Commentary: Remote work takes hold in logistics

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates. 

Long before COVID-19 came along and disrupted our professional lives in every imaginable way, there was a strong movement inside of corporations and entrepreneurial circles around the world to untether from the physical office and get their work done from wherever they are, most of the time at home.  

The remote work culture has long since struggled in logistics companies for a myriad of reasons. Carriers used to require physical presence for their employees at facilities that handle goods and most likely will until robotic warehouses replace the need. Third-party logistics providers (3PLs), freight forwarders and brokers have generally needed to be in a central location for reasons of collaboration, planning and tribal knowledge-sharing.  

One significant learning from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is that supply chains have gone digital and back office technology is enabling logistics service providers of all types to service their customers and keep supply chains moving, even while employees are working from home. Here’s a quick rundown of the technologies powering this tidal wave of remote work.

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Video conferencing – Everyone over 35 remembers when Skype debuted and made telephone calls free for everyone! Later, video chat for everyone was introduced and was quickly copied by enterprise players looking to cash-in on video conferences for businesses. The problem is, most of them sucked until the past couple of years.  

Zoom In 2011, with a deep technical background in video conferencing software from years of working at Cisco Systems, Eric Yuan, CEO and Founder of Zoom set out to build a smartphone-friendly video conferencing platform after having the idea rejected by the leaders at Cisco. Zoom’s seamless desktop/mobile usability makes it an ideal video platform for everyone from large corporations all the way down to dance troops, pre-schools and soccer teams. Also worth noting, Zoom is free for everyone as long as there are fewer than 100 attendees and meetings last less than 40 minutes. 

Microsoft TeamsMicrosoft Teams now has 75 million daily active users, adding 31 million in just over a month. This incredible increase comes after Microsoft added 12 million users the previous month. Originally launched as a Slack competitor, Teams has emerged as the default competitor to Zoom and looks to be adding features as quickly as it is adding users.  

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Messaging apps Email has been the default method of internal and external communication for logistics service providers (LSPs) since it was invented. As more and more organizations look for efficiencies across distributed groups, keeping internal communications out of the email inbox has become more important. Especially while sheltering in place, teams need to be able to collaborate and commiserate in real time, even if they are not sharing a cube with co-workers.

SlackBuilt as an internal messaging tool for a video game company, Slack is the brainchild of long-time Silicon Valley entrepreneur Stewart Butterfield, the company’s Co-Founder and CEO.  Slack lets teams chat directly, in groups and organizes discussions by topic in channels.  Today’s modern enterprise is usually working inside of many cloud-based platforms and Slack probably integrates with most of them. From Google Suite to Microsoft Office 365 to Zoom, Slack was built to work with your corporate tools and has some neat ways of tying them all together. The emoji selection and giphy integration also help keep office banter colorful and fun, even when the world is shut down and a virus is spreading among us.

Microsoft Teams Video is a newer element of the Teams platform; at its core Teams is a messaging app. Much like Slack, users can direct message, group chat and create topical discussions in channels. One huge benefit of Teams is its price. Teams is free with a Microsoft365 subscription, while Slack requires a paid license for each user to gain most features needed for businesses.

Workflow automation While automation has been on the tip of every executive’s tongue for the past few years, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated many companies’ plans for implementation. The reduction of 20-25% of the U.S. workforce over the past 45 days has fast-tracked our industries’ path to automation and there are several firms at the front of this movement, helping LSPs be more efficient.

RPA Labs Co-founded by LogisticsTech veterans Matt Motsick and Suraj Menon, RPA Labs is automating common tasks of logistics work using technology like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing. According to Menon’s LinkedIn profile, RPA Labs is “…changing the way logistics companies work. The software bots at RPA Labs will automate how documents are processed and also how customers receive their inquiries through Robotic Process Automation.” Many firms are turning to these solutions now as they are facing pressure to do more work with fewer resources as teams eliminate redundancies.

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BasicBlock – Fresh off of a $1.5 million seed round led by Emergent Ventures with participation from Rise of the Rest and Jason Calacanis, BasicBlock is streamlining document retrieval in trucking for carriers and brokers alike. By bundling document scanning, tagging, automated payments and a factoring marketplace through a single API, BasicBlock is delivering a one-of-a-kind solution for trucking, enabling a faster, more transparent payment solution.  “Traditional factoring is hard to stomach for smaller carriers and brokers. In an industry in which companies work off of single-digit margins at times, it doesn’t make sense for companies to leverage factoring at the current rates found in the marketplace today. By leveraging modern technology stacks alongside real time location data, we are paying carriers faster and safer than any of our competitors. That’s the bottom line.” 

PBX and VOIP telephones

Ryan Schreiber of Carrier Direct told me last week, “Historically transportation providers have relied on the ability to communicate real-time to be able to deliver for customers. Our clients are looking toward new tools to keep that level of communication up.” Among the most difficult technologies for LSPs to use remotely was the telephone.  

As one industry veteran said, “This has been the hardest thing for many of our clients to figure out. Moving one person remote is easy; distributing your whole workforce with most telephone systems isn’t. They weren’t built that way.” Adapting an existing telephone system or finding a new, cloud-based provider was something many LSPs had to solve abruptly as our world shut down in March. For larger companies with complex telephone systems, many people were feverishly configuring their telephones to forward lines and hunt groups to users’ cell phones, while smaller firms were more likely to work exclusively from mobile phones.  

WildX – a cloud-based VOIP phone system that is quite popular, has a mobile application that allows users to access all of their information, history, contacts, extensions and features of their desk phone, from a mobile app.  It’s easy and convenient to set schedules and groups helping LSPs answer the questions from trade partners around the world, while they’re working from home.

OneBox – Bundling phone, fax, text and group emails, OneBox is a small business communication savior when being at a central office isn’t an option. Users can see their call history, read their voicemail, get texts as well as make and answer calls from any internet-enabled device. It’s like you’re at the office, when you’re not in the office.

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Cloud based collaboration software Put your spreadsheets, SOPs, memos and any other document your team needs in the cloud so they can access the right version, with the right information, from anywhere, even their living room.

Google Docs or Sharepoint People typically prefer one or the other when it comes to corporate collaboration backbones, Gsuite or Microsoft.  Regardless of which side of this debate you sit on, everyone agrees that nobody has time for playing ‘pass the spreadsheet around’ during the coronavirus.  The bottom line is, shared drives on servers don’t work in remote environments so pick a side and get those important documents in the cloud if you haven’t already!

Facebook Workplace Giants like Echo and XPO were early adopters of Facebook Workplace. In a closed door chat at the BGSA Supply Chain Conference in February of this year, Bradley Jacobs, CEO and Chairman of XPO Logistics said, “Facebook helps our global teams stay connected and know what’s going on around the world; that’s powerful.” The enterprise edition of the world’s largest social network has grown significantly within the logistics ecosystem largely because everyone has Facebook already and knows how it works. 

For an industry saddled with a reputation of being tech-averse, spreadsheet-ridden and run by boomers, the logistics industry as a whole has responded admirably to the challenges thrown at it by COVID-19. For all of the negative stigma the people in our industry garner for their lack of innovation, the past six to eight weeks have clearly shown that the people in logistics and supply chain are capable of great innovation and change, More importantly, we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep cargo moving and keep customer promises intact. Bravo, Freight Friends. You’re doing a fantastic job from home in your pajamas. Treat yourself to a shower today and put on some clean clothes before you make your check calls. You deserve it!