New roles for technology and stronger relationships during pandemic

This week’s PMA town hall examined the topics of crisis-proofing your business and learnings that companies have gleaned in conducting business amidst a global pandemic that shut down the world this year. The discussion points covered using purpose as a new strategy, which new ways of working are likely to continue, development in a company and more.

New roles for technology
Following the North American shutdown in March of this year, Zoom became increasingly known as an option for virtual meetings and the produce industry also embraced virtual meetings as well.

Videoconferencing has clearly become a way for companies to stay connected in the pandemic and has potentially even replaced the general phone call to colleagues and clients at times. It’s even made its way into working with growers where product can be displayed on camera for all involved to see.

While virtual meetings aren’t likely to completely replace grower visits for example, the efficient nature of doing meetings over Zoom could be an option for companies. In fact, using technology with growers has been increasingly done—the pandemic has helped accelerate using automation on farms to evaluate water and pesticide usage for example. In turn, this has helped connect business technology to a group of people in the industry who are not typical users of this type of technology.

The importance of relationships
Stronger relationships have also been deemed as an important factor in moving forward to create a stronger industry---one that saw significant losses of business and many layoffs throughout the pandemic. Realizations were also reaffirmed that strong connected staff and customers continued to be key in carrying out company visions. But the experience of working together in the pandemic and seeing those job and business losses brought colleagues closer as they worked to rebuild the business in hopes of bringing those jobs and business back.

It also prompted a deeper sense of appreciation to all levels of staff, including front-line grocery workers who continued to work in public during the pandemic. Appreciation also came in the form of wellness checks which while helping offset or manage potential new cases of COVID-19, also helped create a new safer workplace. This is likely to continue to be part of the “new normal” of the business environment, at least in the near future.

Clear and straightforward communication also emerged as a way of doing business for some companies—the temptation to sugar-coat what was happening in the pandemic was there but straightforward sharing of facts during an unstable time in business proved to be an important strategy as companies moved deeper into the pandemic.

What about foodservice?
It’s been universally recognized that during this pandemic, the foodservice industry has been challenged and suffered and many growers and produce marketers saw significant portions of their foodservice business drop within days of the lockdown in March.

What this may mean is developing a new vision for what foodservice will look like as the industry moves ahead because as it stands, the industry will be thinned out with stronger foodservice customers surviving.

It’s anticipated that restaurants will slowly come back over the rest of the year and substantively more so next year, though continued reopenings and closures plague the industry right now. And while a tremendous volume of business has come back for fast-food or quick-service restaurants, slower to return are more casual dining operations and even furthermore, white tablecloth or finer dining.

Other foodservice operations will take longer to come back—school and universities will be largely dependent on potential school reopenings in the fall while hotels, which have seen significant drops in business, will slowly build back up this year but their foodservice may not return until later in 2020. Sport stadium-type foodservice may take even longer.

That said, while retail business is proving strong and more and more consumers are developing their home-cooking skills thanks to the closures of many foodservice options, the notion is there that consumers will eventually want to be back out having full meals in restaurants or bars and that having a COVID-19 vaccine could be the changing part of that.

And as the industry looks ahead at life past the pandemic, new opportunities could arise out of the crisis—think identifying a competitor who’s underfinanced but could add value to (and further crisis proof?) your business. At the same time, economic concerns and instability are likely to on the minds of many future consumers. This leaves growers and marketers conscientious to keep pricing of produce accessible—where growers continue to make a good living but also at a point where consumers who are potentially unemployed or on government assistance are still able to buy healthy fruits and vegetables.

Next week: Creating and supporting a diverse workforce
Next week’s virtual town hall will focus on creating a diverse workplace. The discussion will explore what kinds of rewards having a diverse workplace can yield for both traditionally marginalized groups but also the business owners who recognize the value of employing gender and ethnically diverse teams.

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