With organic sales growth of 7.7% in Q1 2021, Nestlé has continued to thrive during the pandemic. The food manufacturing giant has also continued to diversify, notably in the vitamins market.
However some of the biggest changes have been witnessed in the firm’s workforce. The pandemic has forced this traditionally ‘in-office’ company to embrace new ways of working and rethink the structure of its teams.
As Paul Steadman, head of human resources for Nestlé’s UK business units explains, this has obliged the company to demand new skills of its leaders – and adapt its approach to recruiting top talent.
“There’s a lot of talk about disruption,” says Paul Steadman. “But for us, disruptive environments can be quite intimidating.
“We want people to be able to thrive in disruption. If we want to innovate in this climate, we’ve got to be able to challenge assumptions and status quos – even if they’ve only just been coined. When we’re recruiting, these abilities are probably going to be more indicative of a person’s ability to succeed than any particular skill set that they come with.”
With this briefest of synopses, Paul encapsulates his company’s approach to hiring- and, in particular, leadership recruitment.
Founded in the 1860s, Nestlé has over 350 factories worldwide. Like all manufacturing enterprises, it has traditionally been an ‘in-person’ organisation; in the UK, for example, activity has been driven by two key hubs, one near Gatwick airport and the other in York. However, the pandemic has forced a major rethink.
Although many employees were enjoying some form of flexible working before Covid-19, the pandemic has taken this into overdrive (in fact, the number of desks at some key sites is dropping around 50%). And while two-thirds of the workforce have continued to work in factories and distribution centres out of necessity, the remaining third has embraced some form of remote working.
Rather than try to stymie these inevitable changes, Paul and his colleagues have taken the opportunity to create a more enlightened approach to work. There are no fixed contracts governing the amount of time that colleagues will spend in the office. Staff are, in theory at least, free to work from anywhere in the UK, provided they are productive and continuously connected.
Additionally, the old idea of the office as a place of hierarchy and confinement has gone, forever. In Paul’s words, it is now a fulcrum for connection and learning; team members will come because of incentive, rather than obligation.
This new way of working is underpinned by technology. Hot-desking has been introduced, enabled by an app – which enables colleagues to book a desk before they even arrive at the office. Another app allows colleagues to order food in a way that is socially distanced and safe.
As time goes on, this move towards tech-enabled freedom will continue. “We will continually leverage app-based technology to allow people to take the decisions about where they will best be productive in real-time,” Paul says. “That’s definitely the way forward.”
However, the model is founded on vital human values: trust, communication and collaboration.
Everything is about securing consensus; for example, teams are now encouraged to agree when they are going to be in the office together, so they can connect and collaborate. Soft skills, based on compassion rather than control, are more important than ever.
“With more flexibility comes the need for more explicit commitment to each other,” Paul says. “The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of high levels of empathy, emotional intelligence, of being able to have high-quality two-way conversations.”
A new approach to leadership
With this new approach to working comes new requirements for leaders. The old, didactic way of working, based on instruction and enforcement, is no longer valid. Nestlé, like many other companies, requires new, softer skills from its leaders.
“Inclusive leadership” is the term Paul uses to describe the altered approach. “You can have a diverse team but if you’re not inclusive, if people don’t feel they can be their true selves at work, you’ll lose them.
“We have put a big focus on psychological safety. We want individuals to not only be themselves but also to express an opinion, to learn, to be free to make mistakes without fear of retribution. Everyone wants to do the job right but you won’t do that all the time.
“You have to feel you’ve got permission to contribute ideas, even if that idea is not the one people move forward with. And it’s the permission to challenge… to challenge leaders, challenge people with more seniority or experience, or simply people who are seen as more powerful influencers in the business. They may be your peers, they may not be more senior, but they may be recognised as more powerful.
“The leader is fundamental to this. We need leaders who talk less and listen more, and are attuned to the needs of others, as well as keeping a high focus on achieving goals. Being aware of your blind spots means you are better able to work on them and you can allow for that in your interactions with others.”