What will stick?

From the February 2021 print edition

Where were you one year ago today? I had never heard of COVID, was doing a job I had loved for the past decade, had business trips planned to Salt Lake City, Nebraska and Long Beach and had just bought a new house with a March closing. Then my world spun out of orbit. As we limp into 2021, I do not think I am the only one reflecting on how much has changed, whether or not I like all these changes, and which changes are here to stay.

So, really quickly, jot down the three things that have changed the most in your work life and your personal life.

Personal changes, work changes
Personally, and I suspect I am not alone in this, COVID has led to more time with the people in my immediate family but zero time with anyone outside my 10-person bubble. I know many people who have struggled with health issues, whether COVID or otherwise.

I broke my foot in six places and the timing turned out to be ideal as I had nowhere to go. I have also found on a personal level that people are a little more forgiving – its OK if your dog barks during a zoom call or you put up a background of the beaches of Hawaii. Some of these personal changes are welcome but I am not convinced that any of them are here to stay.

On the work side, I hear from many people who miss travelling but few who miss a daily commute. We have definitely learned to use technology to enable us to accomplish tasks remotely.

I think I have been on five different platforms in the past month and I don’t foresee flying six hours for a one-hour meeting ever again. Although I didn’t expect to be job hunting, I wasn’t alone, as shifts in the industry led to many of us seeking new opportunities. In January, I joined Matrix, a consulting firm concentrating on finding solutions to client’s management, staffing and operational concerns. I’m now the director of their fleet solutions arm and lead for expansion of all functional areas in Canada.

A very promising change has been a heightened awareness of the importance of fleet and the people who operate, maintain and manage the assets that deploy law enforcement, make deliveries, transport people and much, much more.

Within the fleet industry, we have learned so much over the past year and the ability of fleet managers to cope with their ever-changing ‘normal’ has been brilliant. Here are some of the top changes I have seen and my evaluation of their stickiness:

  • Employee care. The health and welfare of our employees has been pushed to the forefront in this pandemic. Our entire nation focused on acquiring the personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitization supplies that we needed to keep essential services running. Organizations searched for ways to accommodate people working from home by redefining responsibilities and adding flexibility to schedules. Also, smart employers placed an unprecedented premium on mental health and putting systems in place to ensure employees felt connected. In fleet, I witnessed organizations issue mandatory stay orders for employees at high risk and others who looked for ways to provide additional training rather than lay off employees. Unfortunately, this won’t stick. I predict a return to former levels of employee care.
  • Shared space and items. Fleet offices and shops tend to be small, shared spaces that are ill-suited
    to the isolation needed to weather a pandemic. I saw real innovation in separating shared spaces, creating new shift schedules and working off-site or outdoors during the pandemic. Shared vehicles and shared tools were minimized with extensive protocols in place where sharing was inevitable. This also will not stick around. Shared spaces and resources will be back when the virus is contained.
  • Traditional shared options. In fleet, it had been considered a best practice to use a combination of owned/leased vehicles, rentals and even public transportation where available to meet requirements to get people and resources where they need to be, when they need to be there. Some of these solutions are not safe or feasible in a pandemic and fleet managers had to quickly adapt policies and find new ways to operate. This is not sticky. The full mix of pre-pandemic options will eventually return.
  • Evolving mobility options. Before the pandemic hit, the industry was looking at evolving mobility options to augment, or in some places, replace traditional fleet. Autonomous, keyless and touchless – the buzzwords of mobility – quickly became reality as many fleets rapidly adopted technologies to stop the spread of COVID-19. This one will stick – we were already going in this direction and the pandemic has given us one more reason to get there.
  • Supplier relationships. Organizations that invested in strategic sourcing and supply relationship management (SRM) fared better this past year than those that did not. Having strong supplier relationships was the difference between vehicle orders being met; or not. This one is sticky – natural disasters and now a pandemic have made it very clear that supplier relations are vital.

The value of fleet
Going forward, it is the overall change regarding the recognized value of fleet to an organization that I most want to stick. In many organizations, fleet has been seen as a necessary evil – a deep well that sucks up money and time and generates no revenue.

This crisis has highlighted the value of having the right assets, in terms of people and resources, to allow the organization to pivot and respond to the emergency. Experienced fleet managers have proven to be invaluable in adapting emergency preparedness plans, acquiring additional assets and changing shop workflows to safely operate during this extended crisis.

To make this change stick, we need to share our success stories and continue to emphasize the important role that the fleet team is playing on a daily basis.

Kate Vigneau, CAFM, is director (fleet and Canada) at Matrix Consulting Group, Ltd. (US) and MCG Consulting Solutions (Canada).