

“It’s been a huge win for us at Cargill,” said Fletcher.

Stott said grappling with the concrete impact of COVID-19 has made his company more conscious of the general health situation of employees, including their mental health.

“I think that’s going to persist,” said Stott.

“Through the pandemic there was a very dramatic shift in the mindset towards a focus on our employees’ health and welfare and how that relates to the overall health and welfare and success of our company.”

For global companies, being able to operate remotely and across digital distances is handy when relevant staff are already scattered across the planet. Instead of always having to fly off for meetings in other countries and on other continents, digital connections could serve well at times.

Baumann said he expects much office work to return to the office post-pandemic, but more work is likely to be done off-site now that it has been shown to be possible.