“If someone comes into your warehouse and sees you’re doing paper picking, they’re going to say: ‘Is this 2022? I’m living my life off my phone! How are you still doing this?’” said Karen Warren, senior manager at Joshua Tree Group, a supply chain consulting firm specializing in human resources.
It was clear to those attending labor management sessions during the CSCMP EDGE 2022 conference in Nashville, Tennessee, that offering cool technology is an essential element in attracting and retaining young workers. But gizmos and gadgets are not enough on their own, as was clear from a panel discussion September 20 that included human resources and staffing executives who work at the coal face of the current staffing shortage in warehousing and other logistics facilities. Flexibility is key.
“During COVID, we saw we had to get out of the traditional mindset,” said Nick Orefice, human resources manager for supply chain at Advance Auto Parts at the session entitled “How Flexible Labor is Changing Warehouse Operations and Solving Staffing Challenges."
"The eight-hour day, 40-hour week model is no longer there. It’s gone.” Orefice related the company’s surprising experience after facing staffing shortfalls in its distribution facilities, and turning to a “gig” worker software application. “We thought it wouldn’t work, but within 20 minutes, we had filled all the slots. And people showed up!” he said. In fact, Orefice said, it turns out average rates of attendance and retention are actually higher with gig workers than for part-time and full-time workers.
Panelist Mike Bohnett, vice president of sales and partnerships at Instawork, which connects businesses with go-to hourly workers, noted that so-called gig work is the fastest growing segment in U.S. labor, and it’s far from being all about passenger or delivery drivers. A recent report by Instawork, “The State of the Flexible Workforce,” found that at least one in six adult Americans has already earned money from the “gig economy” via apps. Gig workers are typically in the 25-44 age range and are highly motivated by non-monetary factors, such as setting their own schedules, Bohnett said. They’re also more highly educated than hourly workers overall, which makes them super-valuable in today’s fast-moving warehouse environment.
“We’re familiar with the idea of a first, second and third shift,” said Bohnett. “Now we’re turning that model on its head by letting people choose their own schedule. Flexibility in the workforce is not going away. It’s where the trends are headed.”
“Post-COVID, people are aware they have options,” said Warren. “Life is more and more complex, and people want to explore what options they have.” In this new worldview, there’s no reason to restrict the earning power of a woman who wants to drop her kid off at school at a certain time and then go to work. Warren said Joshua Tree helps companies implement labor management tools that open up a whole new world of options. “So you still have to get this much work out the door to meet your customers’ needs — fine. But maybe instead of having 10 people working eight-hour shifts, you have 20 working four-hour shifts. Or you maybe have some workers outside the four walls. Or you pay high-performers for an eight-hour shift for stuff that’s done in six hours,” she said. “We’re getting away from the traditional mindset of this many people for this many hours.”
Flexibility is one thing; transparency and a culture of worker empowerment is another, said Orefice. Advance Auto Parts gets rated by its gig workers, in a comparable way that Uber drivers get scores from passengers. “So we have to be sure we’re building a good culture, because we’re getting graded, and a good grade helps us recruit,” he explained.
Warren agreed heartily. “I think performance and workflow and all those things are supposed to be a two-way conversation,” she said. “You want to encourage workers to come to a leader and say, ‘I have this obstacle that’s preventing me from doing my job well,’” she said. “You’re creating a culture of what it takes to be successful and getting rid of the ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality.”
Orefice said responding to what works best for workers can even influence operational decisions such as which day of the week to ship product out of a facility. “At the end of the day, I hate to say it, but we need everybody that comes in, and that makes us think outside the box,” he said. Companies such as Advance Auto Parts are flexing to make sure they’re welcoming to refugees, people with disabilities and “second-chance” workers with criminal records. Warren said it’s important to think creatively — for example, one of Joshua Tree’s clients in Chicago focuses on hiring landscapers to work in fulfillment centers during the holiday peak season, knowing that there’s not much landscaping work in December.
“Flexible work can be more than just a source of extra income or a way to fill holes in staffing,” concludes the Instawork report. “By offering another option for employment through the ups and downs of the economy, it can help to stabilize incomes and production levels. By helping workers to pick up new skills, it can create human capital. By making the matching process in the labor market more efficient, it can chip away at the most stubborn forms of unemployment.”
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