The Future of Work is Here: Supply Chain Talent Lessons From 2020

By Dana Stiffler | December 15, 2020 | 0 Comments

Supply ChainPower of the Profession

I spent some time this week revisiting clients’ supply chain talent inquiries from last January and February. What was on our minds in those cold, wintry months of the Before Times? Here’s a sampling: building a shared team mindset, helping leadership focus and prioritize, strengthening digital skills, gauging automation’s effects on roles, kicking off a diversity and inclusion project, building lateral career paths, exploring the mysteries of Gen Z motivation and engagement.

Nearly a year later, we’re back in some dark, wintry months, with many facing pandemic conditions that are certain to deteriorate further. It’s as dark as it’s ever been in many parts of the U.S. We also have, however, the news of 90-year-old Margaret Keenan receiving the first NHS-delivered COVID-19 vaccination in the U.K., and many others lined up right behind her.

So with a teary nod to Ms. Keenan, healthcare workers everywhere, and kudos to all who power the healthcare and other supply chains that have kept us afloat this year, we kick off a glass-half-full 2020 supply chain talent retrospective. What have we learned?

Lesson #1: The Front Line Rules.

2020 reinforced that global supply chains run through frontline employees in plants, warehouses, distribution centers, stores and hospitals. These jobs cannot be done from home. Research interviews showed how global manufacturing and supply chain leaders see the importance of — and hold in increasingly high respect — the role of the hourly associate.

Many leaders we spoke with did have employees test positive for COVID-19 and had to close facilities temporarily, sometimes more than once. Their decision to close, even when by law they did not have to, reinforced trust and engagement in frontline staff. One of the companies that had to shut down distributed an employee engagement survey shortly after reopening. The participation rate was its highest ever — the average engagement score went up three points. Hazard pay, one-off financial incentives and other benefits helped too.

Lesson #2: We Can Work Remotely and in Distributed Teams.

I wish I had a dollar for every conversation in 2020 where I heard a supply chain leader admit that they were wrong about flexible and remote work.

CSCO in 2019 <<confidently>>: That would never work in our culture. People need to come to the office; it’s just how we work. We have a $500 million corporate campus. How will our new hires and Gen Z colleagues learn our culture? We need people to meet in the hallways, collaborate serendipitously. Also, how will I know that people are working when I can’t see them?

CSCO in 2020 <<gleefully, exhaustedly>>: You know what? We can do this. We have figured out a work-from-home policy, technical support, and helped managers get better at managing by objective. We piloted some new collaboration tools, too. My biggest challenge, personally and for the team, is to make sure we don’t burn out. Also, do you know I can hire from almost anywhere?! I should have done this years ago.

This shift to working from home was identified as the single biggest pandemic-induced change for supply chain organizations.

Lesson #3: More Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Organizations Will Win.

While we don’t yet know whether positive intent will translate into sustained action and impact, 2020 marked an important turning point for the corporate diversity, equity and inclusion agenda. As millions took to the streets globally to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, they brought their concerns, fears and demands into the workplace as well. CEOs who had previously been neutral or silent were moved to speak, and act. Those with lukewarm or underperforming commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion recommitted.

And so we saw 40% of S&P 500 earnings calls in 2Q20 addressing diversity compared to 6% in 2Q19. We saw Nasdaq recently file a proposal that would require listed companies to have at least one woman and one other ethnically diverse or LGBTQ+ board member. This sense of urgency may have set in motion what two decades’ worth of business case data showing diversity benefits could not. It’s becoming increasingly clear that less diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations will lose valuable talent, customers and investors. Mellody Hobson, the CEO of Ariel Investments who last week was appointed Starbucks’ chairwoman of the board, put it bluntly: “If you are not a diverse company, you’re not a 21st century company,” going on to say that it’s a matter of survival and competitiveness.

Lesson #4: Employee Experience Gets Personal.

The aforementioned learnings on respect for the front line and our newfound ability to work remotely have dark sides as well. Some employers failed to protect their frontline workers. Many employees who are working from home struggle to work productively or sustainably. Some have quit to care for children and other family members. McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study found that 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19 pressures. Other employees are working every waking moment, their personal lives, physical and emotional wellbeing further casualties of COVID.

Supply chain leaders have a front-row seat to what their teams are experiencing, and are going through the same struggles themselves. We all know a lot more about each other now personally as well as professionally, and this filters through to our work. Our research shows that employees and employers ranked “personal factors” (life events and scenarios such as births, marriages, caretaking, housing, illness) the most impactful external influence on employees’ experiences at work. As our work becomes increasingly intertwined with our home lives, these personal factors will continue to be a core and increasingly more visible component of the employee experience.

In 2020, many employers and individual leaders have played crucial roles in employee and community support, addressing financial and mental well-being as well as keeping people safe from coronavirus. As the labor market eventually returns to normalcy, the most common question that prospective employees will have is, “How did you treat your workforce during the pandemic?” We are laying the foundations for our new work culture now.

Lesson #5: Yeah, Supply Chain is Pretty Important.

2020 was a full-scale, immersive experience that taught every human kindergarten-aged and older what supply chains are and why we should care deeply about them. They are the plumbing of life and well-being, serving several levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Vaccine distribution is the latest test, the most important, universal experience that will reinforce the power of supply chains. If you doubt this or are feeling residual dread as we head into the darkest days of the year and colors on the COVID map, I remind you that this is a glass-half-full retrospective. I recommend that you return to viewing the video of Ms. Keenan and the warriors of the NHS.

The result of these universal exposures and immersions will be more students pursuing supply chain degrees and more professionals from all kinds of backgrounds looking at supply chain as an interesting place to work. Having aced the challenges of 2020, your organization can welcome them with open arms, further burnishing your reputation as a destination for talent.

We expect a brighter light on supply chain for some time to come.

Dana Stiffler
VP Analyst
Gartner Supply Chain

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