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Coronavirus diaries: The food business

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The food business shows how ordinary business metrics take on a distinctly different flavour during the coronavirus pandemic. With people panic-buying staples or seeking comfort and treats during lockdown, demand couldn’t be healthier. But with supply chains and distribution channels disrupted beyond recognition, and teams firefighting the problems from home, it can quickly become a project management headache.

All go in Ella's Kitchen

Ellen Jarrett works at Ella’s Kitchen, the baby food brand, heading up what others would call the PMO. At Ella’s they call it the ‘makes stuff run smoothly’ team. Jarrett laughs at the irony: she’s now making things run smoothly while trying to look after three children – aged one, five and eight. “I’ve had to project manage how to project manage,” she says. “Before all this I'd have said I was an exceptional multitasker, but if you throw enough unmentionable at someone they won’t be able to cope. This has pushed me to the absolute maximum.”

The nation’s panic buying ahead of the lockdown meant record sales for Ella’s Kitchen. It also meant a delay in new product development, Jarrett's regular domain. R&D was pushed back months as everyone involved in projects were suddenly hauled in to help the core business – what Jarrett describes as “having honest conversations with retailers to explain why we were having to regulate orders, and making sure our factories didn't fall over”.

At least the switch to remote working was relatively straightforward. The company’s project management systems were already run through Teamwork Projects, an online system available as an app, so the team could immediately access information and internal communications from home. “If we didn't have that, I'd have felt a lot more panicky,” says Jarrett. “That was huge.”

Hotel Chocolat surges ahead

Another food brand that experienced a surge in demand with the lockdown is Hotel Chocolat. People have been buying huge volumes of chocolate to bring much-needed comfort and joy to themselves and loved ones. Again, this demand brought challenges.

“The thing I’m struggling with is that, as a project manager, I inherently like to be able to control things,” says Hannah Gledhill, PMO at Hotel Chocolat. “But this situation is so fluid. We’re still the team that people look to to understand where a project is at any one time – we just have to recognise that it could all change at any minute. Before this, you just took it for granted that a supplier was open, or you could produce a product and your factory wouldn't shut down. Now keeping on top of all the changes, both external and internal, is a project management job in itself.”

One key challenge for Hotel Chocolat has been the lack of face-to-face contact. Chocolate is a tactile product, from the taste of the food to the feel of the box, so switching everything online, overnight, was hard. As gathering around the table together to sample products was always such a key part of the process, the project team wasn’t set up for remote collaboration.

Learning as you go

“We weren't particularly good at keeping documents in accessible places where people could share and comment on them,” says Gledhill. “So we've had to adapt very quickly to using Microsoft Teams and Trello. We're learning as we go. So we’re not too precious – if a tool isn’t working, any idea is welcome. But this experience is also proving that there are things we would have done face-to-face previously that we perhaps didn't need to.”

Both Gledhill and Jarrett subscribe to more frequent, shorter catch-ups on projects; ensuring live documents are standardised, accessible and accurate for the shifting picture; and assessing risk to keep an eye on upcoming launches to ensure they’re still following the most appropriate course.

But effective project management isn’t just about systems. These circumstances require empathy, whether that’s injecting a social element to Microsoft Teams sessions, or adapting meetings and deadlines to fit people’s workloads and stress levels.

“You have to be emotionally intelligent as to what your teams are going through, whatever their circumstances, whoever they are, and try to throw an extra dose of kindness and gratitude in,” says Jarrett.

And that doesn’t apply solely to other people. Jarrett says that a key challenge for her as project manager has been to learn to regulate the pressure she puts on herself – to entertain her toddler, home-school her kids and project-manage the job. “You just know from the second you wake up you can't fulfil those things,” she says. “I’ve learned over the past few weeks to know that good is good enough, and to lower my expectations: if the kids are happy, and we've done a bit of schoolwork, and I've focused on the important things at work, that's ok.”

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