Practical COVID measures warehousing and distribution can take

The first phase of lockdown back in March involved a lot of educated interpretation of the official government guidelines, with warehousing and storage hoping they had done enough to keep their staff safe.  The “hoping for the best” strategy has undoubtedly been employed and has seen many organisations through the first six months of the pandemic, but now the real test comes as we have the next 6, 12, 18, 24 months and need to turn our focus towards what resilience and survival will truly look like.

The Harvard Business Review stated many months ago that COVID is not going to be a short-term situation, but a long-term situation that we must adapt to survive.  After the announcements this week, it has become clear to many that the hope of being in a version of normal by Christmas is a pipedream which we are not likely to realise.

Adopting technology to keep up with demand

Solutions that we put in place should be flexible, deployable remotely, robust in terms of auditing and importantly scalable.  Can the system that is handling 10+ risk assessments a month at the moment handle that robustly for the next 5 years whilst maintaining the integrity of records, having a transparent audit trail and providing security and confidence in the measures you employ to manage your risks.  Is downloading a PDF to be filled in manually for every incident or event a reality that we can manage moving forwards?

Addressing the layout

With key worker status, warehouses and fulfilment houses up and down the country had to remain open through recent months. However, it is traditionally an industry with lots of natural bottlenecks that appear around the warehouse floor, such as Goods In or the fulfilment areas.

Increased demand means that 3PLs, wholesalers and fulfilment houses need to start thinking about how they approach the space that they already have in a way that makes it not only safe, but able to handle the rise in orders and customer expectations.

Alongside the generic advice of increased sanitation, social distancing and regular temperature checks there are many other ways that warehouses can be tweaked to make you and your staff as comfortable and safe as possible.

Perhaps obvious but increasing packing stations will help to alleviate the bottlenecks often found in the fulfilment areas of the warehouse. Warehouse space is a premium, but the hard truth is that it is better to have the ability to be at full capacity for staff and sacrificing some storage.

Barcode scanners are also a great way to improve speed and minimise handling of items. Make no mistake, this does involve the initial barcoding of every location in the warehouse, but the scanners have longevity outside of purely day-to-day working. They can quickly link up to most WMS systems and update the information automatically. Integrating this information into a WMS system means that it can begin to pick smart routes for pickers. As mentioned before, from specialised zones to the quickest routes, it helps a warehouse manager begin able to see the warehouse space in an optimised and safer way.

Moral responsibilities and duty of care

Now more than ever our workforce needs us.  They need strong and confident leadership, to feel secure, have faith in the systems we employ and for us to be there for them in ways we have not necessarily had to be before.

Communication with staff, from the back offices to the mezzanine, is paramount to success.  Are we allowing time for the “catch up in the kitchen” that we all used to enjoy when making a drink or are all calls straight down to business? 

Are we maintaining our duties to provide training, career development, skills enhancement, and progression – or are we all in limbo waiting to see what will come next?  And then there is the obvious element of compliance and keeping ourselves on the right side of our legal responsibilities.

As part of their inspections, governing bodies, and inspectorates such as the HSE & CQC will be looking for evidence of the practices put in place.  Not simply from record-keeping and box-ticking but from anecdotal evidence from employees themselves about how these things have been communicated to them, what changes and impacts they have seen and how these have impacted their abilities to thrive in the given environment.

What’s next?

The organisations that will come out of this situation stronger are those who find ways to maintain and develop their workforce.  Bonuses, pay raises and promotions may be off the cards but investment into the workforce and working conditions can do so much for a company and its employee morale – something that will prove vital over the coming months.  Now is the time we can really show our true colours as employers – are we part of the ‘just get it done’ brigade or are we part of the ‘we genuinely care’ crew?  This situation has the potential to define who are we on the other side…whatever that may look like.