Reopening Fulfillment and Distribution Centers in the Wake of COVID-19
The chaos and disruption from the COVID-19 outbreak is slowly moving toward recovery for businesses. Like most enterprises, fulfillment and distribution centers will not be able to simply “flip a switch” and return to normal operations. The complexity is even greater for networks that span multiple states or countries. Reopening will require a rigorous methodology backed by the smart use of data and analytics—and creative thinking about how to leverage existing technology in the workplace.
Reopen Facilities with Employee Safety as a Top Priority
For facilities, the first step will likely involve sanitizing and otherwise prepping the workspace. Securing sanitation, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other gear to enable reopening might be a new operational category for many companies. In addition to material lead time, be sure to build in time for process development and learnings as well.
Every associate needs to feel safe, secure, and appreciated as operations ramp up. Human resources procedures should be reviewed and updated to adapt to these unprecedented times. For example, a more flexible approach around absenteeism might be warranted—and will be appreciated by team members juggling childcare, home schooling, and other unforeseen responsibilities.
Also, enhanced compensation might be a consideration for employees returning to work—be it spot bonuses, increased hourly rates, or other rewards. Above all else, compassion, communication, and understanding will be the keys to success. Frequent communication from leadership recognizing these are stressful times, along with a people-first focus, will influence the right behaviors and pay long-term dividends in morale and retention.
Restructure the Business to Address New Needs
Reopening should involve closely examining the skills matrix of your staff against new protocol and operational needs. This may lead to reassigning roles and responsibilities. For example, with distancing protocols now essential, who will define, adjust, and monitor compliance in your operations? Staff scheduling changes may need to occur as well. For instance, consider if there are non-core activities that can be moved to night or weekend shifts to limit the total number of people in the facility at one time.
Alongside that work, there are other key areas to review when preparing to reopen. Check the details of your contracts with key third-party service providers. Best practices are still evolving at this stage, but it could be wise to formalize an arrangement in which, for instance, janitorial or temporary staffing agencies send the same staff every day, as opposed to a rotating schedule. This may help limit ancillary exposure risks.
A New Operational Paradigm
Even after facilities reopen, they won’t likely return to “normal” operations for quite a while. Organizations will likely have to manage scores of new procedures around workforce behavior, floor operations, and supplier/customer interactions. Many of these new ways of working will be site- or company-specific, and may vary by state initially, but the following three points are helpful to keep in mind:
- Socially distance and protect workers in a factory or on a warehouse floor and in nonwork areas such as break rooms. Technology and creative thinking can play key roles here. Consider staggering the elements of a workday (start time, lunch, breaks, etc.) to minimize the congregation of associates. Designate which doorways are for entry and which are exits to minimize crowding. Contactless temperature-monitoring stations are another way to help protect your workforce. Technology can be utilized to enhance safety in many ways. Instead of having workers clock in and out, for instance, use remote/mobile check-in applications. If your company has already invested in a labor management system, make sure it’s being leveraged to the fullest extent to manage associate scheduling and to determine workforce capacity within the facility. Conversely, even though wearables offer some promise for maintaining the six-foot social-distancing protocol, the technology is still developing. The best bet is to look for technology that is mature and quick to deploy; the easier it is to use, the more likely employees will quickly adopt it.
- Deliveries and other interactions with outside personnel are other key areas for consideration. Look for ways to minimize human interaction and avoid bottlenecks at the gate and reception areas. Consider driver self-check-in, license plate scanning and other yard management technology. Plan for longer loading and unloading times as staffing may be reduced to ensure social distancing. For example, guidelines may require trailers to be unloaded by a single person where previously there may have been a whole team. There may be a slower overall cadence to the operation as work may be released to the warehouse floor differently to manage staffing in a zone or area to maintain social distancing.
- If you use a large transportation fleet, you’ll need to secure capacity and reliability. This might include establishing or reviewing contracts with a common set of carriers. Likewise, you may need to re-examine capacity plans and routes due to new driver protocols that could impact teaming, relays, and cross-dock activities, among others. The new era will be one in which contingencies and flexibility will be vital.
Recovery Will Take Time, But There are Steps to Get There
Data and analytics may be the single most important tool to bring facilities and people back “online.” Tracking employee cases (if any) and regional trends—and reconciling data across multiple sources—will help companies anticipate hotspots and decide which facilities will be the most cost-effective to restart and how to restart them, while balancing associate well-being with performance in the eyes of the customer.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.