Q&A: Sodexo Healthcare's COVID-19 Response Leader Makes Sense of the Unknown


A personal account about leading an emergency response with no written playbook.

Matthew Walley

6 min read

Editor’s Note: The following article is part of an ongoing series offering our strategic advice and expertise on what healthcare industry stakeholders should do immediately in response to the rapidly evolving novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Sodexo is a global food services and facilities management company. As a multinational organization and one of the world's largest employers, Sodexo developed some creative and innovative responses to the pandemic and quickly updated its day-to-day operating model, especially in their healthcare sector where Sodexo supports hospital and health systems. To inspire other executives to embrace similar risk and change head-on, here’s more from Sodexo Healthcare’s Director regarding their approach to an unprecedented global emergency.

Oliver Wyman Health: What was it like moving into the COVID-19 response team lead position knowing there was no pre-written playbook? What was the first thing you did?

Matthew: When I first took on the role, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I took it to be another crisis management scenario, similar to hurricanes, which I’d previously managed and navigated through in the grocery industry. I responded similarly to what most business continuity plans outline in those scenarios: Create a team of experts, outline affected areas, establish communication cadence, and most importantly find a communication vehicle to get the voice of the field and customer heard in emergency response team meetings.

Oliver Wyman Health: What kind of role did it evolve into?

Matthew: To support hospitals preparing for a COVID-19 surge, there were several operational roles. The first is communication. It’s remarkable how fast information changes from day to day and week to week. For example, when we started opening surge locations at the onset of the event, it was just that – “a surge location.” It became apparent that to respond appropriately to varying client needs, we had to get into the smallest details – which takes adaptation of communication vehicles.

By mid-March, we’d gotten extremely granular in specifying questions like: Is it just food? Is the request to support hospital patients or a displaced front line? Do they need clinical nutrition? How do incremental volumes impact the supply chain? Are we involved with disinfection? If so, how does that disinfection interact with our food service chemicals? What touchless point of sale are we using?

Our ability as an emergency response team to get into the tactical details our units were facing nationwide, with only onsite users being allowed physical access, was critical to delivering on client commitments.

The second topic, felt across the nation, is the supply chain. With most disasters, like a hurricane, for a cost, you can source products from another part of the country. This experience was unique in that everyone needed the same supplies everywhere! Our supply chain worked relentlessly with our suppliers. Where we struggled, they stood up a warehouse to bring products in from outside of the country within a few weeks. The best policy/plan is useless without tools to execute it.

Oliver Wyman Health: While executing a nationwide COVID-19 response, where have you implemented innovations?

Matthew: The northeast was heavily embattled with labor challenges. We developed innovative ways to utilize resources from outside of healthcare to assist. For other areas, like the heavily populated Los Angeles, we opened a formerly closed hospital in two weeks to support the area. In other areas, we developed a mini grocery store model within several hospitals to support front-line workers and their families.

Expand this image

At Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, Sodexo launched a pre-order micro-market exclusively for hospital employees that provides household essentials, basic toiletries, and fruit and vegetables (including produce boxes from local farms), to alleviate the stress and risk of grocery shopping. Note the original photo was attributed in error to Huntington Hospital. The photo was actually the micro market at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach.

Oliver Wyman Health: What are you doing to help support and protect your workers?

Matthew: There were two major impacts. First were those primarily outside of healthcare who fell ill or were displaced by the virus. Second, were those in healthcare on the front lines, facing extreme volumes.  

As a total organization, our supply chain partners stood up a warehouse and created an internal supply chain, sourcing personal protective equipment from outside the United States as soon as supplies like masks and gowns became a challenge to obtain. We continue to use this source to make sure our teams have the right equipment, including work with subject matter experts in environmental services, infection prevention, and environmental health and safety.

Oliver Wyman Health: As health systems re-open for non-COVID-19 care, what challenges does that present for Sodexo?

Matthew: There are three. The first and most obvious is how businesses establish social distancing as the new normal. Everything from touchless pay options, cafeteria lines, seating arrangements, sinks, bathrooms, elevators, and packaging is being re-evaluated to ensure a safer tomorrow.

The second component is consumer confidence. No matter how many times you clean a dining area, many will responsibly elect not to dine in a social setting. It will take time and effort to not only state but show the general public that the workspaces and places of rest are somewhere you can be comfortable in. For environmental services, a heightened awareness around disinfection will remain. Areas that may have been sanitized as an industry-standard previously will now move to the next level of cleanliness.

The third component is innovation. This event fundamentally changes how tasks are completed from outside the hospital. Remaining an agile organization that can respond to and is prepared to change again with fears of a second wave looming will be critical for an organization to be successful.

Oliver Wyman Health: What do you anticipate will look different permanently compared to pre-COVID? What new opportunities do you envision?

Matthew: Touchless points of sale and how people move around one another as a result of social distancing will remain the standard. There was a lot of interest around Ultraviolet disinfection, but it’s probably still early to state it will become the new norm. 

I see entry into hospitals being re-evaluated but am uncertain on what form this will take. I’ve seen technologies on thermal imaging to take temperatures and mapped outflows. How many of those become permanent remains to be seen.

Concerning new services, with the crisis, there is always an opportunity. I suspect a service that outlines how to maintain social distancing while remaining cost-effective for food will be in high demand. It’s also worth considering how many positions were modified to work from home, so there may be more demand for remote treatment, as well.

Oliver Wyman Health: What is the most important thing you’ve learned since this pandemic began?

Matthew: Your emergency response plan and team should not be based purely on ability, but agility. Expertise and knowledge are critical to navigating the crisis but don’t just script for the unknown. Have a plan that assembles the right team, the right communication vehicles, best practices, but make sure adapting to real-time feedback is a core competency of that team and your plan.

On a personal development level, this event has taught me to self-reflect frequently. We must look back at how we executed to improve for the future. 

  • Matthew Walley