Remote Work: An Ongoing Challenge for Distributors & Manufacturers

Former ID editor Jack Keough weighs in on the lasting pros and cons of remote working, and which elements of it will outlast the pandemic.

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As the pandemic (hopefully) continues easing, manufacturers, distributors and other businesses should examine work changes that have taken place over the past several months, especially as to employees working remotely.

Is this a change in working conditions that will become permanent? And if it does, what effect will it have on your company’s central headquarters or branch operations?

The indications are, according to experts, that many of these changes will become permanent as more and more workers continue operating from their home locations.

In fact, nearly half of the US labor force is working from home full time, according to economists. And 67 percent of companies expect working from home to be permanent or long-lasting, says S&P Global, which provides financial analyses.

Mike Hockett, Industrial Distribution’s managing editor, recently wrote that MSC Industrial Supply is going all-in on adjusting to the new normal of doing business in a virtual format.

The metalworking and MRO products distributor announced Jan. 21 that it is overhauling its customer support model to enhance the in-person and virtual support it provides, centering on a move from a branch office network to virtual customer care hubs that will provide personalized support to customers, regardless of their physical location.

WATCH - 5 With ID: MSC Industrial Supply on Taking Customer Support Virtual (published March 25)

Actions taken to support the new customer support care structure include the closure of 73 branch offices that have been shut temporarily amid the pandemic. MSC said that sales associates who previously worked in those offices will continue to work remotely through virtual customer care hubs to maintain customer relationships and personalized service in local markets. The changes will also result in the reduction of about 115 management and other positions within MSC's commercial sales organization that interact infrequently with customers.

It is amazing to think that just two years ago, few distributors and manufacturers had employees working working remotely.

One thing is certain: employees like the change.

The Way We Work

More than half of Americans who are working from home because of the pandemic want to continue doing so all or most of the time after the outbreak, according to a Pew Research Center survey, signaling the increase in remote work is likely to continue.

Another study titled "COVID-19 and the Workplace: Implications, Issues, and Insights for Future Research and Action," published in an issue of American Psychologist shows the effect of working at home.

The authors pointed to a survey of 229 human resources departments showing that roughly half of the companies had more than 80% of their employees working from home during early stages of the pandemic. The companies expect substantial long-term increases for remote work after the pandemic.

Other results: Some 71 percent of workers who can complete their job responsibilities remotely are working from home all or a majority of the time and 54% hope to continue if given the choice.

A majority, 64%, said their workplace is closed or unavailable to them, and 36 percent said they have chosen not to go to the office. 

Of the workers who have decided to work from home, 60 percent said it is because they prefer it and 57 percent said their primary reason is concern about catching coronavirus.

For the vast majority, full-time remote work or flexible, hybrid arrangements involving some work from home could be the new reality. 

These new work models will require new thinking, new ways to promote working together, and new tools and initiatives to help remote workers achieve peak performance..

It might also mean a new way of evaluating employees who no longer come into the office.

Side Effects

But there are other problems for employers who allow employeees to work at home.  Some employers say they are noticing more aggressiveness on the part of at-home workers with their colleagues.

In an article in the New York Times, Gustavo Razzetti, who gets hired by companies to improve their work cultures, said he has noticed a change since the pandemic began last year: more political brawls, more managers losing control of their employees and a mix of hyper-engagement and lack of empathy.

Employees are turning their cameras off, hiding behind avatars, becoming disrespectful,” said Razzetti, whose consultancy is called Fearless Culture. Theyre being aggressive among each other,” he said.

Office conversation at some companies is starting to look as unruly as conversation on the internet, he pointed out.

In addition, some employees miss the camaraderie of the workplace, suffer from loneliness which could affect their performance while some are challenged by an increased risk for substance abuse and addiction.

Graybar, the giant electrical distributor, recognized the stress that employees have been under. During the pandemic, Graybar extended its leave and time-off policies and created an employee resource portal for COVID-19 issues. Mental health was a focus, said Kathy Mazzarella, Graybar’s CEO at NAW's conference in January.  KeoughKeoughShe also noted that managers received training on being empathetic and caring for their teams.

The long-term effects on the pandemic and remote working is something that psychologists and employers will study for years. But the immediate question for employers is: How do we react and plan to the remote workplace challenge?


Jack Keough is president of Keough Business Communications. He was editor of Industrial Distribution for 26 years. You can contact him at john.keough@comcast.com

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