When I initially started writing about the changing role of warehouse workers earlier this year, I never imagined what the next few months would hold. The future looks a lot different today than it did at the start of 2020. Considering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the new standards that came with it, I’ve spent the past few months exploring how warehouse roles have changed and how their nature of work is likely to be different.
In talking with dozens of customers in recent weeks, it’s clear that two stark realities exist as a result of the pandemic: those struggling to keep the lights on and those experiencing a boom in business like never before. Yet, both groups are grappling with the same challenges of trying to figure out how to adapt to our “new normal.” Like them, I’ve never seen anything like this in my many years in the business.
The Essential Warehouse Worker
For starters, one of the most unexpected changes to come in recent months is that, in many instances, the warehouse worker has been recognized as being “essential” right along with first responders, nurses, doctors and the like. These brave and dedicated women and men – along with other newly minted essential workers in grocery stores, food processing plants, and parcel delivery – have been instrumental in keeping our society functioning while so many cities, counties and states were in lockdown.
Of course, this is nothing new to any distributor who has long known that their warehouse employees are the most important asset to ensuring satisfied customers and ongoing business success. However, it has been fascinating to watch as millions of Americans finally come to see and appreciate the work that goes on behind the scenes so they can browse, click, purchase and hoard hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and toilet paper all from the comfort and safety of our homes.
While tens of millions of Americans faced furloughs and layoffs, critical warehouse roles have been among those surging in demand according to a recent study by Glassdoor. Several key distribution positions, including warehouse manager, forklift operator, warehouse worker and material handler, have ranked near the top of the most in demand jobs in recent weeks. And the data bears this out. While employment in the warehousing sector is still 22,000 below its most recent high in March, this sector saw 61,000 jobs added in June alone.
Now deemed essential, the expectations for this work has changed as well.
Another Amazon Effect
Always the disruptor, Amazon made headlines during the pandemic by hiring 175,000 new workers in fulfillment and delivery to cope with the surge in demand while millions stayed home. The company spent a staggering $800 million in increased pay and incentives to keep workers picking, packing and delivering. In late June, the company announced a one-time bonus of $500 million to front-line employees for their work in the month of June. Even if you’re not competing with Amazon on the business front, you probably are competing with them for labor.
And while Amazon may earn a bad rap (and legal complaints) for how the company is perceived to treat some warehouse workers, there’s no denying that it has the deep pockets, technology and tools at their disposal to protect and monitor the health and safety of employees. The company not only plans to routinely test fulfillment workers for COVID-19, but Amazon has also indicated that it is trying to build its own diagnostic labs to analyze these test results.
Clearly, these measures are unrealistic for just about any distributor not named Amazon.
Putting Employee Safety First
What can distributors do to protect their warehouse workers and demonstrate a commitment to keeping employees safe? To begin with, distributors should be training their employees on new cleaning or disinfecting measures, safety procedures, and applicable federal and state health guidelines. In addition to training, this likely involves updating the company’s employee handbook as well as ensuring their workforce has access to the necessary personal protective equipment to keep them safe on the job.
Most warehouse managers are already accustomed to tracking accidents and potential safety risks in their distribution centers. To monitor the health and wellness of workers, managers are now likely to expand upon this to also keep a watchful eye on sick leave and other exposure risks along with possibly also being responsible for contact tracing should signs point to a potential outbreak at work. While these may not have been included in their duties previously, this may be part of the new normal within warehouses.
While both costly and laborious, these actions by distributors are likely to foster trust and loyalty among their employees.
Technology Has a Role to Play
Based on our conversations with distributors, these new health and safety guidelines are creating headaches and confusion for warehouse managers. One thing they’re likely to find, however, is that some of the tried and true features of a warehouse management system (WMS) are extremely valuable in this new normal. This is a relief for many distributors that are re-evaluating their warehouse space to ensure proper social distancing and minimize employee contact.
Handheld RF scanners, for example, not only automate the warehouse picking process but they also eliminate the need for multiple workers to handle paper pick lists. Further, the use of zone picking functionality within a WMS can ensure that your workers remain in a specific zone throughout the day in order to minimize interactions during order fulfillment. While a WMS wasn’t created with social distancing in mind, we’re finding that many distributors are easily adapting their systems for this very purpose.
The new normal we’re experiencing right now is likely to remain the normal for quite some time. As the number of new cases of COVID-19 continue to rise while cities, counties and states try to reopen, people are more comfortable than ever before conducting business in a more minimalistic sense that decreases their risks. As a result, demand for eCommerce will remain strong, placing additional pressure on – and creating new opportunities for – distributors.
It will be incumbent upon these businesses to prepare themselves to respond to this demand while, at the same time, ensuring the health and safety of their essential warehouse workers.
Article authored by Eric Allais – President & CEO of PathGuide Technologies
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