How to feed employees in the post-pandemic workplace

B&I operators at Google, World Bank and elsewhere are meeting the challenges of safety, sustainability and social distancing while seeking to provide a top food experience.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Employees are slowly returning to office buildings and corporate campuses, and foodservice operators are getting ready to feed them. It’s been a challenge, most would agree. Not only are they rearranging cafes and marketplaces to conform with social distancing and sanitation protocols and developing contactless menu items, they’re trying to figure out the numbers.

At Google, where employees can now choose to work from home until 2021, “we have to figure out how that will affect operations,” Michiel Bakker, Google’s director of global workplace services programs, said during a recent webinar hosted by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA). Other tech companies, including Twitter and Facebook, are allowing employees to work from home indefinitely.

But Google, which employs 200,000 worldwide, expects workers to return in phases, said Bakker, as soon as the workplaces meet criteria for reopening. During Phase 1, 10% of employees will come back, and the numbers will ramp up over time.

Changing up the format

Google has gained widespread recognition for its diverse food offerings. Pre-pandemic, a different menu was offered every day at each of the many cafes throughout the company’s large Silicon Valley campus, and employees could choose to eat anywhere—for free. “Food makes Google run,” Bakker said.

Although he wants to reopen the cafes during Phase 1, the menu will be standardized across all locations, with none having more enticing offerings than others, in an effort to reduce contact, he said. Social distancing and capacity restrictions will be in place at all.

Food is also central to the culture at World Bank, said Sharon Eliatamby, head of food and conferences services at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Typically, five cafeterias strive to offer cuisines from the 180 countries represented by the employees, with one venue hosting 14 stations that cover all seven continents each day.

World Bank is also looking to open in phases, gradually going from 10% to 25% to 50% capacity, with foodservice following suit. “We’ll start with the coffee bars and grab-and-go concepts, then move on to the cafeterias, but with a reduction in stations,” she said. “We’ll take the most popular stations and move them further apart.”

The plan will accommodate social distancing, cut back on seating and include a re-engineered, streamlined menu. “Our menus will be based on what suppliers have available,” Eliatamby said.

The packaging factor

Many B&I operators have made sustainability a top priority in food sourcing, packaging choices and waste reduction. But with the emphasis on safety, sanitation and contactless serving, sustainable packaging may take a back seat to delivering a quality meal to employees that’s safe, Bakker said. “Sustainability is still a long-term goal, but now we have to consider the safest packaging.” 

Cost is also a consideration. In Phase 1, World Bank plans to have employees order from their desks and arrange a time to come to the cafeteria to pick up their food. “We may also go to a delivery option if people feel uncomfortable with the pickup,” Eliatamby said. While those to-go meals mean a lot more packaging needs to be purchased, along with disposable utensils and other items, she remains very committed to sustainability.

“Operators may be losing sight of sustainability and making compromises now, but it’s temporary,” said Bill Corbett, executive chef of San Francisco-based Salesforce, during the Culinary Institute of America’s virtual Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit. And with the surge in pandemic home cooking, he thinks consumers are becoming more sustainability conscious.

“They are seeing how much waste is produced from shopping and cooking more frequently,” Corbett said. These consumers may put renewed pressure on operators when foodservice becomes more normalized.

A focus on flexibility and engagement

Unfortunately, nobody can predict when that normalization will be. “The plans on paper may change 360 degrees,” Eliatamby said, noting that a lot depends on how workers respond.

“Every plan has changed a gazillion times, and will continue to change,” Bakker agreed. “Operators have to be more agile and vendors do, too.” He and his team have done a lot of work in a short time to put plans in place—which Bakker likens to a sprint—but it’s also essential to do some “marathon thinking” for the long-term. Offices will eventually open, but there will be ups and downs, especially if a second pandemic wave hits.

Meanwhile, as employees continue to work from home, B&I operators are finding creative ways to keep them engaged. “This is an amazing opportunity to build on what we’ve done in the past and offer new things,” Bakker said.

Google is offering employees digital food experiences, such as cooking lessons and wellness classes. World Bank connects through e-learning as well; a sustainability expert offers healthy eating tips and a fitness instructor provides online workouts.

Salesforce is also maximizing digital to maximize employee engagement. “When the San Francisco office was open, we brought in cookbook authors and chefs to do demos on the different floors,” Corbett said. “Now we are engaging people with food on all levels, throughout the entire company of 50,000 and across all our offices.” On offer are chef demos, healthy recipes to cook at home and other interactive experiences. “We hope this will continue beyond the shutdown as we build up our digital presence and content,” he said. 



More from our partners