Adapting to COVID-19 for the future

FIDI Focus speaks to industry leaders around the world to find out about the initial action movers took in the face of COVID-19 – and how they think they will need to update operations for the future

Bertil Durieux, President of FEDEMAC, says the short-term priority for most movers, indeed most businesses, is to ensure cash flow is maintained. For those renting offices, warehouses, storage and other facilities, this is critical to ensuring survival, he says.

To keep at least some business flowing, necessity has driven the adoption of tech solutions that may now be an essential part of movers’ service mix.

‘During the period of containment, many companies have used FaceTime or WhatsApp to perform home visits and volume and evaluations for estimates,’ he says. ‘Without necessarily knowing it, these companies have demonstrated that new technologies could soon become crucial for companies looking to meet the new business challenge after the crisis.

‘Homeworking can become a real asset and a clear strategy, rather than a reaction to the problem. New software, customer relationship management, video surveys, and so on can become a differentiating factor for companies. The adoption of specific requirements for removal teams and customers will be mandatory, so that everyone knows how to behave during a move.’

Meanwhile, Durieux says social distancing, wearing masks and gloves, and hand hygiene will have implications for workers. ‘The COVID-19 crisis will have repercussions we cannot yet identify. Our sector, like many others, will suffer these consequences in the medium and long term.’

FIDI’s Vice-President Laura Ganon, CEO at FINK Mobility, says, as the crisis took hold, the company moved all office personnel to homeworking, and introduced new cleaning procedures at the company facilities, along with training on hygiene and other preventative measures. To stop the possibility of staff becoming infected on public transport, FINK arranged for all employees to travel by private car.

‘We already had an IT system that is completely GDPR-compliant and secure to be accessed from anywhere,’ she says. ‘Also, we are a paperless company, so there was no stress in starting to work from home.’

Ganon says companies must plan a strategy for different outcomes of the pandemic, but that most businesses will undergo significant changes. ‘Cost-cutting, a revision of what is essential and what is not, and replanning investments are probably on all CEOs’ agendas,’ she says. ‘On the other hand, this is the time to be creative, and to look at this situation as an opportunity to learn and to become stronger than before – as an individual and as a company.’

FIDI Board member Rob Chipman , of Asian Tigers Hong Kong, says he doesn’t expect homeworking to replace office work, but that companies will be doing much more of it in the future. ‘I think the business world is discovering that having a bunch of people in the same office, paying high commercial rents, is not that vital,’ he says. ‘Working from home is a good supplement to the traditional office approach. It proves that other, less expensive and more efficient approaches to work are viable.’

However, he adds, while movers may save on their own admin costs, more homeworking may impact on the business itself. ‘I fear that, for international movers, there may be some knock-on effects,’ he says, ‘probably with a lessening of cross-border moves’.

‘I think the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the changes that have been occurring to the international moving industry for some time now. That is, fewer international assignments, less long term in nature, hence smaller,’ he says. ‘Most movers’ business models depend on a substantial part of their revenue coming from those larger, more profitable movers. Movers will have to adapt or become extinct. This means figuring out how to work with overall volumes, smaller shipments and a contracting workforce.’

Sara Lyrum, Group Director of Aspire Mobility Group, says that businesses are likely to take a fresh look at managing risk now. ‘We need to have our risk-management systems and emergency plans in place, updated and ready,’ she says. ‘We probably all thought we had already, but the speed and severity of the COVID-19 crisis has initiated a fast learning curve for many.’

Businesses that offer services relying on government and other permits will need to incorporate a flexible approach that can draw on alternative solutions if, for example, a country’s border is closed at short notice, or access to supplies or labour is suddenly limited.  

A reduction in office space in the future may give movers a new source of business, she adds. ‘International moving will need to readjust resources as there will be fewer assignments and average volume per assignment is likely to go down. Visa and immigration services will continue to be required, but DSP service requirements may change markedly as the corporate world alters packaging, favouring assignments where assignees leave the family at home and only commute.’

In spite of, or because of, the challenges that have been presented to movers since February, Lyrum says there are positives. ‘The crisis has certainly required us to act proactively and fast,’ she says. ‘It has driven home the fact we need a sharp eye on our financial performance, especially with regards to liquidity and cash flow.

‘The crisis has pinpointed the inherent risk of complacency in otherwise successful companies. Constant innovation, development and expansion of service products, including virtual solutions to improve our service delivery, will be key areas.’

Dale Collins, Chief Strategy Officer at Graebel, says: ‘Safety and health concerns are going to be front and centre for years to come,’ he says. ‘A crew will need to have its own packing surfaces or be prepared to take exceptional measures when in the client’s home to prepare surfaces for work.’ New requirements for moving may include certification that a property has been properly disinfected before a job starts, and full control over those entering and leaving during the work.

The industry needs to adopt a health and safety approach to everything it does, with the entire process becoming more formal, predicts Collins. ‘The processes and procedures that will become the new normal will add costs and burdens to the industry providers, and will need to be passed on to the customer eventually.’ 

All this will require more detailed preparation, with the move plan becoming a more prescriptive electronic document, to be followed to the letter – for even the most basic of services. The time to complete a job is also likely to lengthen. ‘More deliberate scheduling and planning will need to occur to ensure that jobs can start and end within the planned timeframes,’ says Collins.

‘Setting proper expectations will be even more paramount. The old ways will need to make way for new ones and it appears that this will push demand for more labour, certainly during the busy season.’

Movers will need to plan better for health-related crises – but also other types for the future, he says, such as tech-based disruptions to data communication.

‘There is a myriad of contingencies our industry, and all industries, must implement to ensure continuation of business,’ he says. ‘I am now persuaded that this aspect of supplier selection will garner more scrutiny from clients selecting their moving partners and other relocation service providers.

‘We will need to accept that our industry has changed significantly and will continue to change in form, but not in substance. Quality service, excellent communication, proper preparedness and accommodating customers need to remain a constant.’

FIDI Board member Derek Duffy, President of Armstrong Moving, says COVID-19 has meant a re-evaluation of working relationships, with aspects such as working from home producing opportunities to strengthen employers’ engagement with their employees – and improving productivity, recruitment and retention at the same time.

‘The pandemic has exposed the true character of individuals with additional stresses at work and home,’ he says. ‘This may provide an opportunity for management to validate that they have the right people on the bus, in the right seats… with the right attitude.’

Businesses will also look harder and broader when planning for a crisis, he says. ‘Planning for a risk of this magnitude was not in my playbook, and I would suspect most of my fellow FIDI Affiliates are in a similar position,’ he says. ‘There are plenty of learning opportunities and we will adjust accordingly. Business continuity plans will be revisited, with working from home playing a key role.’

Duffy adds that managing cash flow will be a priority. ‘The pandemic has allowed us to look at our expenses forensically,’ he says. ‘We will all come out of this leaner and more efficient.’