Helping Warehouse Employees Thrive in an Era of Automation

August 23, 2018

Posted by Stephen "Stevie" Hay

Employee Experience, Automation, Warehouse

 

In a recent column for the Allentown (Penn.) Morning Call, former Bethlehem Mayor Don Cunningham describes the uncertainty that swept the Lehigh Valley after the mammoth Bethlehem Steel factory shuttered in the late 1990s. What would become of the Lehigh Valley now that the blast furnaces were silent? The region responded by reinventing itself and diversifying its economy. Two decades later, Cunningham reports the area’s 2017 GDP reached $39 billion – higher than it was during the steel era.

With fulfillment on the cusp of a similar radical transformation, how do we apply the lessons learned from the Lehigh Valley to an industry increasingly driven by artificial intelligence? For executives considering greater use of automation in their fulfillment operations, the key is openness with your employees and a vision focused on opportunity. Being more open and providing opportunities and training will lead to greater employee satisfaction and engagement.

Consider these three steps to preparing your employees for the new warehouse.

  • Develop a plan and discuss your company’s intent. Blindsiding employees with layoffs or sudden changes in responsibilities can damage the employee-manager relationship. As you complete long-term planning, allow employees to provide feedback and help them understand what automation will look like in their environments. Explore using employees in different ways or within different parts of the business while maintaining your costs per unit. Perhaps you can win more business with the same staff, rather than laying them off.
  • Promote departmental training sessions. The shift from standard picking practices to working with servicing and programming robots will be jarring for many employees. Allow a set amount of paid time for employees to learn about your new technology and work through practice scenarios, and ensure that all employees can attend at least one session.
  • Encourage/incentivize your employees to participate in professional development. Consider offering a program that will pay some, or even all, of a professional development course for your warehouse staff. These incentives are win-win – your employees will be comfortable with change, and the knowledge they gain can drive both quicker implementation and more effective operation.

The average warehouse worker may not face such a significant upheaval as the one seen at Bethlehem Steel. Still, the days of manual picking and inventory management are coming to an end, and Lehigh Valley demonstrates how a community can come together and adapt to changing conditions. As e-commerce continues to grow, so will job opportunities – just with a different set of descriptions. With support from management, warehouse employees can face these changes with little fear of the future.

For more tips on preparing fulfillment employees for automation, read Stevie Hay’s full article, “How to help employees adjust to the evolving role of humans in fulfillment,” in Modern Materials Handling.