Insights & news

How can the supply chain support the return to work?

The pandemic is responsible for the most severe disruption to life in the post-war period. Lockdown laws have forced many non-essential businesses to pause or reduce operations dramatically, putting unprecedented pressure on the UK’s supply chain.

Continuing changes to the Government’s COVID-19 guidance made supply and demand unpredictable, as different sectors and regions locked down and reopened more than once, creating significant cashflow issues.

The introduction of the Government’s furlough scheme has helped suppliers stay afloat and safeguard jobs. However, the initiative has also created considerable staffing challenges for many suppliers as they work to balance capacity with demand.

Since March 2020, access constraints, heightened safety measures and staff illness have impacted suppliers’ ability to deliver services to an expected standard. At the same time, thousands of engineers, cleaners and other facilities service staff have provided critical services on the frontline throughout the crisis despite the risks to their health.

All legal restrictions in England are due to be lifted on 21 June if the virus transmission rate remains low. With organisations now forming their return-to-work plans, the onus will fall on suppliers to ensure sites are ready for reoccupation, occupants are safe, and services run uninterrupted as the country moves into the next phase of the pandemic.

In March 2021, Integral and JLL surveyed Tier 1 partners to understand the challenges they faced in the previous year and their areas of focus over the coming months.

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The results from this qualitative Supply Chain Pulse study have revealed four core priorities:

1 – Ensure a safe return to work

Since lockdown measures came into effect, suppliers have played a crucial role in keeping the UK population safe. Cleaners have used new techniques, solutions and frequencies to minimise the risk of transmissions. Meanwhile, engineering and facilities teams have created procedures to maintain the required distancing.

Workforce surveys from JLL have consistently shown that employees across industries expect heightened levels of cleaning to continue post-pandemic. Half of 3000 global workers surveyed by JLL in March 2021 reported this as a key expectation as they plan a safe return to their workplaces.

Looking ahead, supply chain survey respondents said that supporting customers’ health and safety management remains a top priority. Enhanced cleaning regimes and distancing measures will need to continue past 21 June, especially in buildings where occupancy increases sharply. Cleaning suppliers should pay close attention to high-traffic areas like entrance lobbies or stairwells and adapt their service to the flow through a building, particularly when people share space in agile or flexible environments.

The benefits of enhanced cleaning regimes will also be psychological. Respondents highlighted the need to give confidence to those anxious about returning to their workplace and require assurances that their employer is taking the necessary steps to keep them safe. Visible and frequent cleaning will give this group peace of mind and help instil the right behaviours.

Finally, it is impossible to ignore the risks and pressures on suppliers’ staff. Survey respondents cited mental health and wellbeing as one of the major challenges during the pandemic. Moving forward, suppliers said they would need to consider the working practices, behaviours and support mechanisms to take better care of their people in the future.

2 – Plan, engage, communicate

Respondents claimed that managing customer expectations was one of the biggest challenges of lockdown. Although customers were largely supportive, suppliers admitted that they sometimes struggled to communicate the impact that lockdown restrictions and lack of staff availability had on their ability to maintain service levels.

Most suppliers are on standby and ready for the return to work. However, a third of the supplier respondents claimed that they would need at least one month’s notice to support a return to full capacity.

Respondents also stressed the need to communicate the supply chain’s vulnerability, especially if reoccupation comes out of the blue. According to the suppliers, a detailed plan would provide them with the necessary ‘business intelligence’ to manage and forecast demand surges by procuring suitable materials and undertaking recruitment if there is a need to upscale.

Proactive planning and communication between customers and suppliers on return to work strategy was cited as a success factor. As suppliers deal with logistical and administrative challenges of bringing staff back from furlough, this will help scale up resources to meet demand in a timely fashion.

Ultimately, a genuine partnership between customers and suppliers will deliver better outcomes for both parties and ensure that the return to work goes smoothly.

3. Manage the demand surge

The survey revealed that managing demand predictability is high on the suppliers’ agenda. Factors such as access constraints, shifting safety dynamics and staff illness have all impacted their ability to deliver to expected standards and this is unlikely to change in the return-to-work phase.

Survey respondents said that increased flexibility for access, particularly out of hours, will help them provide customers with better support if demand surges upon reoccupation. Similarly, suppliers noted that payment terms would need to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The survey revealed a fear among suppliers that more uncertainty could jeopardise the work they have done to reduce backlogs while juggling the staffing and safety challenges during lockdown.

In preparation for reoccupation, respondents outlined a clear four-step programme:

  1. Perform statutory maintenance (life safety systems) and repairs first
  2. Focus on core M&E infrastructure – mapped to known re-occupancy levels
  3. Carry out new reactive works to improve employee return to work experience
  4. Lastly, deal with aged backlogs

4 – Innovate

The pandemic has proved one adage true: necessity is the mother of invention. Almost all the suppliers in the survey introduced new technology-based products to generate alternative revenue or improve safety measures.

Looking ahead, suppliers said they would continue to leverage technology in the reoccupation phase across several key areas, including:

a) Virus mitigation
Customers will be under pressure to minimise transmission and stop outbreaks from happening in their buildings. To this end, suppliers expect to see demand for infra-red technology that can monitor occupants’ temperature and the equipment for lateral flow testing stations that provide COVID-19 tests.

b) Air quality
Suppliers continue to focus on creating better air quality to keep customer environments sanitised. The British Council for Offices recently called for UK offices to ensure they have adequate ventilation ahead of the return to work following strong links between COVID-19 super spreader events and poorly ventilated indoor spaces. Due to the pandemic, people have become far more aware of the impact that air quality and ventilation have on their general health.

c) Occupancy
As organisations welcome employees or customers back into their buildings, they will need to find effective ways to manage both occupancy and access control. Monitoring occupancy will allow them to enforce distancing rules, sanitise hot-desks or bookable spaces, and manage enhanced cleaning regimes effectively. A smart building will also provide customers and suppliers with an accurate record of where demand surges according to building use.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 is unlikely to end on 21st June. Indeed, a mass movement to reoccupy the nation’s buildings will place new demands on the UK’s supply chains. From health & safety to managing the ongoing challenges around demand, Integral’s supply chain insights underline how important it is for suppliers to now proactively partner with their customers to plan and execute for the return to work and beyond.

Read time: 6:25 min.

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