The last few weeks have seen a gradual relaxation of the countrywide lockdown due to COVID-19 and with the opening up of non-essential retail businesses this week, the future of work is becoming more visible as people return to some sort of ‘normality’. So what does this mean for those in warehouse careers? We take a look at how warehouse jobs have been impacted during the pandemic and what the future prospects may be.
What might be the impact of COVID-19 on the future of work in the warehouse?
Short-term effects on the warehouse environment and warehouse jobs
In the early weeks of the pandemic, even before lockdown, we all saw the effect of panic buying by the public; the resulting empty shelves in the supermarkets and, of course, the lack of toilet paper. It is safe to say that in the retail industry, warehouses for essential food and household items have been busier than ever.
Initially the sector struggled not only to keep up with demand, but also to cope with absent staff due to self-isolating measures and the added hindrance of social distancing restrictions for those working in warehouse jobs. In some cases the thriving grocery, pharmaceutical and e-commerce sectors have even had to take on extra warehouse space for short-term expansion through this exceptionally high throughput period. This resulted in a wave of new warehouse jobs.
This is not the story for many other industries. Non-food retailers and wholesalers have been unable to move stock, warehouses effectively becoming storage units. In fact, some warehouses have faced becoming full and space has become a problem. April saw the volume of retail sales plummet by 18.1%1 as shops temporarily stopped trading.
The effect of this is that many people in warehouse jobs in the non-food industry were put on furlough as there was either not enough work or not enough space to safely allow everyone to be in their usual warehouse roles.
However, being confined to home, more people than usual have turned to online shopping resulting in an 18% increase in the volume of retail sales online1. Consequently, more retailers have since added e-commerce to their business model and stores such as clothing, that had initially closed their online shopping services and distribution centres, have since reopened. The immediate effect of this was the creation of new opportunities for warehouse jobs within various sectors of the retail industry and according to LinkedIn, job applications for Warehouse Operatives were in the top 5 most applied for jobs in the UK between March and April2.
For those with warehouse careers in the manufacturing sector, COVID-19 has also had a dramatic effect on jobs. Initially manufacturing was affected by the global supply chain, first impacted by the lockdown in China resulting in a reduction of parts being received by industry in the UK. This was then followed by disruption closer to home as our own manufacturers slowed or ceased production and consumer demand dropped.
To ensure the future of work for their businesses, some manufacturers have taken the initiative to adapt to the changing environment in order to survive the current climate. Rather than making their usual gin or beer, alcohol producers have been making hand sanitiser; instead of vacuum cleaners and cars, manufacturers have been making ventilators and many other industries have been making visors, masks, screens and other PPE equipment. In the same way, those in warehouse jobs may change the type of products they work with, but there is still the need for Warehouse Operatives in this important step of the supply chain.
Medium and long-term effects on the warehouse environment and warehouse jobs
Over the coming weeks and months those in warehouse careers will see further changes as manufacturing, import/export and retail all begin to get back to business. However, the reality for the future of work in any industry cannot fully be known right now.
The requirement for social distancing means that for those in warehouse careers it may be a slow return to normal as the viable number of employees could remain restricted as a consequence.
As in all other work environments, as people return to work, there are certain aspects of warehouse jobs that will have to adapt to meet the new requirements and recommendations. These may include:
- Increased handwashing and surface cleaning
- Social distancing – 2m where possible
- Use of screens where workers are close together
- Working in fixed teams or partners to reduce the number of people coming into contact with each other
- Reduced sharing of equipment
- Workstations used by as few different people as possible
- Wearing of PPE
- One way systems
- Restricted access to shared areas
Many warehouse jobs already involve shift work and it is possible that more shift options will be added by businesses to enable more Warehouse Operatives to return to work, while keeping the number of staff on shift low enough to meet social distancing requirements. Equally, staggered arrival and departure times and break times are also likely in an effort to reduce the number of people coming and going at the same time.
At this point there is no definitive information about how a potential recession might impact the future of work in the warehouse, but as more non-essential shops and businesses begin to reopen it is likely there will be at least an initial surge in consumer spending and an increase in retail demand.
As lockdown restrictions continue to be lifted and other industries get back to work, warehouse stock will need to be moved and skilled Warehouse Operatives and Forklift Drivers will be needed for those warehouse jobs. Movement of goods into and out of a warehouse is a significant part of the supply chain and having experience of handling and processing stock will be sought after skills. Having a forklift licence will be a real bonus as more jobs begin to open up.
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1 Retail sales, Great Britain - Office for National Statistics. 2020. Retail sales, Great Britain - Office for National Statistics. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/businessindustryandtrade/retailindustry/bulletins/retailsales/april2020. [Accessed June 2020].
2 Retail Times. 2020. LinkedIn reveals top five most applied for jobs in the UK during pandemic – Retail Times. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.retailtimes.co.uk/linkedin-reveals-top-five-most-applied-for-jobs-in-the-uk-during-pandemic/. [Accessed June 2020].