Interview and written by: Allanah Paragas

COVID-19 posed a major disruption in all businesses. From affecting operations to changing each the everyday routines of professionals, leaders are challenged to effectively lead the organization and their teams in the new normal.

As organizations transition to the second half of the year with the pandemic still at play, business leaders are expected to find a balance between what worked well before versus finding ways to recover and sustain growth.

Amidst the disruption, there are leaders who have effectively driven organizations by being inspiring visionaries and catalysts of transformation. These are people-centric leaders, who empower and create a nurturing environment that brings out the best in people.

One of the notable leaders driving organizational transformation is Froneri Philippines’s Country HR Head, Sam Santos. Throughout his years in building his expertise in the field of human resources, he has lead with ingrained values and business acumen, while caring for people’s well-being.

According to Sam, in order to be an effective leader in the new normal, one should be bold and courageous to enable organizations to adapt to market changes, while carefully balancing people and stakeholder interest. Together with his co-leaders, Froneri has effectively adopted and implemented practices that helped the company and its people conquer the new business environment.

Interview Transcript

What were the HR challenges Froneri encountered during the onset of the pandemic? What were the steps taken to create and implement programs in solving these challenges?

The pandemic presented unique challenges to the business from a safety and operations standpoint. Guided by the company’s Business Contingency Plan, key decisions were implemented in alignment with the regulations set by the government (IATF).

The early ECQ was very critical. We identified the risks that the factory will be experiencing and the solutions that would prevent those risks to happen. Thus, we came up and focused on 3S’s: Safety & Wellbeing, Sustainability, and Servicing. Given that it was full of uncertainties, we prioritized the safety and wellbeing of our employees and their families. We ensured that we distributed PPEs, alcohol, and other essential items to our employees for their personal safety. After which, we concentrated on shifting to sustaining operations in the factory, distribution center, and also on giving importance to field sales by focusing on our customers and partners.

The crisis has redefined the role of HR with the turn of current events. What are the new key priorities for HR now?

Prioritize a Safer Workplace. Further enhance the Health & Safety standards of the office to ensure robust safety measures (i.e. PPEs, physical distancing) are in place for employees onsite and in the field (i.e., Field Sales).

Invest in Our People. Develop a future-ready workforce by focusing on competency-building such as but not limited to resilience, agility, and leading teams in a new normal virtual environment.

Embrace HR Digital Transformation. Leverage on technology to automate various HR processes and maximize the employee experience—which includes learning and development, performance management, and hiring to name a few.

How do you make a perfect balance of achieving the triple bottom line: people, profit and planet?

Our company’s model of operational excellence is anchored on the company’s vision, core values, and ESG & Sustainability Strategy.

Being a manufacturing company, there is a lot of environmental impact. As a team and as a company, we are responsible and accountable for the environment especially at our site in Pulilan where we operate. We make sure we minimize and mitigate the risks in terms of our impact on our environment and the communities surrounding the factory.

Prior to the pandemic, we have quarterly CSR activities [for the communities]. Despite the limitations in the middle of the pandemic, we made sure we reached out to the communities and donated disinfection materials, thermometers, ice creams, and yogurts, and likewise contributed to the development of the eLearning hub for the barangay.

At Froneri, we relentlessly pursue improvement in all areas by making sure we deliver benefits for the environment, consumers, customers, suppliers, our employees, the community, investors, and all other stakeholders.

How does Froneri support its employees, from the skeletal workforce at the manufacturing plant, to the corporate roles with a work-from-home setup?

We adapted a blended working model where essential production employees reported in the factory, while our office staff is connected from home. Even prior to the pandemic, the company had an existing Flexible Work arrangement policy, hence already giving the team a head start when the government declared the ECQ last March.

At the onset of the pandemic, our people-first policy was first put into motion by ensuring the safety of our people. During ECQ, we had logistical challenges with distributing PPEs because the demand was high. The supply was also limited thus the price for each PPE set was above the market price. Despite the cost, we continued to support our people’s safety by purchasing and providing PPEs and alcohol disinfectants for their personal use. We also gave free meals and provided shuttle services to our people who are working at the factory to ensure their health and safety throughout the quarantine. Our factory served as temporary lodging for employees who chose to stay inside the premises with respect to their personal safety.

In terms of adhering to our health and safety measures, we have implemented what we call the 12 Life Saving Rules, which included the 2-meter distancing, regular disinfection, and frequent hand washing to name a few. We continued to support our people by encouraging each of them—especially those who are working at the factory—to incorporate the safety protocols within and beyond the workplace. We also built and established trust within our people by committing to them that they have our support so as to eliminate the fear of disclosing any health information.

Employee productivity and employee engagement have been common challenges in the past, and has even been more difficult with the current scenario. How were you able to adapt and recreate employee programs?

Given the extraordinary situation, the company leveraged on online platforms to maintain a productive engagement—including training and development programs. By doing such, we all maintained connection through MS Teams and Viber for meetings, town halls, and engagement programs.

As for my team, I make it a point to have one-on-one sessions with each one of them on a regular basis. We start our catch up call with a prayer, a practice that unifies our common faith. After which, I encourage them to share challenges and frustrations they are experiencing, which aren’t usually opened up during normal group meetings. This makes everyone feel heard, and understand each other in a deeper level. We then also exchange feedback on how we can do better and improve our processes.

What can employees and customers expect and look forward to from Froneri in the incoming months?

Our people can expect a sustainable workplace and a safer working environment. Together with co-leaders, we remain committed to support our employees and their family’s safety during these challenging times. Everyone is also working hard to ensure the company remains sustainable even beyond the pandemic.

Our customers can expect that we adhere to the highest standards with respect to our employees’ well-being & food safety as we continue to serve your favorite Froneri Ice Cream and Yogurt selections.

Your career journey has an impressive track record and counting. What are the principles and/or learnings you have embodied to become successful at what you do?

I have been blessed with great mentors who had significant impact in my HR journey. Amongst the lessons learned, integrity, accountability, and agility stand out as the principles that shaped my development. As leaders, it is important that we remain connected to our values and lead others with integrity and character. Further, we should remain bold and courageous to enable our organizations to adapt to market changes while carefully balancing between people and stakeholder interest as we venture into the new normal.

To fellow HR leaders and professionals, what are the things they can learn from the turn of events this 2020?

It has been an extraordinary year for everyone and there are still a lot of unknown in the coming months as the global pandemic continues. As HR practitioners, it is essential that we continue to lead with empathy, guided by our values, and understand the unique situation that is upon us. Trust and accountability are critical in the new work-life balance setup to deliver our objectives at the same time attend to our personal commitments at home. We must remain agile as we lead and navigate our organization in the new normal during this unprecedented time.

What advice can you give to jobseekers who are having a difficult time at the moment?

You must stay optimistic and resilient amidst these challenging times. Even with the pandemic, some companies continue to hire so it is a positive sign that opportunities are available for jobseekers. Also, the lockdown provides pause to reflect on where or how you want to shape your career. It is also an ideal time to upskill yourself given the resource of available trainings through online platforms. Lastly, continue to expand your network (e.g. through LinkedIn). By doing so, you can learn more about other professionals in your industry or field and how they became successful in their respective career. Who knows, your next connection might just lead you to your dream job!

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