As conferences, events and company travel are suspended throughout the baking industry due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, the American Society of Baking (ASB) launched ASB Coffee Break, a weekly virtual event to bring ASB members together for networking and discussion during the COVID-19 crisis.

The inaugural Coffee Break was hosted by Jorge Zarate, global operations senior vice president, Grupo Bimbo, Mexico City, and 2020-21 ASB chairman.

“We’re doing this because it’s hard to network right now,” said Kent Van Amburg, executive director, ASB. “Networking and being able to build and create business relationships is part of ASB’s value proposition, and the Coffee Breaks are an easy way to accomplish that.”

Coffee Breaks, which take place via GoTo Meeting on Thursdays from 9:30-10 a.m. CST, are limited to 10 participants. Afterward, the ASB encourages people to engage in follow-up conversations.

During the 30-minute session, the chat function is enabled for side conversations as well.

During his Coffee Break, Mr. Zarate covered discussion topics revolving around the pandemic and highlighted some benefits that have emerged from Grupo Bimbo’s updated practices such as remote work.

“The lifestyle has changed for the company and for us,” Mr. Zarate said. “More than half my time was spent traveling to our different business units in the 33 countries where we operate to review projects or just check in on how they’re doing or how I can help.”

Roughly three months ago, that practice as Mr. Zarate knew it stopped.

“You can imagine that it has dramatically changed,” Mr. Zarate said. “I’m not allowed to travel now. And, to be honest, I don’t want to.”

As the world’s largest commercial baking company, Grupo Bimbo was no stranger to technology for remote communication, but in light of the pandemic and travel concerns, it went a step further by developing practices to enhance productivity while working apart.

During the discussion, Mr. Zarate advised the group that the first step to productivity is having the right mindset and viewing a home office as a “sanctuary rather than a jail cell,” he said.

He also shared ways Grupo Bimbo avoids being “distant” from one another while practicing physical social distancing.

“This means sending videos to our people in bakeries and our sales centers,” he said. “They can see their leaders and their bosses frequently, and they know we are with them and that we appreciate their support.”

Mr. Zarate’s conversation hit “home” for many people who showed off their home offices in the background.

Jon Miller, business development manager, AM King, shared the challenges of balancing work at home with home-schooling, and he also shared with the group concerns he’s heard from his customers about what measures can be taken inside plants to ensure worker safety from potential COVID-19 spread.

Mr. Zarate shared that, while specific updates vary depending on the country of operation, Grupo Bimbo has provided gloves, masks and face shields to plant workers. In some facilities, lines that required heavy manual labor were at times shut down to shift production to more automated operations.

As shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders are gradually lifted across the country, many baking and snack businesses — on the supplier and food manufacturing sides — are challenged with creating a new normal at home, in the office and on the plant floor.

ASB Coffee Breaks are designed to become part of that new normal.

Mr. Zarate and other participants shared ideas for how their companies are adapting with strategies such as reconfiguring office and shared spaces and relying on technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, even for meetings onsite, as opposed the tight quarters of a conference room.

Many suppliers in the room were curious as to when bakeries like Grupo Bimbo would be allowing suppliers back into facilities. The theme for Mr. Zarate was “it depends.”

For projects that stalled out when the pandemic hit, he said the company is looking into methods for commissioning equipment remotely. However, he added that Grupo Bimbo is not yet open for sales meetings.

“The reason is because we are trying to protect the health of our people,” he said. “Therefore, entrance into our bakeries is still very limited for vendors.”

For global companies, the decision to reopen — or in some cases remain open — largely depends on the countries or specific regions where they operate.

The group also discussed consumer packaging preferences, technology updates for temperature checks, new communication strategies, how to manage installations remotely, and new visions for work-life balance.

Registration for ASB Coffee Breaks opens every Monday. This week, June 11, John Mulloy Jr., director of operations support systems, 151 Foods, Bellmawr, NJ, and ASB past chairman, will host.

The June 18 Coffee Break will feature Sarah Moore, senior research scientist for Campbell Soup Co., Camden, NJ. On June 25, Brittny Stephenson Ohr, manager of consumer products innovation, Sugar Foods Corp., will host.

To sign up, active membership is required, and the ASB asks that members do not register for consecutive weeks.

Coffee Breaks will continue until the BakingTech 2021 conference scheduled for Feb. 14-16 at the Hilton Chicago.

Additionally, the ASB will host a cocktail and trivia hour, led by Rod Harris, executive account manager, Shick Esteve, and BakingTech program chair, at 5:30 p.m. CST June 23.