How satisfied are your warehouse workers?

June 3, 2022
"It appears that technology is at the crux of the 'good vibes' that warehouse associates are feeling right now."

Every few years, Zebra Technologies commissions a global Warehousing Vision Study to get an honest assessment of what’s working well in warehouses and what could be working better from a decision-maker and associate viewpoint. It’s always an enlightening report because respondents who participate speak freely (and anonymously) about what’s really on their minds. They reveal quite a lot about what’s happening within the four walls of manufacturing, third party logistics providers (3PL), transportation, wholesale distribution, and retail warehouses, including the things that are working well and some of the issues they’re facing. They also disclose the plans they’re making to combat specific challenges.

When I objectively look at the findings from this latest study, I’ll admit a lot of the data reinforces what we—the Zebra team—already know from our year-round work with warehouse operators. For example, it wasn’t shocking that over 40% of warehouse operators say rising transportation costs are taking their toll. To be honest, I expected that number to be higher given that there really isn’t a “cheap” way to ship anything anymore. Even ground and maritime prices are up significantly year over year, and the e-commerce boom has everyone buying—and shipping—more items. 

I also wasn’t surprised that operators say they’re struggling to fulfill customer orders on time or maintain inventory accuracy and visibility. It’s no secret that labor shortages, supply shortages and other market factors are disrupting supply chains and forcing warehouse operators to get creative to prevent a total fulfillment stoppage. In many cases, my colleagues and I are the ones on the front lines with them trying to figure out how to remove bottlenecks in workflows and boost productivity, accuracy and efficiency rates from dock to stock.

So, when warehouse operators said they have plans to deploy more autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for person-to-goods (P2G) picking, material movements and other automated inventory moves—or that they plan to invest in software that helps automate analytics and decision-making—I said, “yep, that’s on par with our projections.” We’ve already seen spend increase in these areas because, warehouse operators “want to raise worker effectiveness and efficiency and reduce labor costs.”

Automation—whether supported via AMRs, software or prescriptive analytics – is among the best ways to augment the workforce, especially when you can’t find enough people to fill the hundreds of thousands of open warehousing jobs around the world. It cuts out some of the mundane or wasteful actions from people’s to-do lists so they can focus on the big-ticket items, such as getting more customer orders out the door each day.

Now, there was one thing that did throw me for a loop when I was reviewing the study results: warehouse associates’ positive attitude about current working conditions. I have seen the social media posts from warehouse associates “on the inside” claiming that they’re being overworked or mistreated. And, in true social media fashion, I had been led to believe that most—if not all—warehouse associates have been soured by labor shortages, intensifying customer demands, and overall market pressures to turn more inventory at record rates.

But clearly, those social media posts are not representative of how all warehouse workers feel. They aren’t even indicative of the majority sentiment. Eight in 10 warehouse associates around the world claim things have actually gotten better for them lately, even though only 45% say their employers have bumped up their pay or given them bonuses.

How is this possible considering warehouse associates are being asked to do more than ever? We know there are days when warehouses are understaffed in comparison to the volume of goods and orders that must be processed. So, if they’re not necessarily getting paid more for the extra effort, what is making them so cheery amid the labor constraints?

It appears that technology is at the crux of the “good vibes” that warehouse associates are feeling right now.

Most say they are being given more technology to use on the job, and their employers are using technology to create more flexible work shifts. This is likely contributing to less injuries, a better work-life balance, and a better balance of priorities while on the clock, as well as less absenteeism.

Plus, nearly eight in 10 warehouse associates say walking fewer miles per day would make their jobs more enjoyable, even if they had to pick or handle more items, and many strongly believe AMRs could make warehouse jobs less stressful. We have confirmed with warehouse operators that AMR deployments are on the uptick, so perhaps there’s a correlation there?

92% of warehouse associates went so far as to say that they agree on some level that “technology advancements will make the warehouse environment more attractive to workers.” What’s more, a staggering 83% have declared that they “are more likely to work for an employer that gives them modern devices to use for tasks versus an employer that provides older or no devices.”

Doesn’t sound like what you’re hearing on social media, right?

When asked about the disconnect recently, my suspicion is that as more technology tools have been rolled out in warehouses around the world, workers have started to appreciate them as friend versus foe—especially robots. Case in point: warehouse associates who work alongside AMRs today said they have “helped increase productivity and reduce walking/travel time (83%), reduce errors (73%), and enable advancement to new roles or opportunities (65%).”

As I have said before, automation is the great equalizer, especially when labor is constrained or during unexpected surge periods or seasonal peaks when it may be difficult to scale the workforce quickly.

So, if you’re a warehouse operator who is hesitant to aggressively deploy new technology solutions for fear of worker pushback, know that associates are ready for a change. They’re almost demanding it with their willingness to switch jobs over the availability of technology tools. Change management will still be needed because, as you can see, the study data doesn’t indicate 100% buy in…yet. Effort will still be needed to get everyone comfortable with AMRs, wearables, or even RFID technologies that may be new and different from the usual workflow-technology tools. But it appears the risk of not digitalizing and automating workflows more extensively is higher than “taking a risk” with new technology solutions.

If you’re not sure which technologies are best suited for your workflows or will make things easier on your workers during busy times, you may want to look at what some of your peers are doing as inspiration.

According to the study feedback, more than six in 10 decision-makers will invest in “technologies that increase inventory and asset visibility within their warehouses and overall visibility throughout supply chains over the next five years.” Almost every single decision-maker also expects their use of sensor-based technologies such as radio frequency identification (RFID), computer vision, fixed industrial scanning, and machine-vision systems to become more prevalent in that timeframe. Some are already seeing tremendous results from early pilots and deployments.

This phase-based roadmap for warehouse digitalization and operational maturity may also prove helpful as you’re trying to prioritize technology investments or overall business process improvements.   

Mark Wheeler is director of supply chain solutions with Zebra Technologies