Communication. It’s never been more important, as employees work from home, as truck drivers face the possibility of contracting COVID-19 while far from home, as information related to the pandemic changes nearly daily and misinformation circulates.
People Element, an employee retention company that serves the transportation and healthcare industries, recently published the results of a COVID-19 employee survey. In it, only 67% of people said their company has communicated a clear plan. And chief executives admit it’s a problem; nearly half of people in a chief officer role said they haven’t communicated a clear plan.
The essentiality of communicating with employees during this crisis is something I’ve heard again and again as I’ve talked to fleet leaders over the past month about how they’re handling the challenges of the pandemic. At the same time, I see on social media and in our editors’ conversations with drivers the frustration of drivers whose companies are NOT doing a good job of communicating.
And drivers are what I want to talk about today.
Communicating with this far-flung and mobile workforce has always been challenging. I remember the days of the first Qualcomm units, when drivers would get a message and have to find a pay phone to call in. When many drivers had personal toll-free numbers, or WATS lines, to their homes so they could call in without worrying about feeding quarters into pay phones or punching in long calling-card codes. When misinformation and urban legends spread via CB and truck-stop flyers, about organ theft and the U.S. Marshalls coming to truckers’ rescue against overzealous local enforcement officials.
Technology has made it a lot easier to communicate with drivers, with e-mail, text messaging, cell phones, in-cab computers, tablets, videos, social media, and more. But the technology, by itself, is not the communication. It’s the message, not the medium. Fleet executives have to make the commitment to provide information to drivers during this time of uncertainty and anxiety. You need to use all the platforms you can, and the messaging needs to be accurate, consistent, and empathetic.
The Blind Men and the Elephant
If you’re not communicating well with drivers, the situation becomes akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. In this story, a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before try to describe what it is like by touching it. The one who touches the trunk said it is like a thick snake. The one who touches the leg believes it is like a tree trunk. The one who feels its tail describes it as a rope. And so on.
Drivers’ view of the COVID-19 world they see through their limited viewpoint of the truck cab, what they hear on the CB or on Facebook, what they see at truckstops, is like seeing only one or two parts of the elephant. They often can’t see the big picture.
And with COVID-19, that’s made even worse by how fast information is changing. Within a couple of weeks, for instance, the recommendation from the government had pivoted from, don’t wear masks because the medical professionals need them and they don’t really protect you that well, to everyone should wear masks or cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus.
Two fleet execs I talked to recently both shared stories of helping drivers better understand some of the treatment they were getting at truckstops and shippers/receivers, which from their limited perspective seemed to be singling them out unfairly.
Brent Higgins, founder and general manager of Arkansas-based refrigerated carrier Brent Higgins Trucking, said the drivers of his 22 trucks felt they were being singled out by health checks at shippers and receivers.
“Because drivers, you know, have always for years been, thought as a second class citizen, even people that work in transportation period. They just live in their own world, you know, five and a half to six days a week. All they know is trucking. They didn't know that all the employees at Tyson were having their temperature checked, all of them were asked the same questions before they entered the facility that day.”
As a small company, Higgins was able to talk to drivers individually and reassure them they weren’t being unfairly targeted.
Derek Leathers may not have been able to individually reassure the thousands of drivers at Nebraska-based Werner Enterprises, where he’s president and CEO, but he has been working to communicate with them via twice-a-week videos, even maintaining a special email address that he set up a few years ago for drivers to communicate directly with him.
“The point of constant communication to the fleet is so they were aware of what was happening,” he said. “You know, one of the issues early on, and it was real at times, but often it was a misperception, was relative to closed showers. Clearly there were showers that were closed around the country, but that takes a lot of forms. If it's closed because they're deep cleaning them, that's different than closed because they're not welcoming.”
With the scale that Werner has, the company was able to reach out to its truckstop partners to find out what was happening and communicate that to drivers, and to work with them on solutions when there was a problem.
The Personal Touch
John Wilbur, CEO of the Roadmaster Group, told me that especially in the early weeks of the pandemic, it was a scramble to collect and distribute the fast-changing information on everything from health recommendations to regulatory exemptions.
That information was disseminated by “every and all methods,” Wilbur says, including daily Facebook live updates, daily emails to drivers and all employees, sent to the in-cab Omnitracs units. “But we also just spoke to them by phone much more frequently than we normally would.”
Kyle Kottke, general manager of Minnesota-based Kottke Trucking, told me that the social distancing was hitting drivers hard – not only the problems with things like restrooms being closed at rest areas and restaurants being limited to takeout, but also the psychological impact of the isolation.
“The number one thing I've done is I've redistributed my cell phone number to all 235 drivers and told them that if they're suffering any anxiety or uh, you know, that the lack of social interaction has got them in a spot, that they can call me day or night.”