Logistics Workforce of the Future
As the country moves toward a “new normal,” what will the workforce look like?
Less-than-truckload (LTL) data and solutions provider SMC3 designed its new headquarters in Peachtree City, Georgia, to accommodate the company’s growth for years to come. “In the near term, the new facility also allows for proper social distancing protocols,” says Ruth Reynolds, vice president of human resources with SMC3.
While noting the fluidity of the pandemic and the need to follow federal and state guidance, Reynolds says the company tentatively plans for some employees to start returning to the office in August 2020, when the building is slated for completion.
In the first phase, staff will have the option to return based on their unique situations—say, whether they’re at higher risk of complications from the virus, or must handle child care challenges. The company is also setting up an email system for employees to confidentially express COVID-19-related concerns.
“We will do our part to ensure that our employees have a safe environment once we return,” Reynolds says.
As the country moves toward some sort of new normal, workplaces at many organizations are changing. Although not as visible as healthcare and grocery store workers, the 9.2 million U.S. trade and logistics workers provide “a foundation to economic growth,” says Joseph Kane, senior research associate with The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.
The changing nature of both COVID-19 and the overall business world makes it difficult to make accurate predictions. However, several trends have become apparent: Many organizations are placing greater emphasis on employee health and safety, including reconfiguring workplaces to facilitate social distancing. At least some organizations are considering how they can help employees balance work and child care, given that many schools and child care programs have moved online. And remote work likely will remain in some form.
Safety remains one of the biggest concerns for logistics workers who have remained on the job during the pandemic, as well as those returning to workplaces. “Hazards can be high, and the pay and protections in place may not be sufficient to ultimately provide certainty to workers,” Kane says.
Tim Bray, formerly a vice president at Amazon, made news in May 2020 when he quit the company, and then posted his reasons for doing so. They included the firings of workers who were organizing to improve safety measures within the warehouses.
Many workers are not only worried about their own health, but also worry about exposing their loved ones to the virus, says Pamela Culpepper, a founding partner with Have Her Back, a culture consultancy. In some cases, essential workers live with other essential workers, increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Addressing these concerns will likely require a multipronged approach. Some organizations have relaxed or even suspended productivity standards, including absentee or tardiness policies, says Peter Schnorbach, senior director of product management with Manhattan Associates, a provider of supply chain technology solutions.
Allowing employees to slow the pace of work—say, taking extra steps to avoid interacting too closely with co-workers—can reduce congestion and lower the risk of spreading the virus throughout a facility.
Within some organizations, mandatory temperature-taking has become the norm, Schnorbach says. So far, many employees say they appreciate the efforts to keep them safe, and aren’t overly concerned about any encroachment on their privacy, he adds.
At Avnet, a global technology solutions provider, employees clean their workstations when they arrive and right before they leave, for a total of six cleanings per day, says Doug Adams, senior vice president of global logistics. The company has retrofitted its current facilities with plexiglass dividers anywhere it’s not possible to space employees at least 6 feet apart. “Future building designs will have this in mind,” he says.
A significant challenge for workers with children has been the sudden lack of child care options, says Erin Gallagher, also a founding partner with Have Her Back. More than three-quarters of the parents who responded to a Have Her Back survey say it is either somewhat, very, or extremely difficult to care for family members and children without these resources. The ways in which companies and workers navigate this “will be the story of the century,” she adds.
For some employees, the ability to work from home and/or to work flexible schedules helps ameliorate the lack of child care options. But they still need to complete their work responsibilities.
A May 2020 Boston Consulting Group (BCG) survey of parents in France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and the United States found they were spending an additional 27 hours each week on household chores, child care, and education. The situation shows no signs of letting up, given that it’s not clear whether or how schools will reopen.
Employers can help. One step is talking with employees about how their personal responsibilities may impact their work, BCG says, and then prioritizing mission-critical tasks. Where possible, employers can consider offering part-time work at a reduced salary, and/or some sort of leave.
Also critical is providing clear direction and information to all employees. A lack of communication leaves employees to fill in the blanks with their own narrative. “Silence is dangerous,” Gallagher says
At SMC3, management has used emails and video meetings to share updates regarding product development and marketing, as well as information on COVID-19. They also reassured employees that the company’s financial status remains solid.
Technology at Home and Work
Even as more employees return to their offices, some remote work will likely continue. “Going forward, there is no scenario where, to be competitive in this new normal, we wouldn’t have at least some number of employees working remotely,” says Lily Shen, chief executive officer and president of Transfix, a transportation solutions provider.
Key to an effective remote workforce is digitization. Shen notes that being digital-first allowed Transfix to seamlessly shift to remote work when the shutdown mandates were issued. Digital security, workflow, and other solutions remain key to navigating unpredictable scenarios and consistently driving company progress. They’re “a crucial business advantage,” she adds.
At the same time, physically bringing employees together also offers benefits. “Direct, in-person contact strengthens bonds that can be relied on when times get tough,” says Bernard Bobber, employment lawyer and shareholder with Ogletree Deakins.
“We are at our best in a work environment that incorporates togetherness as a team where we can promote collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork,” says Reynolds of SMC3. “Virtual meetings are great, but sometimes they aren’t conducive to meaningful conversations.”
The company is still determining what, if any, role remote work may play in a post-COVID-19 environment, she adds.
For employees working in distribution centers and warehouses, automation will take on added importance. Highly manual systems tend to be labor intensive, which hinders social distancing, says Ed Romaine, vice president of marketing and business development with Conveyco Technologies, a provider of material handling systems.
For instance, autonomous mobile robots allow workers to remain mostly within defined work areas, helping to maintain social distancing requirements.
Software can also help employees maintain social distances, says Lior Elazary, chief executive officer with inVia Robotics. inVia’s software can guide employees through their tasks so they remain at least 6 feet from co-workers. It can also alert both employees and their managers if they inadvertently breach this 6-foot barrier.
Along with technology, solid hygiene remains critical in enhancing worker safety. When SMC3 employees return to the office, the company will provide personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, Reynolds says. It’s also adding to its cleaning staff and installing removable glass barriers around employee workstations.
These efforts will likely pay off. Organizations that support their workers through the pandemic will become preferred employers, according to 88% of Have Her Back survey respondents. While this may seem like a frivolous pronouncement amidst a global health and financial crisis, it will eventually subside. When it does, 48% of respondents say they would consider switching jobs because of how their employer handles this situation.
Topping the lists of resources workers would like and that their employers haven’t provided is guaranteed income if they’re unable to work because of COVID-19, the survey finds. Paid sick leave and clear communication from senior management are also key.
Many organizations are still assessing exactly how they’ll navigate a post-COVID world. At this point, the only prediction that appears sure is continued change.
Returning to Sea
Like many land-based logistics operations, some changes that were underway within the international shipping industry will likely accelerate further because of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Stuart Neil, spokesperson with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), an international trade association for the shipping industry.
This includes digitization tools to shift manual paperwork to electronic processes at ports of entry. “COVID advances the justification for change,” he says.
More immediately, the ICS and other organizations are working with government agencies around the world to—finally—allow the crews on many ships to dock and leave their posts. Because of the pandemic, several hundred thousand seafarers have had to remain at their jobs indefinitely; in a few cases, they haven’t even been able to dock and seek medical treatment, ICS says.
Conversely, crew members who were at home when the pandemic took hold haven’t been able to work on ships.
To address health concerns, the ICS has developed protocols for crew changes, which it has passed to its government counterparts. Even so, while many countries were opening up in late June 2020, only about one-quarter of normal crew changes were occurring, Neil says.
Creating Real Change
On top of the pandemic, many parts of the country have recently experienced protests calling attention to systemic racism. Organizations “must respond well to the expectations of customers, employees, shareholders, and others in regards to diversity and inclusion in the workplace,” says Bernard Bobber, employment lawyer with Ogletree Deakins.
More than two-thirds of respondents to a study by culture consultancy Have Her Back say their employers’ success in providing equal opportunity and pay is important to them. “The unrest is telling us corporate America hasn’t done much to move the needle,” says Pamela Culpepper, founding partner of Have Her Back.
To create real change, organizations need to look at how racism may have seeped into their policies, traditions, and hiring processes, and remove the systems that would keep people of color or women from gaining employment. “Until you start to break down things, you don’t know where the entry points for discrimination are,” Culpepper says. For instance, a reliance on referral programs can lead to “just like me” candidate pools.
It’s a time of reckoning for corporate America, adds Caroline Dettman, also a founding partner with Have Her Back. “There’s more pressure on suppliers and companies to do better,” she says.
While expressions of solidarity and writing checks are better than silence, “it will take collective audacity to create real change,” Dettman adds.