The workplace catering opportunities and challenges posed by the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused havoc for workplace catering, with many services suspended indefinitely and others forced to suddenly adapt their offering to keep key workers safe.

However, after a year of change and uncertainty, there is hope on the horizon for businesses able to reimagine their offering as restrictions begin to lift. Paul Hearne, Executive Director at Express Vending, discusses how businesses can adapt and overcome in the face of the challenges posed to workplace catering.

Facing up to the challenge

While some businesses have remained open throughout the pandemic, catering to key workers and those unable to work from home, others are now facing the challenge of making their facilities COVID-secure ahead of a full return to the workplace.

Social distancing measures are likely to remain in place even as regulations ease, helping returning employees adapt back to workplace life. And when it comes to catering, there are even greater health and safety guidelines to follow.

The nature of preparing and handling food and managing communal dining areas demands additional safety measures – keeping surfaces and utensils hygienic, minimising touchpoints and making sure social distancing signage and dining area layouts are clearly marked.

Plus, as businesses commit to greater flexible working and even staggered shift patterns going forward – to minimise social contact – it poses additional logistical challenges to catering managers.

However, for proactive businesses, it doesn’t simply mean adapting their existing environment. Some see this as an opportunity to revolutionise their facilities, providing a safe, secure, convenient and intuitive service both now and in the future.

For example, offering pre-ordering app functionality or even self-service micro-markets minimises interactions during busy lunch periods. Similarly, working with data-led catering providers means businesses can re-stock fresh items more regularly and manage stock based on real-time employee behaviour data.

This is not only a cost-effective solution in the flexible workplace, but it also minimises waste, which is an increasingly important target for modern businesses and their eco-conscious employees.

Driving future success

 The key to meeting workplace catering demands is to match them. If the workplace and employee expectations are becoming more flexible, so too must catering.

However, it’s a balancing act to make these convenient adaptions while delivering an effective, high-quality catering service. Any innovations should be subtle and must not take away from the employee experience.

This means identifying which elements must remain consistent and non-disruptive while innovating other areas to make them safer. For example, existing kitchen and dining areas can still be opened to employees but they may now require one-way signposting and antibacterial handwash stations.

One of the key challenges facing catering managers is the handling of food and refreshments and communal surfaces. However, they can minimise touchpoints by installing touch-free technology – for example, replacing communal kettles and coffee pots with a hands-free coffee machine.

Similarly, introducing app technology in combination with smart vending and micro-markets means users can explore their lunch options and place an order without gathering or handling multiple items. By ordering through the app, they can simply pick up their order from the counter when notified.

Other ways to minimise touchpoints include offering pre-packaged meal options – for example, through micro-markets or refrigerators – to help ease anxiety around food being handled and prepared in front of buyers. This can also help minimise the queues typical at fresh food preparation counters.

Similarly, providing detailed menu boards around the catering facility prevents unnecessary handling of food products – and simple switches, like replacing condiment bottles with sachets, also minimises touchpoints.