Coronavirus pandemic has been brutal, tragic and terrifying. Our very existence has been put at risk and the way we live and work may be changed forever. But there is also opportunity.
Ask most people at the start of 2020 what would happen if we stopped going to work and they’d laugh, sneer and generally not take the question seriously.
And yet, that is exactly what happened. On a global scale. Driven by science and media reports, people stopped commuting, travelling, socialising and working. Economies dived and governments worldwide have had to borrow at rates not seen since the last world war.
There has been huge costs to lives, careers and businesses but it has brought us to a point where we can question the way we were.
Why do we go to an office?
Conventional thinking suggested that without people being monitored and coerced, productivity would suffer. Up to 2019 working from home (WFH) wasn’t unheard of but it was considered a perk and often the privileged few who were allowed to exercise it. Now, being forced into this new way of working many companies are actually reporting increases in productivity.
Tech giants, Google* are not expecting employees to return to the office until 2021 and providing expenses to kit out home offices. Likewise, Twitter and Facebook** are allowing many of their employees to work from home permanently albeit with a proviso; salaries may have to reflect cost of living by location.
How is WFH possible?
Remote working isn’t for everyone. It’s much more appropriate for those that work digitally and with good infrastructure around them. But for those that can, it’s in part thanks to those that can’t. People can setup websites, ecommerce platforms and integrate delivery services all remotely but the supply chain still needs soldiers on the ground to deliver.
Just looking at our own industry, automation was already taking place but Coronavirus will speed up innovation:
The automated supply chain
Tesla have a semi-autonomous truck going into production in 2021, and It doesn’t take a massive leap of thinking to imagine a fully automated truck following in the near future. Daimler, TuSimple and Waymo among others are developing similar technologies***. But this doesn’t mean a wholesale replacement of people, quite the opposite in fact. All of the previously mentioned companies have full intend to have a driver in the cab at all times.
So once products are in warehouses will robots replace the pick and packers? This is not a new innovation, automation is already in use in pick and pack all over the world from the conveyors at Amazon fulfilment centres to vehicle storage systems seen in China and Germany☨. But these systems all need people to configure, run and maintain the systems. What is more likely is employee numbers will remain relatively similar whilst automation enables significant increase in productivity.
And for the final mile deliveries? That already exists too.
Having witnessed one of Starship’s mobile robots**** trundling through the streets of Milton Keynes with a food delivery, I was hugely impressed with how it navigated paths, kerbs, tunnels and around people. It even has character somehow.
Amazon too have tested drone deliveries and were planning on activating that service in 2020. In Asia, companies such as Alibaba and JD.com are already a reality*****. Once more, the actual act of delivery may be heading towards automation but people are still required to load, plan and maintain the drones and robots behind the scenes.
Employee based decision making
Whilst we’re looking at remote working, the pandemic also enables us to question the intangible processes in businesses.
Ricardo Semler is the CEO of Semco Partners, a Brazilian company that grew from 4 million to 212 million dollars under his ownership. His Ted talk covers a lot of ground and challenges us to think about how we work differently.
He makes a great point about giving employees power and responsibility, we may not all be able to operate remotely but we can bring our employees into our decision making. Ask them their opinions and give them a voice. Waitrose employees are known as Partners and enjoy many benefits including share in the profits of the business at the end of the financial year. Whilst times are hard for them right now, they have one of the most engaged workforces in the UK and based many business decisions on views and suggestions from their partners.
On a personal level, Ricardo’s Ted talk really resonated with me, trying things differently and challenging traditional processes appeals greatly to me. I don’t pretend to be anything like the pioneer he is but I do believe in many small changes making a big difference.
At Synergy, we are very much a manual labour-based operation. We have over 280 people, most on the production floor and we have had to think creatively and flexibly about our processes during the self-distancing lockdown. We have implemented rules and routes through our racking and brought in large amounts of PPE to ensure our people protect themselves whilst picking. We have regular ‘all hands’ meetings to discuss what works and what needs to change. We are also looking into robotic automation, but to aid our existing workforce, not replace it.
It’s hard to say exactly how businesses will have to adapt, but I do think this is an excellent opportunity to step back and ask if things can be done differently.
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