Covid-19 presents truck fleets with a new normal

John G Smith

Life is far from normal in these days of Covid-19. Businesses have modified operations or shut doors completely, waiting for news on how and when they can return to work.

No matter when individual pockets of the economy reopen, however, it will hardly be business as usual. Looking at practices that have emerged during this pandemic, I’ve come to believe that several changes will stick with the trucking industry for months – or even years – to come.

Don’t be surprised if many of them transform the industry in a permanent way.

Covid-19
(Illustration: iStock)

The most obvious shift, of course, involves many of the physical barriers established in the name of public health. Until a vaccine is widely circulated, social distancing will be a must. When it’s not possible to keep six feet apart, that means we’ll be speaking through facemasks and plexiglass. Barriers like these have already emerged everywhere from dispatching offices, to the assembly lines being restarted by equipment manufacturers, and are not about to disappear anytime soon.

As we “non-essential” types are allowed back into offices, and return to spending more of our time with essential colleagues in the outside world, I know that one of my personal challenges will come in the form of one-on-one greetings. My go-to position has always been to step forward, look you in the eye, and offer a firm handshake. But in these pandemic days, extended hands might be greeted as if they were coated in … let’s just refer to it as solid waste.

From truck cabs to truck stops, cleaning practices are taking on a new sense of urgency, too.

At a fleet level, one of the most obvious shifts in the name of social distancing has come in the form of office workers completing their tasks outside the traditional office environment. Groups from dispatchers to planners and accounting teams have moved home with computers in hand. And in some cases, there doesn’t seem to be any rush to haul them back into traditional bullpens. Rather than reworking office layouts, some fleets are openly musing about the benefits of remote workplaces.

There are advantages to this beyond preventing disease. Fleets could perform some of the related tasks with less real estate, and recruit personnel who might otherwise look elsewhere because of office locations.

For a long-term change like this to be effective, however, managers need to commit to a greater level of communication than ever before. We humans are social animals by nature. Without the banter in the office, or a quick cross-cubicle question, that will mean more texts, conference calls, and Zoom video chats. With every piece of transferred data, there will also need to be a renewed focus on steps to keep such information secure.

It’s not the only way that electronic communications will transform fleet activities. Paperwork has been steadily evolving into digital formats for years, but Covid-19 has shifted the process into overdrive as fleets and shippers look for ways to eliminate some of the physical exchanges that remain. And as those final processes are digitized, there’s no turning back. When the data is in hand, opportunities for efficiencies are bound to emerge.

Perhaps the most important change has come in the higher level of awareness about the trucking industry as a whole. The general public is certainly more aware of the role of trucking in the broader supply chain, even if references to “highway heroes” are already beginning to fade.

Combine this awareness with an economy thrown into disarray, and there’s a new opportunity for employers to tap into a broader labor pool, encouraging would-be truckers to follow career paths on the road. The industry also has the ears of politicians, who are suddenly involved (interested?) in discussions about things like washroom access for truck drivers.

It’s time for the industry to take advantages of the opportunities that have emerged along with the undeniable challenges.

Instead of going back to the way things were, we would all be better served by adapting to the new normal.

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Canadian Shipper, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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