Remote working was not a choice for most employees during the COVID-19 lockdown series, it was mandated. It was one of many challenges supply chain professionals faced at a time when rapid action was required at every level.
Supply chains had to pivot and innovate to win a new global race for components to build test kits, vaccines or PPE.
Logistics operators were tasked with reorganising systems of work to ensure safety, while tackling increased or plummeting volumes.
And for some, ‘handling’ this critical work meant making decisions while balancing a toddler and a laptop on one steady set of knees.
This year’s CILT Women in Logistics Virtual Conference 2021 saw a set of expert speakers address the challenges and opportunities of COVID-19 in daily lunchtime sessions from Monday 27 September to Friday 1 October 2021. Over twenty supply chain professionals – from operations to academia – shared their experiences and offered practical advice.
Managing during the pandemic
“The biggest challenge we had,“ says Emma Ross, referencing her time in her former role as Head of Warehousing, Northern Europe at Hilti, “was company policy. Masks, a split shift model for deep cleans and small bubbles were a must.
“This went down well in the UK and Manchester, was really popular in Finland, but in Sweden, they almost refused. In Sweden there was no lockdown, closures, or social distancing, so that was a difficult conversation. We had to explain we weren’t trying to be difficult, it’s about keeping people alive and well at work.”
Neil Ashworth, Non-Executive Chair, Selazar, was one of the key people behind the UK’s COVID-19 Test & Trace supply chain.
Neil describes some of the challenges behind the testing operation. “It was a global race. The whole world was trying to access the same swabs and fluid. We had to validate over 200 different aggregations of components to create test kits, move products from China along the old Silk Road, and build lab capacity.”
Ashworth discusses the value of relaxing regulation during this period which enabled the civil service and partners to act quickly. “We built a team of 50,000 people in less than four months, and signed 1,000 contracts with 600 suppliers in less than three months. We were able to do this because the regulatory environment was relaxed and people could act.”
According to Amy Shortman, Vice President of Product Marketing, Overhaul, there was a "huge amount of pivoting and innovation in the supply chain." She said "to be able to be the first to market with a product [a vaccine] that needs emergency approval from the regulatory authorities…. Those that could leverage technology to support manufacturing and transportation were way ahead of the people that were using manual based processes.”
The shift to remote working
Supply chain professionals had to be dynamic. And most of them had to be dynamic in a new working environment: home. It may have suited some, but it presented difficulties for others.
Therapist and coach Liz Sharpe, who joined the WIL panel on day one, identified a number of behaviours being experienced by employees following the shift to remote working.
“People have struggled with addictions because they’re at home more. There’s been more stress, anxiety, low mood, difficulties balancing laptops and kids. Therapists see the side issues which don’t get reported to employers or health and safety departments.”
Lydia Warren, Director of Operations at The LEGO Group, reflected on some of the positives she found in her new setting.
“Over the last 18 months, I’ve probably built stronger connections with my remote team because I’m seeing them in their home environment, meeting pets and children. It gives me a deeper understanding of their holistic self. And I understand more about some of the challenges they face around returning to work.”
Richard Wilson, whose role at Arla Foods incorporates raw milk collection and delivery, shared how Arla saw a significant increase in its volumes but didn’t need to employ additional team members at headquarters because it created efficiencies elsewhere. For example, time was no longer spent travelling to client meetings. Richard found remote working worked well. “The team was better connected than it had been previously,” he explains.
However, not all consequences were wins. “We lost engagement with our frontline staff, and our drivers, because we weren’t meeting face-to-face. We introduced a driver’s WhatsApp group, but it doesn’t substitute talking. The face-to-face meetings are starting to pick back up again.”
Checking in on sustainability
Alan McKinnon, Professor of Logistics, Kuehne Logistics University, shared some interesting stats he observed during the pandemic.
“The International Transport Forum which is part of the OECD tried to work out to what extent freight CO2 emissions worldwide had reduced as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns. At maximum lockdown in May last year (2020), the total CO2 from freight international transport dropped by 28%.”
Alan shared how just months earlier, expertise from the ICF offered a scenario for CO2 reduction of freight by 2030. They projected that between 2015 and 2030 – in 15 years – it might be possible to achieve 30% reduction.
“So what this means,” explains Alan. “is Covid achieved this in just three months.”
“It’s not sustainable to decarbonise by suppressing consumer demand and discontinuing business, he adds. “But it does show us the magnitude of the actions that we will have to make.”
Fellow panellist Deborah Dull, founder of the Circular Supply Chain Network, is hopeful that our switch to sustainability is the best optimisation opportunity.
Leadership looking ahead
What does the future look like following the pandemic? From a supply chain perspective, Amy Shortman suggests a rethink of some strategies, “for a more localised sourcing pool, as well as a global supply chain sourcing pool.”
She is hopeful that one legacy of the pandemic will be how the developing world pivoted to support mass vaccine roll-out in remote places, using drone technology and road freight methods.
Ambitious supply chain leaders
Across the week of WIL lunchtime seminars, it was clear that the operational leaders taking part had managed the many challenges thrust upon them with confidence and skill.
The question is: how do we ensure that future supply chain leaders are ready and able not only to manage disruption, but be visionaries?
Sarah Shaw, Senior Lecturer in Logistics and Supply Chain Management at the University of Hull, says that never before has logistics and supply chain management and skills development been so critical to the world economy.
She argues that supply chain leaders of the future need green skills to tackle climate change, including expertise in renewables.
“We need to ensure professionals have the right skills, knowledge and behaviours to tackle the climate change challenge.
“Not only around how we mitigate carbon emissions, but how do we adapt our supply chains to survive? It’s not only about green skills, we need the digital skills. We need to equip our young logisticians with the skills to develop tech on a serious level. Green skills and the digital agenda need to be embraced.”
Shaw adds that there is now an occupational standard for a Supply Chain Leader Professional.
“There are a number of universities which are hosting Level 6 degree apprenticeships at standard level 6. They’re targeting colleges and schools, but it’s also being used to up-skill middle managers. Lots of big companies DHL, GSK, Ford Motor Group are really getting behind it. These are our future supply chain leaders.”
A trial and error approach
And how do we move forward with remote working? Sneheni Ladva, Senior HR Business Partner at Supply Chain Coordination, says we need to continue in a ‘test and learn’ period.
“It’s important to manage the complexities of different situations. Support the team and take advantage of hybrid working. We’re communicating with our leadership teams constantly. It’s important we continue to connect and engage as we understand what our new normal is. We continue to do wellbeing webinars online.”
What all businesses want to avoid, is team members suffering in silence. “Hybrid working is helpful to some families and individuals,” adds Liz Sharpe, “but it’s important to look out for the ones suffering silently at home. The employees sending emails at 3am and 9am. Being overwhelmed but not reaching out for support. Signs of burnout in employees are easier to miss at home.”
Sharpe thinks it’s important to normalise common mental health problems, and offer strategies to support team members.
Lydia Warren also has some sound advice. “For new colleagues who joined the team during lockdown. Remember, they may have met you in an online Teams meeting, but the first trip into the office is like a first day again. Make sure they have a ‘buddy,’ as you would on a normal first day.”
When you peek behind the scenes of the pandemic, and witness the incredible work of supply chain leaders and their teams – especially those featured at this year’s WIL conference – it’s difficult not to be impressed. With inspiring leaders in place and increased public awareness of the profession, the future of the UK supply chain is disruptive, bright and absolutely fascinating.
A final message from the event: beat the drum. Supply chain and logistics professionals must continue their work in promoting the profession and building on its image so people know it’s an exciting and progressive career option.