In an Automated World, Your Workforce is Still Your Greatest Asset

The logistics field continues to see a tremendous increase in the use of technology throughout distribution centers (DC). Automation makes it easier to accomplish tasks, reach loftier operational goals, and reimagine what is possible in the interaction between employees and technology.

With your eyes on the seemingly infinite possibilities that technology and automation can bring to your future DC, it’s imperative to take a step back and examine the role of your workforce in bringing newfound capabilities to life. As your business continues to grow and evolve, so too does the role of your workforce—the single most valuable asset of any company.

As we navigate the new world of increasing automation of buildings and processes, your workforce will serve as your greatest transformation asset. On the other hand, it can inhibit true change. Achieving the former will require support from leadership and the ability to turn challenges into opportunities. In doing so, you will boost workforce performance, improve productivity levels, achieve new efficiencies, and begin to leapfrog the competition.

In this blog, we’ll explore common challenges that your workforce might be facing, as well as the opportunities that can help you optimize this critical business asset.

Understanding the obstacles

  • Monotony, repetitive movements, and stationary workstations: Less travel and “easier” work leads to less physically demanding but potentially more acutely tiring jobs for your workforce. Monotony can also lead to burnout and lethargy, which can negatively affect output, utilization, and retention.
  • Technology: Even though technology provides many benefits for operations, it also comes with its fair share of frustrations. For example, as DCs become increasingly more automated, your workforce will likely interact repeatedly with either a workstation monitor or handheld device in the workplace, requiring more tech-savvy individuals.
  • A new generation: Millennials, who make up the largest generation in the workforce, bring with them a brand-new set of expectations for their working environment. For example, Gallup reports that they are seeking coaches rather than bosses, and they prefer to develop their strengths rather than attempt to fix their weaknesses. With that in mind, when it comes to engaging, hiring, and motivating this generation, the ways of the past aren’t necessarily the ways of the future. Leaders must reimagine employee-employer agreements to stay competitive.

By accepting these challenges, you can set up your operation to take advantage of the opportunities.

Reimaging what’s possible

  • Hiring: Gallup also reports that millennials are drawn to companies that encourage learning, growth, and leadership; they need to know that they have a future at your company. Finding ways to provide new learning opportunities and securing the right employees will become harder as jobs become more automated, but millennials are tech-savvy and can help with the adoption of new technologies in your DC as you transition into the future. Once you find the right people, it’s important to surround them with good coaching and a culture that encourages engagement and feedback. Identifying and developing key employees to play an important role during peak season can provide opportunities for growth and leadership.
  • Quicker training and more cross-training: New employee training and onboarding can be streamlined in an automated DC, mitigating the negative impact of turnover on your operations. Employees can be trained in multiple jobs and can maintain proficiency across the positions due to the simplified nature of the work. This allows your operation to be nimbler by moving your employees around the floor as needed to accommodate heavier inbound or outbound days. Because of the monotony and physical repetitiveness in each position, rotating employees through jobs during a shift or over the course of the week can also increase engagement and reduce injuries.
  • Accountability: Automated DCs are ripe for building accurate multi-variable standards that not only supply supervisors with the data necessary to effectively manage their employees but also provide supervisors and employees with live performance data. This live performance data is available when working with a workstation monitor or handheld device and can give positive acknowledgment to employees who are performing well, while also indicating to an underachieving employee and their supervisor that intervention may be needed. Live performance data does not eliminate the need for a supervisor and associate interaction at any performance level, but it can help keep supervisors apprised of coaching needs, head off problems early, and identify valuable methods from exceptional workers to include in the standard operating procedures. Overall, live performance data can increase the accountability of each associate and supervisor while also increasing units per hour (UPH).
  • Incentives: With a well-run performance management program, incentives can be implemented to increase utilization, engagement, and retention while simultaneously driving down overall labor costs. Effective incentive programs can include traditional pay-for-performance, bonus pay based on hitting or exceeding predetermined thresholds, or a break-bucks program where supervisors can hand out certificates to be redeemed for food in the breakroom or company gear.
  • Gamification: When done thoughtfully, gamification can lead to increased UPH and engagement and can help to overcome the monotony of positions in automated DCs. One of the keys to successfully implementing gamification in a DC is to ensure that the average employee can win. If you have 1,000 employees and only post results or reward the top 10, you’ll likely see a lack of engagement because the award seems unattainable. It could even result in negative reactions that decrease engagement. However, there’s a wide range of ways gamification can be implemented effectively in a DC. Consider video games at workstations driven from UPH, a poster in the break room tracking progress, or a goal represented as a thermometer. Each level of the game can come with its own intricacies, but to make any of them successful, the goals and targets need to be fluid and change over time. Without variation in the program, the game itself can become monotonous and lose vitality. Make sure you understand the goals of your program and remember that instituting a game in your DC won’t motivate every associate to be a top performer, but it can encourage incremental improvements.

In today’s modern DC, automation is a critical element. However, automation alone will not allow your organization to realize the full potential of your investment. In a world of automation, your people and processes remain the most important assets for the future. To position your DC for success, ensure your workforce is the centerpiece of your strategy.