For many industries across Australia the arrival of the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 meant scaling back operations, significant losses and uncertain futures.
There have been some notable exceptions however, in sectors for whom the outbreak has led to increased demand. Nowhere has this uplift been more significant than e-commerce. According to Australia Post, Australian e-commerce grew more than 80 per cent year on year in the 8 weeks after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Although a windfall for businesses positioned to take advantage of the increased demand, the wave of buyers turning to e-commerce has also created some significant challenges. Keeping warehouses and sorting facilities operating at maximum capacity while ensuring the strictest of health and wellness protocols are enforced has meant a monumental effort by facilities staff and warehouse employees alike.
In this article I want to highlight the experiences of three facilities managers who have been at the coalface of warehousing and e-commerce in Australia through the COVID-19 outbreak: Darren Mills, Andrew Hartley, and Dale Watson. Here, they share their stories of how they kept employees and customers safe while ensuring that service delivery expectations were surpassed.
Transforming the Day-to-Day
The task of ensuring social distancing protocols are followed has meant transforming the fundamentals of the working environment. From re-arranging breakout areas and lunchrooms to closing all conference and meeting rooms and creating zone borders for operational areas, the key challenge in any workplace as complex as a warehouse is focused on removing any chance of cross-contamination between teams.
Facilitating this has been a laser-focus on regular and thorough cleaning, alongside the provision of PPE equipment as necessary. We’ve seen an emphasis on adding additional cleaning staff to revised cleaning schedules with an emphasis on cleaning high-use areas, alongside the instillation of hand sanitiser stations at key entry areas.
For Darren Mills, commitment to keeping teams safe and healthy has extended beyond their physical health. Through regular toolbox talks, he has emphasised the importance of the whole facility feeling like they’re in this together, emphasising the importance of positive mental health and confidence in the task at hand.
In Darren’s own words, “there has been a huge amount of additional work (for all of us) over this period with the massive increase in parcels, COVID-19 challenges, and normal day to day operations… I have been very proud to be a part of this team in this tough time.”
Learning on the Job
The fact that Andrew Hartley hasn’t had a single member of staff off ill with symptoms is testament to his and his team’s incredible efforts in ensuring the highest standards of health and safety are maintained through the facility he manages.
Andrew is quite clear that no matter how good your business continuity planning is, during an outbreak the scale of COVID-19 there will always be challenges left to overcome. Whether overcoming the challenge of no available stock of hand sanitiser, or coming up with a plan to stop staff wedging open toilet doors to avoid touching handles, it’s clear that facilities managers like Andrew need to be agile in their thinking in order to overcome the daily issues that rear their head in a crisis.
A prime example of this for Andrew was overcoming the challenge of providing lunch in four zonal areas despite only one lunchroom being available. After consulting with the team his approach was to transform “both training rooms into break areas for zone 1 and zone 2, and then to divide the main lunchroom for zones 3 and 4 using portable bollards and hi vis tape. The zones were all colour-coded with lanyards and plastic wrist bands distributed by myself and security to incoming staff."
Dividing and Conquering
Taking a zone-based approach has been a consistent theme in the accounts of how warehouse facilities have been able to remain open despite the COVID-19 threat. Dale Watson laid out how this works on-site: “The operations area has been divided into four separate zones which staff are allocated to and generally don’t cross out of. The zones are identified by signage and staff wearing specific coloured vests to match their zone, with a fifth colour provided for staff that need to cross zones.”
Creating and optimising these zones has meant a vast amount of work for Dale and his team, including adding physical barriers between zones that allow for emergency escape if needed, building new break areas, creating zone entry areas with clock card units and hand sanitiser pumps, and laying on bathroom facilities that meet staff standards.
The focus on zones has been so detail-oriented that Dale even went so far as to assign cleaners to specific zones, to reduce even the slightest chance of cross-contamination.
Getting Home Safe
Those who have been remote working through the COVID-19 outbreak have little idea of the personal risk that workers supporting the e-commerce industry have assumed in order to ensure that deliveries get to customers on time. The job of facilities managers like Darren, Andrew, and Dale has been to ensure that that risk is minimised as far as possible, so that those workers are able to get back safely to their families at the end of every day.