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Over and above recruiting again, AB InBev plans to build a new brewery in Nigeria in addition to expansion in other countries. Picture: FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS
Over and above recruiting again, AB InBev plans to build a new brewery in Nigeria in addition to expansion in other countries. Picture: FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS

London — Just as British pubs reopen, the world’s biggest brewer is shutting the taps in the bar at its London offices.

That’s just one of the changes in store as AB InBev prepares to welcome employees back to its UK headquarters site. The move makes the brewer of Budweiser, Stella Artois and Corona one of the first major employers — aside from banks — to repopulate London’s financial district more than three months after coronavirus lockdowns began.

AB InBev will reopen its doors on Monday, two days after pubs do so. The beer giant worked with social norms professors to refurbish its offices, providing a window into what to expect from big companies elsewhere if and when their headquarters get back to business under the new normal.

About 100 workers in AB InBev’s advance guard — one third of the London site’s total staff — will be greeted by posters featuring cartoon characters thanking them for being “beer-making heroes” and encouraging them to keep 2m apart. Taps in the penthouse bar, which used to serve up Camden Town lager, Goose Island ales and other beers, have been closed. Employees will still be able to help themselves to bottled and canned beers from fridges and socialise at a distance.

Employees’ temperatures will be checked before they enter the building, near St Paul’s Cathedral. The brewer has stockpiled thousands of gallons of hand sanitiser at its breweries, and batches will be periodically shipped to the head office. Only every second desk will be available to use.

Frugal culture

Staying shut and broadly embracing remote working — as some tech companies have said they’ll do in the wake of Covid-19 — was never an option for AB InBev, which is known for a frugal, hard-working culture that’s made it the most profitable player in the industry. CEO Carlos Brito has lectured business students about how workplace pressure can yield outsized productivity and how he’d rather not hear about his employees having “fun,” something he’s said is more appropriate for the beach.

Nurturing that zeal has become especially important after beer sales plunging amid the closure of many of the world’s bars and nightclubs. It would be harder to do from home than within the confines of an office, the company says.

“It would be a real loss to us if we were to be a fully remote business,” Cara Sargeantson, who works in human resources and is one of 15 employees managing the return to the London office, said in an interview. “A massive part of it for us is our culture. If this went on for any degree of time, we would lose that.”

The company, which has a brewery in the former virus epicentre of Wuhan, China, was one of the first employers to reopen its Shanghai building. The windows are opened three times a day for ventilation, the canteen is disinfected twice a day, packages are sanitised with alcohol spray, and employees are asked to clean their cellphones and keys with disinfectant wipes once home.

Asian sites

Almost all of AB InBev’s offices in Asia have reopened in a limited capacity, as have sites in Mexico and Colombia. AB InBev has also been one of the driving forces funding the nightlife industry’s return to a sense of normalcy, providing thousands of bars with financial support and reopening kits packed with protective equipment and suggested layouts that comply with social-distancing guidelines.

“We really followed China and Korea closely,” Lindsay King, the vice-president for people continuity, said in a video interview from the company’s New York office as she took a break from laying arrows on the floor for a one-way system to prepare for reopening in July. “We’ve got stacks and stacks of masks and sanitisation products. We’re actually in our ripped jeans and running shoes right now, ready to do the dirty work and get everything up and going.”


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