Vaughan Rising Blog: How Strong Company Culture Leads Successful Pandemic Response

Pizza Hut Canada doesn’t need much introduction, but here are some numbers to put it in perspective. This franchise has just under 500 restaurants across Canada operated by more than 100 franchisee partners. The nerve centre of this network—providing operational, developmental, financial, marketing and HR support—is located in Vaughan.

The team of 30 is co-located with fellow Yum! Brands subsidiaries KFC and Taco Bell in an office building overlooking Highway 400. From the outside, it looks like a typical low-rise office building; but inside, it’s a funky open-concept space with bright colours and at least one giant taco.

Office design is just one slice of the Yum! Brands effort to create a strong work culture. In fact, culture is such an ingrained part of the company that they have a capital-C-Culture department (that other companies would call Human Resources).

Across the entire Yum! corporation, leadership has been working to create a people-first organization with values like staff empowerment, transparency, trust, communication and inclusivity. At the ground level, they have programs that shape the company culture and build leadership skills. Pre-COVID, they even had a busy Culture Calendar that encouraged team bonding through social events, staff recognition, store visits, and get-togethers with the leadership team.

When COVID-19 lockdown orders came in March 2020, Pizza Hut Canada was deeply motivated to maintain their values and team spirit in an era of physical distancing. They took on this challenge from two angles: 1) bring the team together remotely and 2) adapt the office to support team members ready to come back.

Both were approached with care and intention. To learn more about their journey, we spoke with Pizza Hut Canada’s General Manager Tatiana Carrascal and Human Resources Director Chelsea Hamlyn.

Four simple ways to continue company culture while working remotely

1. Be proactive to put infrastructure in place

Chelsea describes their first, sometimes uncertain, steps in March: “We’ve had people work from home in the past and we’ve been quite flexible with that, but we’ve never actually had everyone working from home. So when we started seeing the news and hearing that something was happening in terms of a lockdown, we actually internally started to test our network just to make sure we could support everyone working from home. That was at least the week prior, maybe a couple weeks prior.”

While head office was finding a new groove, Tatiana says the franchise network was able to lean on well-timed investments in digital technology.

“We were able to really continue to operate at a fairly normal level I would say,” notes Tatiana. “We had been investing in developing and improving our e-commerce platform for years before the pandemic and that certainly enabled us to continue serving our customers.”

2. Initiate open communication

“On March 16, when the lockdown started, we held an all-team meeting across all three brands,” Chelsea shares. “We communicated to everyone that the office was going to be shutting so we recommended everyone grabbing everything they needed in order to work from home for the next few weeks. I shouldn’t laugh, but when I look back at how we said the next few weeks, it was the best information that we had at the time.”

As time went on, Pizza Hut continued to provide their team with the most accurate information they had during regular meetings.

“We started to implement what we called Hut Huddles each week, which was an area and a time on the calendar for us to connect with our Pizza Hut team. We would give them insight into what was happening and what was coming. It also gave them a platform to ask questions with the full leadership team and an opportunity for them to connect with their peers.”

“We did our best to try to keep the team up to date with the information we had,” notes Chelsea. She continues, “We always say our bread and butter is the culture and it’s something that we’re incredibly proud of. But it doesn’t come without some work and some focus on it.”

3. Be honest and human

Chelsea admits that during these meetings Pizza Hut acknowledged, “Sometimes the answer is we don’t have all the information; we’re learning at the same time you guys are.” Building on the strongly established team culture, they continued to be honest and up front with the team, even when it meant being a bit vulnerable and human.

4. Check in frequently with team members

Chelsea shares, “We did our best to check in as often as possible with the team just to make sure they had what they needed, because some people deal with change quite well and some people struggle with it. So we just wanted to make sure they felt supported.” Through these check-ins, Pizza Hut extended the care and concern of their regular company culture into the at-home workplaces.

“Tatiana and I were laughing a few weeks ago,” Chelsea continues, “because someone actually mentioned to us that they thought being remote made us closer, which is quite interesting that someone would say that. As we started to reflect, we were like yeah, maybe it has. Because it’s making people be a lot more intentional about their connections. So instead of walking by someone’s office and saying hi, they’re having to intentionally set up a meeting or intentionally dial in or check in on that person.”

She adds, “Even from our franchise perspective, it’s been quite similar in terms of that improvement in communications. We have bi-weekly calls with all of our 100 franchisees, and those calls have been able to give us an opportunity to provide them insight into what’s happening, insight into what is coming, and the reason behind why those changes are coming. So it’s definitely increased our communication and the understanding of those changes across the entire system.”

Five ways Pizza Hut Canada enabled a return to the office

The next item on the agenda was adapting the office to allow the team to come back. It was a natural progression to just keep nurturing that ingrained company culture that had seen the team through the pandemic thus far.

1. Think about the key functions of the space before adapting it

When considering how to reopen the office, Pizza Hut wanted to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission as much as possible while maintaining the function and vibe of the space.

Chelsea describes the office space in its original state, and how it was designed to support their company values. “The space represents being inviting with that open space concept. We’re quite collaborative so we obviously have open desk concepts but also a lot of lounge spaces for people to work, for franchisees to come in, and for us to work as a team.

“And then the other piece of it is that we’re quite food obsessed. Clearly, we’re a food company and that shows through in everything we do. So we have a test kitchen where innovation is happening across the brands or new products are being tested.

“And then lastly is the culture. For us, the biggest piece of culture is the recognition awards; so you’ll see a lot of fun coming through with those recognition awards, a lot of bright colours that are quite bold but definitely represent who we are as the brand. And all of those are throughout our office in Vaughan.”

2. Listen to team feedback

With that foundation in mind, Pizza Hut Canada started the adaptation process early and listened to the team.

“The process of adapting the space for us probably started in late March, early April—or at least the conversations of it—because we wanted to be proactive and ensure we were ready for whenever that time came,” says Chelsea.

“So, we had an office reopening squad that we created, and the squad really made decisions based on feedback from our internal survey and what our employees were telling us.”

3. Research industry trends

Chelsea shares, “At the same time, we had to make educated guesses in terms of what we were seeing happening externally.” They did some research to find out “what was happening both within our restaurants within Canada, other restaurants within Canada, but then also globally what were we seeing happening.”

This research revealed that plexiglass dividers can reduce the spread of the virus. “Our floor plan is cubes and we wanted it to be open office spaces so it’s inviting and collaborative,” explains Chelsea. She notes, “We made the decision to buy plexiglass dividers because that’s one thing that our employees were saying they would appreciate. And at the same time, we knew that it added another layer of safety.”

The office reopening squad implemented many changes and policies that are found in other offices that have reopened: directional stickers on the floor, removing chairs in boardrooms to reduce capacity, sanitation stations, limiting entrances and exits, and even installing a camera that measures temperature remotely.

4. Provide staff with maximum flexibility

While the office was adapted to be as safe as possible, staff do have the choice to come in or not, with maximum flexibility.

Tatiana shares, “We do know, because we’ve done a few surveys, that there’s a few of them that could really use a quiet space once a week just to really concentrate and get some work done. So, as they told us that, we realized that it would be great if we could provide that space. But then there’s also other realities. We have employees that have families, and their kids are still at home. Even if they wanted to, they have to be at home to look after their kids. So, they’re likely not going to go back to the office for the foreseeable future. But we’ve created a space that could accommodate both.”

Chelsea adds, “We have people on the team that have been quite vocal with craving quiet time away from potentially their family or their kids, or whatever their situation is. And we also know that we have a handful of folks that live downtown in a very small condo and just need that space to be able to do something different. But we will be quite flexible. We have people that take public transportation as well, so we know they’ve been pretty vocal that they don’t want to come back until things are a little bit more stable. So we were giving people the flexibility until the end of the year for sure, by saying do what’s right for you but at least you have a space that’s safe—that’s available to you—if you do want to go back into the office.”

5. Continue to move forward

After many months of preparation and waiting for the right time, Pizza Hut Canada finally reopened their office on August 17.  Tatiana reports that, so far, it’s going well. A small—but growing—portion of the team is coming in, happy to have a quiet space and access to specialized tools like the test kitchen.

Pizza Hut Canada’s advice for the second wave

With a second wave upon us, employers have tough decisions to make about whether to reopen the office, keep working remotely, or a mix of both.

Chelsea offers this, “The advice I would give is understand that going through a pandemic hits everyone differently. I know that’s easily said, and should go without saying, but the reality is sometimes we forget that. Transparency and compassion really goes a long way and that’s what we continue to hear from our employees is they’ve appreciated that we might not have all the answers. We might not have all the details but the transparency and the compassion that we’ve been able to show is something that does go a long way.”

Transparency, compassion and culture have kept Pizza Hut Canada rising during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to serve them well as they pivot, innovate, and do what it takes to get through to the other side.



The information presented in this article is provided solely for the purpose of bringing ideas to the attention of the business community, as a service to the businesses of the City of Vaughan.

The City of Vaughan does not, whether directly or indirectly, endorse, sponsor or sanction the opinions expressed in this article, nor any services or products that may be offered by the contributor/s in their normal course of business.  The City of Vaughan does not intend by this article to recommend the contributor/s nor to promote them as subject matter experts over any other business persons employed or engaged in similar lines of business.