Source: Cristina Commendatore

Many trucking companies have adopted paperless driver bill of ladings, and virtual orientation and onboarding processes to eliminate in-person interactions during the pandemic. But will trucking continue to focus on more virtual workflows moving forward?

Earlier this year, it was nearly impossible to imagine the scope that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on global supply chains and commercial trucking. However, the industry as a whole has been able to forge ahead by finding the silver linings and continuing to focus on innovation.

A recent survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) and the Owner Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) found that 80% of survey respondents who were either owner-operators or small fleets did not have a business continuity plan in place to prepare for the significant changes prompted by the novel coronavirus.

“I think going forward, it would behoove everyone in the industry to think about what lessons we learned and how can we document that in our research and in [trucking] operations,” said Rebecca Brewster, ATRI president and COO, during a June 3 WorkHound webinar on the long-term changes transportation companies have made because of the pandemic. “How can we make sure going forward this has less of an impact on us as an industry and as we serve the nation’s needs?”

Brewster added that one of the silver linings for ATRI has been the “tremendous amounts of data” that the industry can benefit from moving forward.

Many trucking companies have quickly adopted paperless driver bill of ladings, virtual orientation and onboarding processes and eliminated many in-person interactions to help drivers and back-office staff stay safe amid the pandemic. Jackie Giefer, director of operations for Bay & Bay Transportation, said she believes those innovations will continue moving forward. She said she hopes that the pandemic will also shine light on the need for more access to safe truck driver parking across the nation.

During the webinar, Mark Walker, chairman and CEO of TransLand, pointed out that this is an exciting time for the industry.

“Out of every one of these crisis situations comes wonderful opportunities for innovation, and we are seeing that across the board,” he said. “The words agility and resiliency come to mind. We had to turn on a dime. All of a sudden, we had more employees capable of working from home. In two weeks’ time, we went from having our on-call people able to work from home to having virtually 100% of our office staff able to work from home.”

Company culture has also been put to the test lately, and it’s something that will likely continue to be highlighted post-COVID-19. Bay & Bay Transportation has always had a family-oriented focus, Giefer explained. Over the last few months, however, the staff has gotten even closer.

“Our drivers are invaluable, and they are leaning on us every day now,” Giefer said. “They don’t get to sit and chat in truck stops with one another and share their experiences; they’re staying in their trucks. Now, they are calling us and telling us what’s going on out there. We are really staying in touch with our drivers. It has really pulled us all together as one big family.”

Fundamental changes

Since March, commercial trucking has adapted to figure out how to network and communicate through the health crisis. For Brewster, that has meant disseminating ATRI’s research results virtually. She also noted that she thinks COVID-19 will “fundamentally change how we view in-person events going forward.”

“You can’t take away the value of being able to talk to someone in person, but, certainly, we will figure out how to get a better balance between those in-person events and conducting things virtually,” she said.

Brewster added that others in the supply chain—and the country as a whole—are recognizing the need to focus on truck drivers. Some of the positive impacts that could come out of this are less detention time and better treatment for drivers at the customer facilities, she pointed out.

Brewster also explained that with so many Americans unemployed, this is an opportunity to promote trucking as an industry that is sustainable when it comes to job security.

Moving forward, last-mile delivery will likely become an even bigger part of the supply chain piece, added Walker. The way consumers want and expect to receive goods will ultimately impact manufacturers, distributors, and everyone throughout the supply chain.

Over the last few months, Walker said the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) has been a “tremendous safety net that helped alleviate a lot of anxiety and fear” for small businesses.

“[The PPP] enabled us to implement some hybrid compensation programs for drivers that we might have been a little hesitant to roll out before,” he explained. “It’s a hybrid of a guarantee pay program, and that has just been a game-changer for us and how drivers perceive our company and their satisfaction with us.”

Moving forward, Walker said he is concerned about too much of a virtual approach to business.

“We’re so built around strong relationships,” he said. “We’ve got to go to more high-tech, but we’ve got to stay high-touch as well. Those relationships we have are critical. That’s the one thing that always concerns me when we do these transformations.”