The number of cases of Corona Virus has continued to escalate, and it is now affecting almost every country in the world. (The majority of those not affected are isolated islands in the South Pacific.) Currently, the U.S. seems to be the epicenter. The number of cases and deaths is widely reported daily and suffice it to say, the bad news continues, and is accelerating. State and municipality lockdowns have been lifted slowly, and businesses have slowly tried to regain some semblance of normal. Unfortunately, however, we may have tried to reopen too soon. With the ever-increasing number of positive Covid-19 tests, some cities and states such as California, are pulling back. If businesses have to close again, many of them might just not come back. Through it all, distribution centers have continued to function under extremely difficult circumstances. Most firms have established some protocols for dealing with the virus, but the majority of these are temporary fixes for what I believe is a permanent problem.
Certainly, there is hope that an as yet undeveloped vaccine will help alleviate the problem, but at best, this solution may be several years away. Even then, in the opinion of a number of scientists, the viral enemy still will be lurking in the background. According to the World Health Organization, while we may eventually find therapies and preventive measures, the virus still will be endemic in our communities. The “normal” as we have known it, is a thing of the past. The “new normal” then, is being thrust upon us, and we must learn to live with it in as healthy and efficient manner as we can. For the supply chain manager, managing warehousing and trucking operations will be much more difficult, and he/she will need a new set of rules and tools. We all have seen the Center for Disease Control (CDC) advice about working from home, social distancing, hand washing, gloves, masks, and sanitation of work spaces and equipment; but how and where should these things apply?
The foremost goal of any distribution center manger will be the protection of the employees and the product in the warehouse. It appears in most firms though, more emphasis is being placed on the operating end of the business. Keep in mind that without a healthy and efficient office staff there can be no true distribution efficiency. A good first step to accomplishing this, if you have not already taken it, will be to allow those office workers whose responsibilities permit, to work from home (WFH). In any business there are knowledge workers and operational workers. As the supply chain becomes more sophisticated and data driven, the number of knowledge workers, or those who work with data and ideas rather than equipment, is increasing. Keep in mind however, as employees’ homes become their workstations, they must have the technology, information, system security, and communications they need to accomplish their tasks. It will be critical that these workers are kept motivated and connected to the remainder of the organization. When new hires are necessary, demographics are working in our favor. As the so-called millennials become predominant members of the work force, we already are influenced by a group of workers that work well outside the office environment. Many already work from home, and in most cases, prefer it. More senior practitioners are used to group face to face meetings and “office caves” where they can surround themselves with all their “stuff”. Give a bright millennial the right technology and a laptop, and they will get it done. As the corona virus has encouraged firms to enhance their work-at-home technology, I believe we will find that this temporary practice could very well become permanent in many cases. Firms such as Google and Facebook already have announced that working from home will continue until 2021, and I believe others may extend it indefinitely. Managing a group of people working from home can be a challenge, but listen to this core of younger “coffee shop workers”. Seek their ideas and recommendations. They are going to be better equipped to deal with the issues than many of the rest of us.
For the workers left in the office, it may be possible to add or stagger shifts, keeping the number of employees in the office at any one time at a minimum. For those facilities located in metropolitan areas where employees tend to use public transportation, consider starting and ending your work day outside the rush hour time frame in order to minimize employees’ exposure to large groups of people. What we have learned to call Social Distancing, or what the military now calls Tactical Dispersion, will be a must. Workstations should be spaced at least six feet apart, and it may be appropriate to revert back to the cubicles we abandoned in favor of the open office concept. It is time to remove the temporary Plexiglas and other make-shift barriers and install more permanent and effective fixtures. When meeting and talking with others, the distances should be honored. While this may sound easy, human instinct influences us to do just the opposite; and frequent reminders no doubt will be necessary.
Every person who enters the office should wear a mask, for a political statement. This is no place for a political statement. They should be kept on any time other people are present in the office. Visitors should wear masks as well; and if they do not have one when they arrive, the distribution enter should provide one. (Some firms may want to tastefully emboss their firm name or logo on the masks.) A word about masks – The N95 mask used by medical workers is the most effective, and now available to the general public. While they are necessary for the caregivers, they are uncomfortable, so for the distribution operation, a good quality cloth mask will be adequate as long as all the rules are followed. Remember masks do not keep us from inhaling the virus. They prohibit our spreading germs to others. If any one person does not wear a mask, everyone else is at risk.
Any person entering the office should have a temperature check. The method of doing this will depend on the number of people involved. Some offices may be able to use a hand held Digital Infrared Body Thermometer which can be purchased for less than $100. For large amounts of traffic, a more expensive and effective walk through thermal checkpoint may be a good investment. Everyone must keep in mind however; Masks and temperature checks are not a substitute for social distancing.
As the CDC has recommended, all employees should wash their hands frequently, and adequate facilities, soap, and hand sanitizer must be provided. Work surfaces and equipment should be sanitized at least three times daily, along with door knobs and handles. This will be particularly important if there are multiple shifts with multiple individuals using the area. This should apply to the shipping office as well as the general office. Make sure everyone understands who is responsible for the cleaning.
Our entire lives are stressful, and the necessary working conditions only add to it. Even with a good mask, breathing is inhibited and having a morning coffee will be problematic. Be sure every employee has ample break time. If there is a break room, schedule individual break and lunch times so that social distancing can be honored in the room. Weather permitting, an outside break area will simplify this issue considerably.
Develop some attractive signage and place it at the front door and around the office so there can be no misunderstanding about what the rules are.
Finally, the reception area of your office will be the first line of defense. This is the point at which necessary masks will be distributed and temperatures checked. The receptionist should be protected by a permanent glass panel designed to manage the front-end activities safely and efficiently.
Some readers of this article have already taken some of the steps recommended. Others may think these suggestions are an overreaction, and that this will all be behind us in a few months. I pray you are right; but I believe the “normal” as we have known it, is a thing of the past. If there is a “silver lining” to be found, I think that the long-term adoption of some of the practices we are initiating will lead to new efficiencies and even cost reductions.