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Coca-Cola’s foray into the new normal — benefits, the employee experience and more

A Q&A from Day 2 of Emerge 2021

November 10, 2021

In this Q&A we chat with Coca-Cola about what’s changing in the world of employee benefits and the actions ahead.
Health and Benefits|Benessere integrato|Global Benefits Management

Willis Towers Watson’s Health & Benefits Lead for International, Cedric Luah, recently sat down with Coca-Cola Bottling Investments Group’s Global Chief People Officer, Drew Fernandez, to talk about the new world of work and benefits — what’s changed, what it means to employers and how Coca-Cola is taking its first steps into the new normal.


Drew Fernandez, Global Chief People Officer, Bottling Investments Group, The Coca-Cola Company

Cedric Luah, Head of Health and Benefits, International, Willis Towers Watson

Cedric Luah (Cedric): Good morning, Drew. To start with, can you tell us how the pandemic has affected your work environment, your employees, and how Coca-Cola is approaching this change?

Drew Fernandez (Drew): Thanks for the invitation, and the question. Just like any other company in the world, we were all affected by the pandemic. It’s dramatically shifted our ways of working, and life in general.

At Coca-Cola BIG, there are three areas I’d like to highlight:

  1. 01

    Remote working

    Remote working is here to stay. Some common office or work etiquette has shifted as well as a result.

  2. 02

    Work/life burden or balance

    The work/life burden or balance is real. I think we’re seeing more and more people working beyond the eight- or nine-hour working day because of the remote working model. And I think the toll that takes may be underestimated.

  3. 03

    Diversity, equity and inclusion

    The third piece is diversity, equity and inclusion. As remote working takes centre stage, suddenly we can connect and engage with people from around the world. What is critical as organisations, we need to make sure we educate and open the eyes of our leaders and our people to be more inclusive as we become a much more networked community across the globe.

Cedric: That’s very interesting, Drew. And speaking of inclusion and diversity as well as the fact that employees are more mobile now, let’s pivot to today’s topic, which is about benefits. So how do you see the benefits landscape changing, and what do you do to adapt to the new environment?

Drew: The benefits landscape is changing because of the fundamental reason that people are changing, and their needs, wants and aspirations are changing. Some organisations — and some individuals — have embraced that quite fast, and some are still in the process of reflection. I think that leaders, organisations, teams, who have embraced this process quite immediately at the height of the pandemic, are the ones who are able to thrive.

Based on this shift, we’re seeing a dramatic impact on the changing requirement of our people, and as I mentioned on I&D earlier, there will be varying needs and wants that should be taken into consideration. Therefore a dramatic move towards flexibility and personalisation of benefits will be required.

We’ve been talking about benefits flexibility, agile benefits, personalisation for a long time — maybe for five or ten years! — and not a lot of companies are really taking significant steps on this. But I think the pandemic has accelerated the sense of urgency.

The second reason for the shift is technology. Although we talk about benefits flexibility, and how much we want to move in this direction, unfortunately we don’t have the platform, nor the technology to provide that array of benefits. So finding the right solution, or the right technology and offering that to associates with consumer-grade tools, and the right user experience, I think that’s very critical moving forward.

Cedric: Talking about technology and urgency — how do you feel we can move forward from what we’re discussing now to something we can execute, and given your global role, do you see different countries and regions having to adapt differently?

Drew: It’s easier said than done! We’re facing challenges just like any other company. I’ll share what I think they may resonate with others:

  • I think the first challenge is that as people evolve, it is so easy to identify new benefits, or new rewards elements, that people want. But it’s very difficult for individuals — and this is just the human in us — to let go of the old benefits that are no longer necessary.

    As a business, it’s difficult to rationalise the additional cost because of course a lot of companies today are trying to survive and thrive through a difficult situation. So how do you balance that?
  • The second challenge, especially in the employment landscape we operate in, in the varying countries we operate in at Coca-Cola BIG, is that we have different labour laws that we are governed by. So there’s a certain due process we need to take if we want to evolve our total rewards offerings. We also operate with a lot of union federations within our organisation — we have around 100 at Coca-Cola BIG that we partner with.

    And so fundamentally, it’s easy to say that this is where we want to go with our total rewards philosophy, but the actual process to transition that takes a bit of time. You need to ensure you’re bringing everyone along, and that’s not simple.
  • Thirdly, we talk about technology, there are a lot of technologies now and a lot of groups that we could partner with that could provide that expertise to Coca-Cola. But any investment in technology and the deployment of that tool takes a bit of time. Sometimes associates want companies to act fast, and move forward, but the reality is that it requires absolute rigour in planning and project management to be able to deploy this.

For me, that’s what keeps me awake at night — there’s a burning urgency, but then there’s many steps that we need to take. How do I accelerate this without tripping, and making sure that every decision we make along the way is the right decision? Because as you know, with total rewards and with benefits, and also managing employee relations, we need to make sure we do this carefully and we don’t make any mistakes along the way.

Cedric: We also talk about the need to be more focused on welfare, wellness, health care accessibility because of the pandemic. How are you seeing wellbeing programs start to surface in the new benefits landscape? Similar to what you mentioned about the pandemic accelerating the need for flexible benefits, I think we also see that the market is talking a lot about wellbeing programs. How do you see that evolving?

Drew: Very much so. At Coca-Cola, we’ve re-launched a total wellbeing framework, but unfortunately with us and a lot of companies, the approach to wellbeing has been very programmatic — just launching activities, forums, sessions, to make it feel like there is a wellbeing program in place.

But this pandemic has made a lot of people realise that the health and safety of every individual, and their families, is the most important thing.

Wellbeing is such a complex word; there are a lot of elements around it.”

Drew Fernandez | Global Chief People Officer, Bottling Investments Group, The Coca-Cola Company

So what we’re seeing, not only at Coca-Cola, but across the world, is that health, and safety, and wellbeing, take centre stage in our total rewards and our benefits offering. And it’s here to stay. It’s not a COVID-19 response strategy, to keep your people safe during this period.

And so it’s critical for organisations to understand what health, safety and wellbeing means. Wellbeing is such a complex word; there are a lot of elements around it — around mental health, physical health, spiritual health, or financial planning which is also becoming critical.

What I think is important is a three-step approach:

  • Define what wellbeing means to you and to your company, making sure it’s holistic and all-encompassing
  • Doing a good baselining exercise to understand where you are on each of those elements
  • Employee listening — really understanding what is important to your employees

Through that you can create a plan and stay focused on how you can create an impact on employees and their families.

Cedric: That’s interesting. Earlier, we talked about cost — with the need for wellbeing to take centre stage, and as we’re redesigning our benefits, how are we financing this? And if budget is always a constraint, how do you work through this?

Drew: I think first and foremost it requires any HR professional to become an entrepreneur — it requires the business focus in us to come out. It’s important that we clearly understand the full P&L of our business, the business case and the return of investment for what we’re trying to do. This helps us understand what’s critical, what’s not critical, what’s performing, what’s not performing, and so on.

Secondly, I think it’s important to understand where you are from a benefits perspective — doing some sort of X-ray to understand where you are from a competitiveness perspective, a compliance perspective, a cost containment perspective. I’m very happy that we’re doing that study across Coca-Cola BIG with Willis Towers Watson, because sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.

Sometimes you don’t realise that you’re spending on some elements that are not necessary, or not relevant, or maybe you’re underspending in an area that will cause further problems in the future. And sometimes there’s also a cost to the management of that benefit if it’s too complex. So it’s really about understanding where you are, and that baseline as I would call it, is very, very critical.

The third piece for me is driving utmost simplification across all of our people offerings. This has been a big theme for Coca-Cola BIG; we really want to make sure that we simplify our processes and approach, we simplify our philosophy. Because sometimes in the complexity, this is where you miss the mark — and sometimes also incur additional, unnecessary expenses. If you’re able to drive simplicity, you’re able to create cost efficiencies, but also elevate the employee experience.

Cedric: Very insightful! And now — last question from me. If the pandemic were to be declared over today, and tomorrow the first day of the post-pandemic world, what would the most important action for HR be?

Drew: It’s difficult to create that demarcation, but I think what has been so critical is for business leaders to accept that the world has changed. Just this morning, I did an online fitness class, just before this meeting, and I was thinking to myself that I will never go back to a physical gym, ever! So my expectations changed, and that will transform the fitness industry, gym memberships, and even for corporate physical wellbeing programs, it will change our offerings.

We should spend all our energy in building the new.”

Drew Fernandez | Global Chief People Officer, Bottling Investments Group, The Coca-Cola Company

There’s a saying that I really like and that I’ve been advocating to the entire organisation at Coca-Cola. It’s from Socrates and it says that we shouldn’t spend all of our energy protecting the old, or fighting for the old, but we should spend all our energy in building the new. I think with courage, and humility, and a leap of faith, we need to put all our energies into pushing forward and building the new.

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