The coronavirus pandemic has created challenges for almost every aspect of logistics operations, forcing companies to balance the competing demands of keeping workers safe and keeping inventory flowing. Now, with the country entering its ninth month of pandemic-influenced operations in November, many organizations are finding solutions in logistics technology.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, distribution centers focused on making basic tweaks to their operations to ensure worker safety. For example, many DC leaders used their warehouse management systems (WMS) to adjust workflows and maximize social distancing by limiting the number of pickers allowed in a zone at one time or creating one-way aisles to avoid traffic congestion.
But employers quickly discovered that those safety measures had an unintended consequence: reduced productivity. Forced to follow longer pick paths or take turns at pack stations to avoid physical contact with co-workers, employees could no longer hit the productivity targets of a pre-pandemic era.
With the old goals now out of reach, DC leaders realized they had more software adjustments to make. In addition to tweaking their warehouse management systems, they would also have to adjust their labor management software (LMS)—long used by warehouses to measure employee performance and calculate compensation—to reflect the new realities.
“Covid will limit throughput,” says Fab Brasca, global vice president for global solutions and presales at Blue Yonder, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based logistics software vendor. “Labor management software accounts for the standards of an activity, so users need to layer in adjusted expectations accounting for the new normal.”
That need for LMS adjustments may extend beyond the DC labor force, says Peter Schnorbach, senior director of product management for the logistics technology provider Manhattan Associates. Companies might also find they have to adjust their LMS platforms to account for creative workarounds they devised during the pandemic, such as using retail stores as fulfillment centers. That, in turn, may present additional challenges, since retail store associates have long argued that they can’t be held to the same standards as warehouse pickers due to interruptions by shoppers in the building. But employers will just have to find a way to adapt, Schnorbach says.
Software developers have taken note of these developments and are adapting their software in response. For example, Blue Yonder says the latest version of its logistics software, known as Luminate, allows companies to make labor standards adjustments fairly easily because it applies dynamic processes as opposed to set rules, allowing for real-time reprioritization.
Under that approach, customers can set a new “preferred method” for a given warehouse activity—such as requiring pickers to go to the very end of an aisle instead of doubling back—and change the time goal accordingly. Previous generations of LMS software would have required companies to conduct engineering studies, measure the efficiency of the new process, and make those changes manually, Brasca says.
Another way that employers can adapt their LMS platforms to the new workforce realities is by building tighter integrations with WMS software, says Dan Gilmore, chief marketing officer with Softeon, a Reston, Virginia-based supply chain software vendor.
The company offers a tool called “distancing-enabled task management” that combines the timing and labor standards of an LMS, the task-management ability of a WMS, and digital warehouse maps drawn from computer-aided design (CAD) files. When used in conjunction with wireless real-time location system (RTLS) tags worn by workers, the system allows managers to know where every employee is, where their next pick will be, and how fast they’ll reach it, Gilmore says.
“If one worker is still in an aisle, we could broadcast a message to a second worker, saying ‘Do not enter that aisle; don’t go to the assignment yet because the worker ahead is not [finished].’ So we will never allow a picker in a narrow-aisle situation to overtake the first picker,” Gilmore says. “Or we could allocate inventory from a secondary location even if it’s slotted a little farther away and dynamically vary the order of picking in real time.”
Like other experts, Gilmore says the new approach may not be quite as fast as previous practices, but it will allow DCs to continue operating while also keeping workers safe. “You’re probably going to take a little bit of a hit on productivity,” Gilmore says. “But taking a little bit of a hit on productivity to avoid shutting a warehouse down for deep cleaning is probably a pretty good investment.”
At the same time they’re adjusting their labor standards—and labor management software—to reflect the new pandemic-era realities, many managers are also adjusting their style. Faced with a severe shortage of labor, they’re doing everything in their power to coax fearful employees to show up for work. To that end, they’re relaxing their usual rules—and in some cases, suspending their absence and tardiness policies—to encourage employees to keep coming in, Schnorbach says.
The question now is, are these changes here to stay? Companies may view them as temporary measures. But workers may decide they like the new normal and resist attempts to reimpose the old standards once the pandemic subsides. And now that the balance of power has shifted, it’s anybody’s guess who would prevail.
“It will be interesting to see what happens with labor in the long term,” Schnorbach says. “Going into the pandemic, our customers were seeing an enormous shortage of labor. And now workers have gained a little leverage because [companies] have realized how important it is to have them in the building.”