Will Work Patterns Have Changed Radically Post-Covid Or Will We Drift Back to Previous Work Behaviours and What’s the Implications for Food Businesses?

In the Northern Hemisphere, Summer is here, our Covid-constrained world is opening up, courtesy of extensive vaccination programmes and notwithstanding the continued ravages of the Delta variant. The feelings of fatigue, wanting to mix with friends and colleagues, travel for work and leisure are palpable. Yet, we can see from the labour shortages in key industries, not least in food, that the pandemic “ain’t over ‘til it’s over” to quote baseball player and American 20th Century philosopher Yogi Berra! As we claw back our lives to some sort of normality, will our work habits have changed irrevocably – specifically, eschewing daily commuting to the office and working much more from home – or will we slip back to pre-pandemic work patterns?

For those who were paid to be at home during the lockdowns and didn’t have to fight for financial survival, there was an element of novelty and opportunity to relearn how to cook and do so from scratch, to eat more healthily and, of course, we could start that exercise programme that had been lounging, gathering dust on our “Must Do” list for years. In 2020, the aroma of banana bread and sourdough loaves pervaded the leafy suburbs from April through to the Autumn. Then, in October, we realised that Covid was with us for the longer haul. Our enthusiasm for jogging, sit ups, and cooking meals “like Mum used to make” waned, Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Just Eat became more frequent visitors to our homes and waistlines expanded. Survey data for the UK shows that Brits gained, on average, 3kg each, through the 2020/21 pandemic period. 

So, how much of our in-home incarceration will stick? Good USA data suggests that “confident cooks” and “cooking enthusiasts” (those who are gung ho but tentative) expanded their home cooked meal repertoires substantially and accounted for a huge proportion of the incremental Covid period retail purchases of premium meat and seafood as they sought to replicate favourite restaurant meals at home. However, 70+% of households soldiered on with menus having a recurring theme of minced (ground) beef and chicken.

Online grocery shopping is sticking, albeit its rate of increase has slowed relative to the dark days of full lockdown. Working from home (WFH) makes the reception of your online groceries easier – there’s somebody in – and the arrival of Mr. Tesco is even a mini-event to lighten your day! Clearly, WFH is good for the local corner store and it may fuel a renaissance of local artisan bakers and see growth in local coffee shops – good for small businesses and the local community, as well as giving the at home worker an opportunity for light exercise and a chat with fellow workers from different professional backgrounds. It’s not good for the Food-2-Go outlets which are scattered, eerily empty, around the office high rises downtown. 

These are challenging times for the likes of previously very successful chains such as Pret. However, all is not lost. Kantar data for the UK shows that WFH and home schooling explained around 20% of the uplift in lunch and dinner at home occasions during the peak of lockdown. Kantar projects that meal occasions at home in Q1 2022 will be 10% up on the same period in pre-pandemic 2019 – that amounts to a good slug of revenue potentially lost for F-2-G businesses but not enough to sink them. 

Recently, PepsiCo announced a new corporate policy embracing work flexibility – led by shifting half of its office staff to working from home permanently. The company notes that employers offering flexible work see a 15% increase in productivity, 31% less absenteeism,10% less staff turnover, and the policy will attract high calibre staff. The “Work that Works” programme will let PepsiCo scale down its real estate footprint by 15%, which it says will lead to less waste and lower energy use. Fifty percent of office staff will work remotely at any time, and that for every 100 employees who work from home twice a week, it will save 70 tonnes of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GGE). Working from home staff will be able to reserve a workspace or meeting room via a mobile app, while occupancy sensors and integrated meeting technology will assist in scheduling meetings between in-person and virtual groups.

Asda, the UK’s Number 3 grocer (formerly owned by Walmart), has also announced flexible working measures taking a “hybrid” approach: 4,000 of the supermarket chain’s HQ staff can choose to work from home, the office or from space in its shops and depots. Coming to HQ is recommended for training and key meetings.

We are still waiting for more food businesses to clarify publicly what are going to be their work policies as restrictions are eased, but it seems that “flexibility” will be mentioned frequently! McKinsey and Co suggest that finance, management, professional services, education and the information sector have the highest potential for remote working. Deloitte UK agrees and its staff will be able to work wherever they want when Covid restrictions are eased, with no requirement to work a minimum of days per week from the office. Deloitte has conducted research in the USA’s food sector finding that 60% of top management agree with allowing employees to choose working from the office or from home. Although 25% of them were expecting everyone back to their desks once it’s allowed. The expectation is that hours worked remotely in late-2021 and 2022 will be about double that of 2019.

Source: Deloitte USA

Of course, working from home won’t appeal to everyone. Younger workers are more attracted to the office – it’s more social, an opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade from more senior staff and, indeed, to interact directly with line managers to show them how quick, smart and enthusiastic they are! Employees with families may value spending more time at home to give them a better work:life balance (there again, they may be pleased to get away from the maelstrom and grind that can be family life!). Of course, for those working at the coal face in processing plants and retail stores, working from home isn’t a realistic option. What’s more, they’ll resent those working from home in their slippers and feel more like the worker bees having to head out into the rush hour traffic every morning and night.

As we all know, change is inevitable and we’re just experiencing an accelerated period of change. With it comes new opportunities. One result of this in the UK is an explosion of businesses connecting home cooks with hungry diners. The UK Food Standards Agency estimates that 44% of new ventures registered from March 2020 are run from domestic kitchens. New electronic platforms have emerged – All About the Cooks, NoshyCircle, Grubie – taking around 12-15% commission linking domestic chefs with closely located diners. Most domestic cooks will be part-time, work flexible hours and earn a helpful income on the side.

What can we conclude about WFH in the post-Covid era? There’ll be more of it, working location will be substantially more flexible than in the past and it will be disproportionately a benefit on offer to those that, in history, worked from offices – ranging from the “professional classes” to online platform gig workers. It will pull workers and their families from the larger cities seeking better lifestyles and more affordable housing in more rural surroundings. In turn, this will bring pressures on rural-based businesses (many of them in agriculture and food) with employees who, already, face challengingly high house and rental prices fuelled by weekend 2nd home owners. 

Ostensibly, the UK Government has a major policy to “level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom”. The idea is that people and communities that feel they have been left behind get a chance to catch up. In truth, a combination of WFH and pervasive availability of 5G would be a huge boost to accelerating “levelling up”. This is much needed as we recover from the ravages of Covid-19 which has served to polarise household incomes (“haves” and “have nots”) across the UK and in most other countries.

The longer-term impact of the pandemic on the food service industry may be profound. The UK government’s furlough programme gave thousands of restaurant staff a taste of home life and being paid to be there, rather than working the unholy hours that are characteristic of this sector. There are clear signs that many are reluctant to return to restaurant work exacerbating the vacancies that are evident from the aftermath of Brexit (when particularly Eastern European workers exited the UK en masse). Reducing the requirement for labour in restaurants and food service outlets will be a feature of the future and reflected in a focus on automation and reduced complexity menus for many food service businesses. 

Posted in Consumer
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About the authors
Prof David Hughes: Around the world, David speaks to senior agribusiness and food industry managers about global food industry developments that are and will affect their businesses and industry. Energetic, engaging, humorous and insightful, David gains the very highest evaluations at seminars, conferences and Board level discussions in every continent he visits. Miguel Flavián: works for several Spanish organisations and companies to help them to learn from the developments of the British grocery market and improve their business back home.
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