Worker shortages are already rife in warehousing, with a 2022 CILT survey suggesting that over four-fifths (86%) of companies experienced operative shortages in the previous two years. This is only set to be exacerbated this golden quarter, with warehouse operatives currently striking at Amazon's Coventry warehouse with strike action also scheduled for one of the major annual retail milestones, Black Friday.
Meanwhile, the stage is already set for an unusual pre-Christmas period for retail. On the one hand, many retailers typically recruit seasonal workers to cope with increased demand. But with consumers expected to cut costs this Christmas, it’s somewhat difficult to predict how the season will play out. E-commerce platforms such as Amazon, which offers products of every category and cost, as well as ‘free’ delivery to subscribers, may well continue to see enhanced consumer spend. However, this unpredictability only heightens the importance of supply chain flexibility and the need for enough staff to be available to accommodate customer demand.
While businesses should do everything they can to support their existing teams right now, sadly, strike action is unlikely to be resolved immediately and operational challenges may ensue. But businesses can reflect and act now to avoid future disruption – both to operations and the end consumer.
A strategic approach
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to resolve such complex challenges, but taking considered, meaningful action to avoid their recurrence is vital. Disruption like strike action can severely impact fulfilment and distribution networks and create costly ramifications.
Investing in a strategic, long-term approach to overcoming concerns and enhancing operations can help businesses avoid further disruption down the line. This can involve evaluating existing operations, from labour practices to communication, employment conditions, environmental factors, and individual worker concerns. Bringing in an external, third-party consultant to offer an objective view and provide expert recommendations can support businesses with the process.
Open, two-way communication
A breakdown in communication between employees and employers can result in discontent. To avoid this, businesses should encourage continually open dialogue between management and workers, creating a channel for staff to voice concerns, provide feedback, and participate in the decision-making process.
Through outlets such as performance reviews and colleague forums, operatives can have their voices heard. In turn, businesses can identify emerging issues before they escalate and reach the point of industrial action.
In today’s business landscape, employees increasingly expect flexible working opportunities and seek understanding, supportive employers.
Of course, warehousing is an industry where staff must be physically present to deliver the task at hand. However, employers should be open to reasonable requests for flexible work arrangements. For example, some employees may benefit from adjusting working patterns to accommodate family lives or opting out of overtime. This can also support workforce diversification, enabling more parents to work around child commitments and see a place for themselves in the sector.
Training and reward
A major factor driving industrial action is often pay. Where possible, businesses should offer attractive salary packages, as well as regularly benchmarking and assessing them to ensure colleagues are adequately compensated for their work. Incentive programmes that reward behaviour such as productivity and teamwork can also motivate employees, making colleagues feel like their efforts are recognised and appreciated. And when it comes to peak periods such as the golden quarter, enhancing overtime pay can be a welcome perk.
However, if businesses want to see long-term improvements in employee satisfaction, further meaningful action needs to take place. Offering training opportunities can enable employees to learn new skills and provide a sense of purpose and direction. It also makes staff feel that the business is invested in their development and offers progression opportunities, supporting staff retention.
Automation as an ally
Much has been made of the potential for automation to displace jobs in warehousing. However, this type of technology can in fact enhance the working lives of staff, enabling employees to focus on more important, strategic, and ultimately, rewarding work, rather than repetitive, mundane tasks.
When it comes to future-proofing operations – particularly during periods of reduced resources such as this – businesses should also consider introducing partial warehouse automation into their strategies. By introducing systems such as warehouse retrieval automation and full pallet put-away, the pressure placed on the remaining, reduced staff roster is somewhat relieved.
Ultimately, a happy workforce is conducive to an effective warehouse operation. By looking ahead, acting, and investing in staff, businesses can help avoid future disruption caused by discontentment.