How Bimbo is Feeding America, Keeping Employees Safe

A case study of how one essential employer is managing through the pandemic and sharing what they learned to help other employers plan for the return to work.

Bimbo Bakeries USA, the largest baking company in the U.S., has 20,000 associates (what they call employees) working every day to provide markets in all 50 states with Thomas’, Sara Lee, Entenmann’s, Arnold, Brownberry and Oroweat baked goods. With its portfolio of household staples, Bimbo Bakeries USA has long been an important part of the U.S. food supply and this was made even clearer in the early days of the pandemic when panic buying emptied the bread aisle. Designated as part of the critical infrastructure of the U.S. by the federal government, Bimbo Bakeries USA has continued to operate every day through the pandemic. This has meant managing through extraordinary circumstances under ever-changing – and sometimes conflicting – guidance at the federal, state and local levels.

A mission and a response team

A critical first step was to align the company behind a single organizing principle: feeding America while keeping associates safe. By creating the guiding principle and communicating it broadly, senior leaders grounded the organization and signaled to all their determination to maintain business operations and continuity while doing everything necessary to keep associates safe. Immediately thereafter, Bimbo Bakeries USA established a COVID-19 Response Team -- a cross-functional multidisciplinary team that has met every day since the crisis began. The team includes representatives from all business operations - sales, manufacturing and distribution supply chain – as well as HR, legal, safety, communications and risk management. The response team gave the company single place for leaders who understood the business were tracking the evolving COVID-19 situation and guidance and could assess all of the issues that they would need to address. The team was grounded in the business mission: to feed America while keeping their associates safe and used those two lenses as a framework to address all issues. 

To start, all those who could work from home were asked to telecommute. While that emptied the offices, the majority of associates needed to show up at company worksites every day to bake and deliver bread and sweet baked goods. In the early days, the response team focused on preparing and communicating game plans for the different scenarios that might arise at their operating facilities: What if somebody presented symptoms? What if somebody tested positive? What personal protective equipment was needed?

Choosing a source of truth to ground decisions in facts

The team was determined to ground their decisions in fact so it could be a credible and reliable voice to the organization, and that meant deciding on a source of truth. The team decided they would rely on the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for information and guidance. They quickly implemented and continue to adhere to their “6-20-100” rule: Remain at least six feet apart; wash hands for 20 seconds; and anyone entering a facility must have a temperature of no more than 100 degrees.

To make it easier to maintain appropriate distancing, throughout all facilities, in areas where people might congregate, like at entrances or by time clocks, the floors are marked with footprints or X’s spaced six feet apart. In break rooms, chairs have been removed so that only one person can sit at a table – which has meant creating additional break space in some facilities. Bimbo Bakeries USA followed the evolving CDC guidance on masks; at first, per the CDC, associates were not required to wear masks. But that changed when the CDC changed its recommendations. Today, all associates wear masks, whether they interact with the public in grocery stores or work in bakeries. In this situation, where the truth evolved with the science around the virus, Bimbo Bakeries USA was direct and transparent in its communication, explaining the rationale for the change in guidance and fully committing to implementing it.

Taking temperatures and identifying contact – a whole new skill set

According to the CDC, a temperature of 100.4 or higher is a potential symptom of COVID-19. Bimbo Bakeries USA implemented facility access rules, whereby all associates or anyone else wishing to enter a facility must have their temperature taken. The company began by shipping temperature strips to every location, but has since moved to infrared temperature guns. Because the people taking or reading temperatures need to be close to the person whose temperature they’re taking, they need personal protective equipment like face shields. In some facilities, Plexiglas barriers or stations are used. To manage this process across 1,000 locations and inconsistencies in personal protective equipment supply, COVID-19 Response Team did not provide specific implementation requirements in every location. Instead, the team issued mandatory rules about the outcomes that were required – all facilities had to ensure that temperature was safely monitored as part of the facility access requirements. The COVID-19 Response Team relied on local leaders to implement procedures that fulfilled the mandate. Then the team shared those best practices broadly so local teams could learn, improve and adapt their processes.

Another challenge is when someone is exposed to or might have the virus, there is an additional step to sending the individual to quarantine. It is critical to find out any individuals that person came into close contact with and then take proactive steps to quarantine other associates as appropriate. Bimbo Bakeries USA trained its HR team ask questions about who a potentially infected associate has come into contact with and follow up with others as appropriate. This was a new skill for Bimbo Bakeries HR, but necessary to ensure the facilities remain safe to operate. The COVID-19 response team created talking points, a toolkit and held a virtual training program to ensure that teams out in the field could execute these new responsibilities.

Communicate, communicate, and then communicate some more

Very early on in the crisis, Bimbo Bakeries USA’s President held a company-wide town hall call with associates to confirm the singular mission and sole purpose of the company as it started to navigate through the pandemic: feeding America while keeping their people safe. Because the company is highly decentralized, leaders throughout the organization must be able to communicate key messages to associates. The COVID-19 Response Team has worked hard to make sure that the messages are clear, translatable and transferable to the teams in the field. They communicate with leaders by email and Zoom and follow up with talking points that can be owned and delivered locally. The COVID-19 Response Team and business leaders have also started regularly recording short, informal, authentic video messages to associates and distributing them by email, yammer and communication boards.

Family members are an important constituent as well. The 20,000 people coming into work every day are leaving their homes when everyone around them is in lockdown. Bimbo Bakeries USA believes it is important to let family members know what the company is doing to protect their loved ones – and to acknowledge how valuable their contribution is. The team is engaging on social media more than ever to thank associates for delivering on the company’s mission every day. They also send letters home to communicate directly with families to describe the safety protocols that are in place and to thank families for supporting their loved ones as they continue to feed America.

The response to all this communication has been extremely positive. In particular, engagement on social media is helping to forge new connections between associates around the country – for example, a baker in Valdese, NC talking to a sales operator in Portland, OR on social media. These social media conversations began organically, with associates engaging with each other directly in comments on Facebook and Instagram. Each conversation reflects the pride associates are feeling as they work on their shared mission, even when they are halfway across the country!

Some takeaways for employers planning their return to work

Bimbo Bakeries USA is an execution business --baking fresh products and getting them to the marketplace every single day. Now, despite all that is happening daily to complicate that process, having a singular focus has brought out the best in the company’s leaders and associates. What lessons can we take from their experience? While the government is providing guidance for return to work, it is important for companies to own their own workplaces -- in the end, only they can decide when they are truly prepared to open up and under what circumstances.

When determining how many employees to return to the workplace initially, ask why anybody should be in the office. This will help you determine the critical essential level of staffing that needs to be in the office and then you can plan safety and health protocols for the occupancy you must have.

Creativity is one of the best pandemic practices we’ve seen from employers. As you get ready to return to work, be intentional in your planning. Walk through all of your workflows. The discovery process can be significant and impactful. Really understand where employees come together or congregate – entrances, elevators, break rooms, restrooms, around shared equipment, etc. Consider how your customers and employees will flow through your facilities to perform their work and then get creative to determine how you’ll need to make modifications. A team of leaders can set expectations, but the best way to develop an effective process is to engage the teams who have to execute the directives. That way, the processes that emerge will have buy-in and be more effective.

As employers are called upon to make unprecedented decisions in a dynamic environment, do not let perfect be the enemy of good. Workers, communities and even governments are looking to companies for guidance. The key is to be humble and transparent in communicating. It is okay to admit that you are operating with imperfect information and it is okay to shift course as new information comes to light. But, doing nothing is not an option. Just make it clear that concern for employee safety guides all decisions and actions and then act accordingly.

Beth Umland
by Beth Umland

Director of Research, Health, Mercer

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