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Why technology is the key to a safe and productive post-Covid-19 workplace

(Image credit: Image Credit: Bbernard / Shutterstock)

The Covid-19 pandemic threw the world for a loop. Virtually overnight, everything about the way businesses operated — from sales and service to fabrication and delivery — changed. Over the following weeks and months, businesses and organizations eventually found their bearings as they worked with customers, partners, and health experts to navigate the most widespread global health crisis in generations.

Now, nearly six months after the initial wave began, businesses and organizations are gradually returning to work. But as they do, they face further uncertainty and complexity with new procedures for incorporating social distancing into workflows and operations within their offices and manufacturing facilities.

Like many of the world’s most pressing and complex challenges, business leaders are increasingly recognizing that various types of connected, mobile technologies can help promote social distancing and preventive hygiene that help ensure the health and safety of employees up and down the supply chain.

An industry in flux with more change on the way

For decades, global manufacturers and their supply chain partners have been laser-focused on supply chain optimization, lowering operating costs, reducing standing inventories, and generally bolstering their margins to absorb the cyclical ups and downs of doing business on a global scale. In fact, according to a recent study half of procurement organizations still relied on legacy tools, such as Excel spreadsheets, to store and analyze their data. 

While much time and effort has been invested into digitizing supply channels and overcoming these traditional business barriers in the industry to bring it into the digital age, there’s very little that can be done to change the nature of manufacturing and supply chain’s core component: people.

The Covid-19 pandemic has infected millions of people and pushed billions into quarantine and isolation. Removing people from the supply chain brings operations to a virtual standstill, since most manufacturing jobs are onsite and cannot be carried out remotely. At the height of the pandemic wave, nearly 80 per cent of manufacturers anticipated a significant financial impact on their businesses and more than half expected the need for substantial changes to their operations, both during and after the crisis. Now, companies and governments are slowly re-opening for business, but it won’t be business as usual.

Using technology to gain some semblance of normal

Safeguarding consumer safety and workforce health has become the publicly stated top priority among businesses and governments. Some experts suggest that full or partial plant closures could continue for businesses in hard-hit regions or that are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak among their workers like warehouses and fabrication facilities.

However, other companies getting back to work are incorporating technologies like wireless communications, wearable devices and sensors, and device cleaning systems to optimise spacing, hygiene, and safety. In particular, the increased adoption of rugged mobile computers and scanners enables warehouse and manufacturing floor employees to maintain the safe, recommended distance without sacrificing collaboration or productivity.

These purpose-built mobile devices enable workers on the floor to communicate with co-workers via messaging apps as easy to use as regular SMS texting, along with other apps for digitally pushing work orders directly to employees. The devices are also ideal for receiving pick orders, playing video, and enabling photo verification all from the same screen.

Mobile computers also work seamlessly with other connected devices such as extended range scanners for longer distance scanning and cloud-printing which can eliminate unnecessary walking across facilities in search of an available printer and direct employees to a dedicated one nearby. Many apps can be configured to even assign work based on designated work zones or particular locations to minimize employee overlap.

Keeping it clean

While warehousing and manufacturing operations have always been relatively spread out, there are still plenty of face-to-face interactions and occasions where small groups have to be in close proximity. Mobile devices can minimize the need for groups to congregate in close proximity by extending their use to communications and training platforms, rather than just a window into the warehouse or materials management systems. 

While these devices are indispensable, it’s imperative that every asset, tool, and area be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected regularly. Businesses of all sizes are going to have to make changes to their daily procedures that center around frequent deep cleanings and disinfecting. Old-school cleaning methods — spray bottles and rags, mops, and emptying trash — simply won’t cut it in anymore. Cleaning tools like touchless UV lighting systems are becoming increasingly popular, since they’re easy to use and can reduce infection rates by up to 80%, according to some studies.

But keeping track of what’s been cleaned, how it was cleaned, and worker movements to track and rule out sources of infection is incredibly challenging. The mobile computers, tablets, and scanners used for touchless floor operations play a vital role here too, enhancing hygiene and disinfection efforts by enabling better tracking, reporting, and analysis for floor and business operations managers.

In particular, these devices can keep time-stamped records of cleaning activities across high-traffic areas, workstations and on shared equipment like heavy machinery, pallet jacks, and other tools. At the same time, these tools make it easy to set up self-service check-in kiosks at the entrance so employees can scan their ID badges and report any health concerns or updates. 

Because of open and intuitive operating systems like Android, these innovative devices are also compatible with a variety of databases and other reporting tools that, when combined with scans from employee ID badges, show movements throughout the shift, enabling contact tracing.

Yet, perhaps the biggest benefit of mobile technologies is their ability to streamline employee education and implement best practices quickly. They can deliver pre-loaded video training to ensure new cleaning protocols are followed exactly as they were designed.

Time for a new beginning

No one and no industry has been spared from the impact of our current global health crisis. And global experts predict restricted movement of people around the world for another 18-24 months, in most models. 

For manufacturers and their supply chain partners who have traditionally operated in high-touch, heavily trafficked, and often close quarters, the sudden, dramatic change in their daily operations has been nothing short of abrupt. But the changes are also an opportunity to transform a previously analog industry into a more agile one as the industry rebuilds after the pandemic.

New workplace-specific technologies like mobile computers, long distance scanners, UV cleaning tools, and contact tracing software have the capability to help businesses get back to work safely, quickly, and with greater transparency and visibility that will become standard operating procedure long into the post-Covid-19 future.

Mark Wheeler, Director of Supply Chain Solutions, Zebra Technologies