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March 24, 2021

Dealing With Staff Shortages in Critical Times

When there is a crisis, warehouses and logistics operations often have to deal with a reduction in the number of employees, a spike in demand, or most likely, both. There are ways to fix this: new hires, smart scheduling, cross-training, efficient warehouse layout, automation, and more. The key to all of this, of course, is the data that enables making these kinds of quick decisions.

During a crisis or emergency, manufacturers and warehouses may find themselves without adequate staff to get their products out into the marketplace. Disappointed customers and lower profits may be the least of their worries: Failure to fulfill orders in critical times could jeopardize the survival of the business.

Whether it is a reduction in the number of employees, a spike in demand, or both, companies must figure out how to produce more with fewer people. The solution is a combination of having a healthy operation in the first place, recognizing the strengths and limitations of your people, and using the right tools. One of the most important tools is warehouse management software, which can provide the data needed to make sound management decisions. Putting these systems in place and planning for worst-case scenarios before they happen can help see a company through tough times. 

When There Aren’t Enough People 

Staff shortages can happen for a couple of different reasons in critical times.

First, depending on the situation, employees may not be able to come to work. For example, during a hurricane or wildfire, workers may be dealing with emergencies and losses at their own homes. It’s unrealistic to expect them to show up at work if their home is damaged or their family is endangered. Or, an illness like the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, or a highly contagious stomach bug like Norovirus could keep personnel home on sick leave. Regardless of the reason for the drop in attendance, the company is forced to do more with fewer people.

Another scenario that looks like a staff shortage is a spike in the sales volume of a company’s product. A sudden surge in demand will require increasing productivity. If you’ve optimized your warehouse to work with the smallest crew possible, that sudden surge can overwhelm your workforce; even if the roster of workers hasn’t changed, the current employees may not be able to keep up. 

Either one of these conditions poses a challenge. If both happen together—an increase in product demand and a diminished labor force—management’s job is even more difficult.

Pull Out the Seasonal Playbook

Companies that experience a busy season can apply their seasonal gameplan to a time when staff is short or otherwise struggling to keep up with volume. Even though emergencies, by their very nature, happen suddenly and without warning, management at least has a model for how to cope. 

The staffing strategy to handle a seasonal uptick in volume may include adjusting employee schedules, adding shifts, and adding additional full-time, part-time, or temporary workers to pick up the slack. The action plan for a crisis will require some of the same steps. The critical difference is that seasonal spikes come at regular times and can be predicted, while a crisis is something of a surprise.

This means, of course, that the steps you take will have to be implemented at a moment’s notice. You can gain some time, however, if you can predict when additional workers are needed before the warehouse floor is overwhelmed. This requires keeping data on the flow of goods in your warehouse and spotting any sudden upward trends.

The volume of a business may also exceed that of the typical busy season. So while managers may follow their usual seasonal template, they will also need to be prepared to modify staffing needs to match the actual, realtime demand during the crisis. The key here is to trust the data and let it drive decisions, rather than guessing or basing choices on what usually happens.

The Right Environment for Efficiency

It stands to reason that a warehouse that runs well during normal times will have an advantage in a time of chaos. Every bit of effort to keep things organized and orderly will pay off when staff is working harder to get their jobs done.

An organized warehouse has a layout that is optimized for efficiency. That means using WMS to create a logical floorplan where materials, machines, and people can move around without bottlenecks, backtracking, or collisions. The right setup makes employees’ jobs easier and safer by reducing the number of steps and touches needed to receive, store, pick, pack, and ship products. 

A staff who follows well-thought-out, written operating procedures has an advantage too. When production speeds up, or new employees are hired, standardized processes will keep things consistent and everyone on the same page.(By contrast, the warehouse manager who keeps everything “in their head” is going to be easily overwhelmed.)

The staffing situation is a Human Resource Department issue too. Hiring the right people for the right job, along with comprehensive training will ensure a team that can be ready to perform when the pressure is on. There will be little time to get employees up to speed in an emergency. Cross-training will become important too, as employees may need to step into new roles to fill in the gaps left by absent workers or increased demand.

The Best Tools for the Job

Anything that allows tasks to be completed faster, safer, and with greater accuracy will help employees in normal as well as critical times. A warehouse that has embraced automated solutions and warehouse management software will find it easier to ramp up production when it needs to. These tools will make it easier for a reduced staff to continue the flow of items in, through, and out of the warehouse.

Automation. Automated equipment, even in the form of a simple, manually operated pushcart or conveyor belt, will allow employees to increase their efficiency. Add in barcode readers and dimensional weight machines, and the results are even better. 

Providing time-saving tools that can do the slow, repetitive, or dangerous tasks frees up employees to do more important jobs. In a critical time when staff is spread thin, automation can make a difference in whether a warehouse can keep up with orders or not.

Hanging onto manual procedures when automated solutions are available is a mistake. If staff is not using automation to its full potential or is duplicating tasks with an unnecessary manual “backup,” they are wasting time. In an emergency situation, they will quickly find themselves falling behind.

Integration. Using paperwork, phone calls, or emails to report valuable information to other departments in a company takes time. Employees can make mistakes or forget something important. Integrating systems throughout the company offers an easier and more accurate method of communicating important data. For example, as a picker fills an order, his or her barcode reader can update inventory and alert the packing department of the upcoming packing task and print the shipping label. Once it is packed, a shipping order is triggered, as is accounting for an invoice. This integration becomes a powerful tool as the volume of orders speeds up. 

Warehouse management software. WMS is the backbone of the warehouse to achieve any of these goals. It gives a warehouse the means of communication for integration to work. It also provides a variety of warehouse metrics. On a regular basis, this data offers valuable insights and an action plan. During a crisis, it can save the day. It is important for managers to know—and trust—the information that their WMS can give them.

The right WMS can compile real-time data from all areas of the warehouse to plan out the day’s tasks and the staffing needed to get them done. It can check the orders against inventory, making sure the resources are available for employees to do their jobs. It can then predict how many people will be needed that day. Alongside that information, WMS can also map out the most efficient picking methods and pick paths to use.

During a staff shortage, these analytics will help managers make several daily staffing decisions. It can signal when to add additional shifts, hire more part- or full-time workers, or contract with temporary employees. It can show when to move workers from one product line to one that is in higher demand. 

Without WMS, deciding how many people a warehouse needs on any given day means doing complicated manual calculations, or simply guesswork. It’s too risky to rely on these in a crisis. 

Data-Driven Employee Decisions

With the right warehouse management software, managers have all the data analytics they need at their fingertips. Key performance indicators provide a wealth of information on everything going on in a warehouse. 

Knowing how to interpret KPIs is a valuable skill that becomes even more critical in an emergency. Some KPIs will suddenly become more important than others. For example, managers who have always been concerned with their sales-to-inventory ratio and total cost of storage may switch their focus to KPIs like orders picked per hour and order cycle time. A WMS that is nimble enough to customize the metrics, providing whatever reports are necessary for the situation at hand will become a valuable asset. 

KPIs allow managers to make decisions that are data-driven, as opposed to making guesses or using outdated information. Real-time metrics give a clear picture of product demand and resource availability to determine staffing needs. For example, a report can be customized to recognize a sudden surge in orders. An alert can go out to management when a pre-determined benchmark is met, signaling when to start a search for more workers. Other KPIs can then show how well the workforce is meeting demand, and offer sound advice about how to improve upon it.

A Staffing Checklist for Critical Times

A crisis can result in a staff shortage, either due to an unexpected increase in orders, or because people can’t come to work. Either way, a manufacturer or warehouse can be left without enough people to get products out to customers. 

Staffing needs are largely thought of as a Human Resources issue. Yes, hiring the right people and training them well is necessary, but in an emergency situation, there’s more to it than that. Managers who make their staffing and scheduling decisions based on data rather than their gut will have better success in critical times. 

Here are some things to keep in mind when determining staffing needs in an emergency situation:

  • Use the company’s plan for the busy season as a guide. Bringing in temporary workers or adding shifts as you would with a seasonal sales spike can help ease the pressure of an emergency.
  • Warehouse operations that are already working efficiently have a better chance of making it during a critical time. Be sure the layout is optimized for peak efficiency. Having and following well-defined procedures will make it easy to onboard new staff or shift existing workers to tasks where they’re needed most.
  • Maintain good hiring policies that put qualified candidates into the right positions. Make training and cross-training a priority.  
  • Put in automated solutions wherever possible and integrate systems across the board. Make sure staff are well trained in their use. Eliminate outdated manual methods that will slow staff down when productivity needs to speed up.
  • Use a WMS to help predict staff needs, and trust the data it provides. 
  • Keep an eye on KPIs to decide the best way to assign the staff you have, or add more people when necessary. Keep checking data to gauge progress and tweak the staffing plan if necessary.

A staff shortage during a critical time doesn’t have to mean that a company won’t be able to meet the demand for its products. Ensure that employees have the tools they need to do their best, and make sure managers pay attention to the data that is available. Businesses that do these things will have a better chance of pulling through critical times.

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