Social distancing, swipe cards and shift patterns: the changing face of warehouses post-Coronavirus

By Craig Summers, UK Managing Director of Manhattan Associates.

We are currently witnessing a time of unparalleled polarisation within different sections of the global economy. The impact of COVID-19 on economies around the world has resulted in massive increases in redundancies, wiping out much of the positive growth since 2008.

However, there are green shoots of recovery emerging with some organisations and sectors experiencing record levels of consumer demand and warehouses are certainly one of these booming areas.

Only last year, the warehouse sector was experiencing a shortage in skilled warehouse workers, leading to fulfilment challenges around seasonal peaks such as Black Friday and Christmas. Fast forward six months and with so much labour now seemingly available you could be forgiven for thinking that the challenges of the last decade would now be a thing of the past – not so unfortunately. 

Instead, the challenges of 2019 have given way to a whole raft of new ones that COVID-19 has been a direct or indirect catalyst for: from flexible, agile solutions and inventory accuracy; to picking efficiency, social distancing and general warehouse floor hygiene, the requirements for the warehouse of tomorrow are very different to those of previous years. 

The restrictions and rigidity of certain systems and business models have been put under the microscope recently and a there is a growing recognition of the need for flexible and agile solutions across all sections of the supply chain. But more than that, in a post COVID-19 environment, warehouse operations will likely be measured by more than just productivity and efficiency levels (while these will always remain important), they will be measured by much ‘softer’ drivers too.

It’ll be about employee engagement and recognition; showing empathy and understanding of the unique challenges and worries each worker will have; it’ll be about recognition and showing appreciation of the daily risks warehouse workers are taking and making sure employees feel connected to employers and brands that mirror their own core values. 

Every organisation, big or small, will tell you that the health and well-being of its staff is paramount and having the right plans and measures in place can literally mean the difference between life and death. Further to that, it can also mean the difference between having happy, loyal, engaged staff and a conveyor belt of inefficient, disengaged, low-skilled workers.

There are a number of best practices warehouses can implement to manage the health challenges of COVID-19 such as, limiting numbers of worker in specific zones; adhering to strict social distancing measures while in the workplace; closing smoking points and limiting the numbers of seats per table in the canteens to avoid social interaction; using swipe keys rather than touch screen key pads and increasing shift rotations to maintain picking efficiency and productivity, while avoiding mental and physical health issues.

Some forward-looking organisations are even exploring the potential uses of biometric technology to monitor and manage the health of their employees and this is certainly a growth area of tech innovation that is likely to blossom far beyond the end of the current pandemic.

The impact of this virus will likely be felt on all sections of society and business long after a vaccine has been created and a new form of normal resumes. But here’s the thing, will we ever return to a state of ‘normality’ akin to 2019? Or did COVID-19 fundamentally change the way we look at employer-employee relationships in general, especially for key workers and core sectors like warehouses?

Whether you are an academic, warehouse manager, pharmaceutical manufacturer, head of supply chain or simply a consumer, the basic premise of supply and demand suggests that warehouses would be fully staffed (after all there are 30+ million people looking for jobs currently in the USA alone) and workers could expect flat wages with such large pools of potential employees currently available.

However, COVID-19 is changing accepted norms and employers are having to not only increase wages, but also to look into ‘softer’ forms of employee engagement and incentivisation too.

Much like opening Pandora’s box, I suspect it will be difficult to reverse these trends once the pandemic has passed, and ultimately it may prove no bad thing for employer-employee engagement and socio-economic balancing in the longer-term. 

As we look ahead expectantly to a future free from COVID-19, warehouses and their important functions will be one of the key sectors driving economic recovery in Australia. 

The past four months have certainly shone a spotlight on the vital importance of the warehouse space as the control room from which supply chains run and in turn, global commerce emanates. More importantly maybe, it has also highlighted the pivotal importance of the men, women and systems that make warehouses and supply chains function too. 

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