USA Truck, like many businesses, went fully remote for office operations last spring when the pandemic prompted large-scale shutdowns. The decision was straightforward for most companies, as they put staff safety above all else.

“When the pandemic hit … you have that ‘fight or flight’ button in your brain and say, ‘OK, what do we have to do to get through this?'” Nick Wakefield, vice president of human resources, driver recruiting and retention at USA Truck, said in an interview.

But the decision to bring staff back to the office is less black and white. Hybrid setups are a popular option, in which employees work some days from home and others days in the office.

Executives face myriad considerations in making this type of configuration work, from culture to safety to productivity. And the return to work is a high-stakes decision. Managers face the risk of employees quitting if they don’t offer remote or hybrid options. If variants of the virus emerge, the safety of staff working in close quarters could be in danger. Culture and engagement could suffer in a remote setup, ultimately leading to turnover issues.

The decision is particularly difficult for the transport sector, in which several types of jobs cannot be performed remotely. Employers that opt for a remote or hybrid setup for office workers must also consider the impacts on staff that cannot work from home, such as truck drivers and technicians.

USA Truck is in the process of its return-to-work planning, and managers are figuring out hybrid schedules for their teams after they saw many benefits of remote operations during the pandemic, Wakefield said.

“We’re actually finding employees are happier,” Wakefield said. “They’re growing and thriving.”

The pros and cons of hybrid

“Productivity spiked once we went remote,” Wakefield said. “Our business went through the roof.”

Consolidated operating revenue grew by nearly $30 million from 2019 to 2020, a 5% increase. Load count grew 26% from Q4 2019 to Q4 2020 for USA Truck’s logistics segment, and deadheading in the trucking unit dropped from 14.2% to 11.6% in that same timeframe.

Turnover also dropped in half for drivers and office staff, and customer satisfaction increased, Wakefield said.

The pandemic wasn’t the first time USA Truck made a quick shift to remote work. In 2019, its Arkansas headquarters were affected by a flood, and the company had to pivot operations overnight.

Despite the disruption, “we found great success during that time period,” Wakefield said, which piqued executives’ interest in remote work. “We were exploring, ‘Why do we perform better in crisis?'”


“Productivity spiked once we went remote.”

Nick Wakefield

Vice President of Human Resources, Driver Recruiting and Retention at USA Truck


The pandemic was a wake-up call for many employers who discovered their businesses could function well — perhaps even better — in a nontraditional setup.

“I think we all found out during the pandemic that remote work is probably more efficient than we thought,” said Brian Holland, president and CFO at Fleet Advantage.

At tb.lx by Daimler Trucks & Buses, a startup that develops software solutions, employees became more productive with the transition to hybrid work.

“A mix between the office and remote can really work wonders,” Sara Gorjão, chief people officer at tb.lx, said in an email. Workers can spend less time per week commuting. They can often use more flexible schedules that accommodate their personal and family needs.

Legacy technology and communication systems can be a hindrance to productively working from home, although, in many ways, the pandemic acted as a catalyst to update systems.

Carl Court via Getty Images

 

Ryan Schreiber, CarrierDirect’s director of engagement, agreed that remote work can boost productivity and efficiency.

“People can’t rely on inefficient processes built on institutional knowledge and the ability to just shout at the person across the room,” Schreiber said in an email.

Documentation must be “on point” for remote and hybrid workplaces, Gorjão said, with all information in one easily accessible place.

Another advantage of remote work is firms are no longer limited by geography, which enables “companies to recruit the best available talent,” Schreiber said. A lack of hard borders lets executives fish in a wider pool at a time when many are stepping up hiring and aiming to return their staff ranks closer to pre-pandemic levels.

In a similar vein, companies can reduce their needed office space and associated costs if only a portion of the workforce is on site at any time, Holland said.

Executives also have to consider tradeoffs of a physically spread out workforce and how to manage company culture and engagement.

“We miss being together,” Holland said, adding that Fleet Advantage has operated well being remote.

Commonly cited pros and cons to remote work
Benefits Challenges
No commute Ability to collaborate suffered
Cost savings Effective real-time communication
Avoiding virus exposure Managing relationships virtually
Better work-life balance Technology troubleshooting

Source: FlexJobs

For women in particular, balancing full-time work responsibilities with childcare proved challenging, especially if they did not have support or an understanding of flexibility from leadership.

“Unfortunately, in most cases, it fell to the moms to temporarily halt their careers to care for their families,” Ellen Voie, president and CEO of the Women In Trucking Association, said in an email.

A remote environment can make it more difficult for women to concentrate, Voie said. “I do believe more women appreciate the workplace to remove many of the distractions of a home office.”

Legacy technology and communication systems can be a hindrance to productively working from home, although, in many ways, the pandemic acted as a catalyst to update systems.

There are also limits to what current technology can do, particularly in supply chain and transport.

“You can’t fix a tire remote,” Wakefield said.

A McKinsey analysis found transport is among the sectors with the lowest potential for remote work. The theoretical maximum is just 22% of total time spent working remotely, according to the analysis.

It’s a sharp contrast to finance, in which McKinsey estimates no productivity loss at 76% remote work.

Some job functions in transportation with the ability to be remote are still more difficult with a lack of face-to-face interactions. Holland named sales as one example. The team has “had to adapt to a different methodology of communication with their prospects and customers,” he said.

5 sectors with most and least potential for remote work

Potential share of time spent working remotely, per McKinsey analysis

On the flip side, truck driving is, in essence, a remote job. Drivers are accustomed to physical separation from their colleagues.

“During my years as a truck driver I spoke with my dispatcher seldom, and more seldom with my managers, yet we were still able to build a trust relationship,” said Douglas J. Zubka, an industrial-organizational psychologist, which focuses on workplace behavior and conditions.

Long-held adages that remote work can’t work, or is less productive, are simply “an excuse not to try,” said Zubka, who formerly held roles at Wolf Driving School and FedEx Freight. “All one has to do is look to the stories of how truckers not only survived the crisis, but continued to perform exceptionally, delivering everything we need, and did it all remotely.”

Communication: the key to success

Hybrid work can create a disconnect between office staff that has the flexibility to work from home versus drivers and technicians that can’t. It’s a cultural split that USA Truck has worked to address throughout the pandemic.

Leadership worked with drivers and other essential workers to ensure they understood how their job function supports customers. They also made sure to physically distance workers and provide personal protective equipment, Wakefield said. And for the remote employees, managers engaged through online cocktails and virtual games.

“We focused a lot on making sure that everyone understands how their role connects to the vision of the company,” he said.

Optional Caption

Courtesy of USA Truck

 

USA Truck relied heavily on employee communication during the pandemic. Each week, a text message would go out that allowed drivers and staff to provide anonymous feedback. USA Truck held conference calls each Friday to answer questions. The firm also uses WorkHound to collect employee feedback.



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