The challenges of 2020 will have an enduring impact on warehousing and distribution centres that extends well beyond the initial disruptions experienced when the global health crisis first hit.

As countries around the globe went into lockdown, billions of consumers switched to online shopping, resulting in a 146% year-on-year jump in e-commerce orders in countries like the U.S and Canada. In the meantime, the surge in online shopping caused by COVID-19 is expected to add £5.3 billion to UK e-commerce sales.

Despite the gradual reopening of bricks and mortar shopping destinations, these new shopping behaviours and habits look set to persist. Warehouses and distribution centres are left with little option but to recalibrate their operations to cope ever more quickly and efficiently with new and highly volatile online demand patterns all while simultaneously navigating the challenge of de-risking supply chains.

Optimising for safe and efficient working

With the pressure on delivering goods more rapidly than before, warehouses and distribution centres are having to transform into highly sophisticated fulfilment centres. They have to be able to cope with the demands of an online distribution model that is very different to traditional retailing, where the store – not the consumer – is the service focus.

The growth in on-demand e-commerce is driving the pace of adoption of new automation systems, robotics, order fulfilment and scanning technologies. These reduce pick times, minimises pick errors, and enables warehouses and distribution centres to implement new workflows fast.

Furthermore, warehouse and distribution operatives are currently recognised as ‘key workers’ whose productivity is essential to the wellbeing of the business – and the nation. It follows with warehouses and distribution centres now deploying a raft of technologies designed to improve the productivity of their people and future-proof operations by ensuring that more operatives can work in socially distanced locations.

Many personnel are at present reliant on hand-held and mobile devices to receive work instructions or updates on stock locations and SKU. This indicates that mobile carts for laptops, computers and tablets are proving essential for these organisations, which need to be able change the location of key operatives on a whim.

It’s a similar story for strategically located secure charging cabinets , which can handle a variety of devices and are tough enough to cope with demanding workplace conditions. These cabinets are increasingly becoming essential for reducing the amount of cabling needed to ensure vital mobile tech is always available, charged, and ready-to-go in today’s 24x7 operational environments.

Managing workforce risk

The social distancing measures introduced in the UK means that warehouse and distribution centres have had to put in place new workplace measures to keep workers safe. Measures include restricting who can load and unload vehicles, encouraging drivers to stay in their vehicles to avoid compromising safe working practices, initiating strict cleaning regimes for equipment, and providing hand sanitisation stations across the site.

In addition to revising shift systems to minimise occupancy levels without compromising operational output, organisations are also reviewing entry and exit routes to minimise unnecessary contact, as well as implementing protective screening for staff at reception points and on pick lines. They’re also deploying consistent pairing systems for people that have to work in close proximity for processes that cannot be redesigned as well as reviewing layouts, line set ups and processes to ensure people can remain socially distanced from one another.

To further preserve the safety of personnel, many organisations are going one step further and utilising mobile thermal imaging carts to check the temperature of everyone who enters or exits the premises. Deploying a workforce screening programme can also help organisations fast-track their track-and-trace procedures to ensure co-workers can be quickly advised if they need to self-isolate.

Space utilisation: making the most of capacity

Updating inventory policy and planning capacity to cope with evolving work requirements has been a top priority for warehouses and distribution centres everywhere. The impact of e-commerce, combined with stockpiling as the UK continues to prepare to exit the EU, shows that UK logistics firms in particular are under significant pressure to optimise every bit of space they have.

As floor space fills, businesses are having to review layouts to create additional space. Increasing storage density, reducing aisle widths, and utilising spaces located above dispatch areas are just some of the approaches being utilised. Similarly, organisations are initiating new ‘close to customer’ mini distribution and fulfilment hubs that will enable them to fulfil orders faster and more effectively.

Firms are re-engineering workflows and floor layouts and establishing mini-sites to supercharge fulfilment, utilising any available workspace as effectively and flexibly as possible. This is now becoming their top priority. Today’s kinetic and mobile furnishings now make it easy to make the most of available space while offering workers more safe flexible ways of working productively.

These state-of-the-art adaptive furnishings include wall mounted solutions for monitors, displays and PCs that can be effortlessly tilted for viewing from any direction or angle, and sit-stand wall desks that can be adjusted to the exact height and diverse needs of users. With no floor supports, a flip-down work surface, integrated power and cable management, these solutions enable work environments to be organised and optimised with safety and productivity in mind. Thus supporting and addressing the challenging impact on warehouse and distribution centres.