Amanda Thompson remembers sitting in a board meeting at U.S. Xpress soon after President Trump issued his order blocking entry to the country by non-U.S. citizens who had been in China in the last 14 days.
“And we were like, ‘We need to really start putting a plan of action together and making sure that we've got all of the mission-critical operational positions accounted for, and what are we going to do if we have to go to a work from home, how do we keep our fleets going. We pulled a task force together, and we started going into action really, really quickly.”
Thompson is chief people officer for the large truckload fleet. She recently shared her company’s experiences on an HDT webinar, along with executives from Hub Group and M&W Logistics, about how their fleets had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Planning for a Pandemic
At U.S. Xpress, Thompson said, by mid-March the plan was in place that covered all of its office, shop, and driver employees.
All three speakers discussed how they quickly swung into pandemic planning mode once it became apparent that there was a threat.
At Hub Group, much of their business is in intermodal, an area hit early by COVID-19 as imports coming from China were affected, so they started addressing the pandemic in mid-February, explained Gerry Mead, executive vice president of maintenance for Hub Group.
“We had some business continuity plans already developed, and we pulled those out and reviewed those continuity plans and really started tightening them up to ensure they cover issues such as COVID-19. We started doing a weekly meeting as an executive team, understanding what communication was needed to ensure that we protect all of our employees, from office, driver, and technician bases.”
They engaged the IT team immediately, testing system so that when work-at-home orders came along, “we ensured we had constant connectivity throughout our network, so we could conduct business as usual.”
At M&W Logistics, the first steps were making sure employees were washing their hands and social distancing, explained Chris Woody, safety manager. The company isolated some of its really key people who could not work from home very easily.
“As each day went on, we realized that this was going to be more than we even imagined. In mid-March, we assembled our team and put detailed step by step plans together for each department and each scenario and got those documented and distributed.”
He explained the task force was made up of decision makers and department heads. “What we wanted to do was have whatever came out of that task force meeting to be immediately implemented” by those departments. The first thing they addressed was what to do if an employee had symptoms or was diagnosed with COVID-19. “And then we imagined all the scenarios within those departments. It took a while. We met every single day, for a long time each day, but we knew it was important.”
So when that first employee called in with symptoms, he said, “It was it was almost the most mundane thing in the whole world because we had already talked about it, we knew exactly what was going to happen, and it worked.”
2. Preventing Contamination in the Shop
Hub Group runs roughly 4,000 trucks with six shop locations and about 65 people in the maintenance department. Its response to COVID-19 in the shop primarily focused on avoiding cross-contamination and on cleaning and sanitizing surfaces such as steering wheels, door handles, etc.
“One of the things we really demonstrated and talked to them about was the use of gloves,” Mead said. “A lot of mechanics use gloves, but they don't realize the common surfaces they touch, and how even though they have gloves on, as they touch surfaces they can really take contamination from one area and spread it. So we've talked about changing gloves, and the properly proper way to change gloves, and then wash their hands in between and really almost get surgical.”
3. Working from Home
At Hub Group, they started testing groups of 50% working from home very early. “By the end of February we knew the plan could work, and then when it got to a certain point we pretty much shut down the corporate office,” Mead explained.
The company has used Microsoft Teams to help employees communicate. In fact, Mead said, “We have probably a lot more communications going on outside the office than we did before. So it's really helped our productivity and to keep us rolling so we can deliver the goods that are needed out there for everyone else as we continue to go through this pandemic.”
Within a week’s time, U.S. Xpress went from having less than 1% of office employees able to telecommute to about 95%. That involved the IT department making sure people had computers at home and the ability to connect with the office via VPN. Beyond that, she said, there was the actual “how” of working remotely.
“A lot of them were using Microsoft Teams for the very first time,” Thompson said. “Teams has proven to be a very, very valuable tool for all of our employee base.” The company put together various training modules, from how to actually use the platform itself to tips on managing a remote workforce.
4. Protecting Drivers
U.S. Xpress is still hiring and onboarding drivers, so it developed a “virtual orientation” that allows drivers to complete a lot of the required paperwork prior to attending the actual physical orientation. “We are very deliberate about social distancing, making sure that we have no more than 10 in a classroom, and making sure that even providing them lunch, everything's individually wrapped. We're making sure we're doubling up on disinfectants, providing masks and gloves, and doing a lot of the temperature screenings and things like that.” Curriculum has been revised to include information on drivers protecting themselves during the pandemic, such as what to do when fueling, hand-washing, how to disinfect their truck, etc.
For drivers on the road, U.S. Xpress has an HR task force set up to take calls from drivers who experience symptoms, and it has had a few drivers test positive. How those are handled varies depending on the individual driver’s situation. “Sometimes we've had to pay for rental cars to get that driver home. Sometimes we've had to provide hotels for those drivers to stay at for an extended period of time. We have had drivers that if they were hospitalized, providing transportation and making sure that we are taking care of them as much as possible. We've also provided additional pay for them if somebody has tested positive and they're out of work due to the virus.”
5. Communication is Key Part of Pandemic Planning and Response
The panelists emphasized that it’s not enough to just have a plan – communication, and over-communication, is vital to ensure all employees know about that plan, including what will happen for employees who come down with symptoms.
“Our companies are made up of people, and they're all real, live human beings and our drivers are not robots that hold a steering wheel,” Woody said. “If you're going to ask them to work in whatever capacity during this thing or anything else where they could potentially be in danger, you owe it to them to do everything you possibly can. So that's what we did. We made sure that we had a plan that kept them in mind, and then we made sure that we communicated to everyone that we have a plan.”
When it comes to working remotely, Thompson said, “I think the biggest tip that I would offer is to communicate, communicate, communicate – over communication, if at all possible. We put some tips out there for how frequently to communicate with your team, but also to keep it fun and real. And we have also done some town halls with our employees. In fact, we've gotten a lot of response from the communications that our CEO Eric Fuller has done.
“Communication to me has been the number one key to keep everybody calm and collected during all of this.”
6. What COVID-19 is Teaching Us
Each panelist also was asked about lessons learned from this crisis that resonate for beyond the pandemic.
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For U.S. Xpress, Thompson said, it was the business continuity plan. “Everything is documented, and we want to use this going forward so that we know how to deploy. I think that being able to transition from in the office to home and to still serve all of our different employee bases has been, that was a dramatic change for us, but we will be able to use that in just about any scenario. We had another crisis come up during the same time with the tornadoes in Chattanooga. And so we were dealing with both of these crises at the same time, and I think because we were so flexible and nimble during this time we were able to help out all of those employees impacted.”
For Mead, the biggest takeaway involves how we may interact in the future. “I think what a lot of lot of folks are learning is that it's not necessary to be in a room to have a very inclusive and beneficial meeting. So I think a lot of companies will look at how they travel and reduce travel based on what they're learning today. I think that that's one of the main things that that's going to be learned from this, is the ability to telemeet or telecommute.”
Woody stressed “just how resilient we can be when we're really put to it. You know, I think if you had asked any of us [a year ago], to send half of your people home or all your office home, and keep all your shop guys at a distance and wipe down their tools and change gloves and all this, you would have been laughed at. But we see what we're capable of, and it really encourages me that we can withstand this and we can still thrive.”