Coronavirus is a truly seismic event in our history. While the UK has faced pandemics before, most notably one-hundred years ago, the advances in medical technology and process since then have rendered this crisis a first of its kind. And since few of us living today were around to witness that cataclysm, we are in virgin territory. With people confined to their homes, and the NHS on red alert, a spotlight has been put on the supply chain, and we are under pressure to perform.
But even as this event brings home the reliance contemporary society has on logistics, for many of us it will open up questions over the future of the industry. Battening down the hatches at our organisations and plotting a course through the tempest is part of it. But we are likely to see profound effects beyond these exigencies, beyond even the cost to the economy. As the historian Alfred W. Crosby once said of the Spanish Flu, it ‘had a permanent influence not on the collectivities but on the atoms of human society – individuals.’ With Boris Johnson announcing a wartime government, and lockdowns worldwide, coronavirus may do the same.
One speculation flying round is that Covid-19 might bring about the rise of the four-day working week. A compressed work week has been much touted in recent years, and there is reason to believe shifting to this new model would yield benefits beyond the obvious boost to employee morale. Microsoft Japan piloted the four-day week in August last year and experienced an impressive 40% boost to productivity, along with reduced costs. Results in other tests have also been broadly encouraging, if less spectacular.
And now, the impact of social distancing, with much of the world under near-lockdown conditions, is likely to remove barriers to more widespread trials. Business as usual won’t wash in the coming weeks. As companies scramble to reorganise ready for work-from-home, staff shortages due to illness, and market disruption, they will have no choice but to adapt. For some that will include experimenting with models that allow them to raise productivity even under reduced working hours. It may well stick.
But if coronavirus is the catalyst that leads businesses to shunt white-collar workers over to shorter schedules, where does that leave blue-collar industries? From logistics roles like HGV driver to factory work and agricultural labour, there are a great many jobs in which productivity is directly proportional to hours worked. Those hours cannot simply be cut. Robotics and self-driving vehicles may be the future, but as of yet, those pallets don’t stack themselves.
Industries already struggling to recruit will suffer most if a sudden shift in the labour market renders their working week 20% longer in comparative terms, and that is exactly what will happen if most jobs drop to a four-day week. It is difficult to say precisely how big an impact this change would have on logistics, especially when much remains uncertain about the country’s exit from the European Union. But coronavirus demonstrates just how reliant our way of life has become on an effective logistics system. The meteoric rise of online shops and supermarkets is hardly likely to be checked by the illness, despite its disruptive properties. Being forced to stay home will only push consumers further into the arms of web-based retail. The UK needs delivery drivers.
Ultimately, this may be good news for logistics workers themselves. The demand for effective employees may force organisations to be more competitive in recruitment, and it is conceivable that the increase in the relative value of a skilled worker could lead to an improvement of the employee proposition. But it is difficult to foresee what this might look like, let alone whether it will occur.
Rather than try to predict the future, we must deal with the present. Doing so will require resilience and agility. It may force big changes, and not just at the organisational level. Indeed, action taken may be ineffective unless it is approached unilaterally, and with sufficient governmental support. But despite the dark cloud that lingers over us, there are reasons to be optimistic.
Whatever criticism may be made of governments’ swiftness and decisiveness in heading off the crisis, the scale and sophistication of the techniques used would have been unthinkable a century ago. For this we must thank advances in medical procedure from the level of individual care right up to the organisational level; from the treatments patients can expect in the ICU ward up to the kind of strategic and logistical planning that takes place at an intra-national level at the WHO. These advances were brought about by innovation in response to past crises like SARS, Ebola, and of course, Spanish Flu.
Coronavirus is a seismic event in our history, but we in logistics can learn a lot from the medical world as we craft our pandemic response. We will need to respond with agility, flexibility, and a clear-sighted appreciation of the way grand strategy meets ground-level delivery. If we can do that, despite its costs, this crisis might be the catalyst for positive change.