Covid-19 has left many UK businesses exposed to greater risk on the roads, and with reduced ability to cut operating costs as they fight their way back to recovery, a new survey has revealed.
The survey marks the launch of a Department for Transport-backed Benchmarking partnership programme between Driving for Better Business (DfBB), Roadsafe and Fleet News. Based on gap analysis from DfBB’s Online Risk Assessment tool, the initiative shows where firms are failing to meet operating standards and allows them to track improvements against other organisations.
Findings and advice from the programme will be published each month in Fleet News, helping fleets to identify the areas of operation they need to prioritise for improvement.
The survey sets the scene at the start of the process, uncovering some of the issues fleets are facing and their views about prospects in the face of Covid-19. One thing is certain: businesses must adjust quickly to the current environment.
The poll of 300 organisations, ranging from SME business owners to board directors at large companies, shows many are missing important opportunities to minimise operational costs and improve efficiencies. Grabbing these opportunities will be vital in order to give themselves the best chance of survival, and the ability to thrive as soon as conditions allow.
Organisations small and large anticipate a major, permanent shift in the way business is conducted in the light of the worldwide pandemic.
Examining experiences over the past six months, the survey reveals that SMEs and large businesses anticipate ‘significant increases’ in working from home and commuting by road as employees continue to be wary of travelling by public transport.
Staff mobility will change ‘forever’, triggering a boom in demand for company cars, company vans and external delivery services. A significant increase in ‘grey fleet’ is also anticipated, with almost three-quarters of large companies predicting an increase in privately-owned
vehicles used for work.
Following DfBB’s ongoing Online Risk Assessment gap analysis tool, which revealed worrying attitudes among many businesses towards vehicle maintenance, Drive for Work policies and risk management, this increase in grey fleet could be a major concern.
Essential to update policies
DfBB said fewer than one-in-five (18%) of SMEs and 36% of large companies had Driving for Work policies in place following the pandemic.
“There remains a great deal to do to persuade businesses to develop and employ a comprehensive Drive for Work policy,” says Simon Turner, DfBB campaign director. “These changes in the mix of mobility types employed, including new people joining the grey fleet, mean that updating Driving for Work polices will be essential to protect both the driver and the business.”
In the survey, 42% of respondents said their greatest concern was rebuilding business following the pandemic, within Government guidelines, with SMEs more concerned about recovery than larger enterprises. This was followed by operational costs and operating
profitably, then employees’ health and wellbeing.
While workforce mental health was discussed at board level during the pandemic, less than a quarter of firms said driver behaviour received the same treatment. Fewer than a third of boards discussed fleet management issues such as vehicle damage, insurance and fuel spend.
DfBB expressed concern about the lack of board-level focus at a time when there was potential for even greater numbers of people to use UK roads, whether in company vehicles, their own vehicles or via other modes of transport.
“The lack of Driving for Work policies and general failure to raise associated issues and address them at board level, indicates there is a long way to go in encouraging businesses to implement best practice when it comes to riding or driving for work,” says Turner. He believes benchmarking would improve this.
Companies with employees who drive for work have experienced mixed fortunes during the pandemic. Home delivery businesses saw a spike in demand as consumers switched to online retail; however, companies supplying goods and produce to the high street and those in hospitality sectors found business drying up.
Staying in business in the event of further lockdowns was a much greater concern for smaller firms than for larger ones.
Fewer than a fifth (19%) of business leaders said they were concerned about company vehicle maintenance following lockdown. This echoes DfBB’s Online Risk Assessment, which showed vehicle management was the area where employers performed best, with around four in five confirming all vehicles were serviced in line with guidelines. Encouragingly, the survey shows that 98% of large companies and 84% of SMEs surveyed had put additional measures in place during the pandemic to slow the spread of Covid-19. While more than two-fifths (40%) of SMEs employed work-from-home policies, fewer than three in 10 (28%) of large firms did.
Given the significant rise in car and van use, however, a ‘worryingly low’ 41.4% of large companies indicated they had deployed – or would deploy – Driving for Work policies including specific Covid-19 references.
In detail, the survey shows that eight in 10 large companies (83%) anticipate changes to staff travel and mobility requirements post-Covid-19, while nearly three-fifths (59%) of SMEs anticipate change. Seventy per cent of large enterprises anticipate more working from home, compared to 48% of SMEs.
Just over half (56%) of all large enterprises anticipate more demand for company cars, 47% expect to increase the number of company vans on their fleet (some may not operate vans, bringing the overall percentage down) and 70% believe more staff will start using their own cars for work. More than half of large companies expect to increase the use of external couriers.
A rise in the use of vehicles for work could, however, be affected by video-calls replacing face-to-face meetings. Around half of SME business leaders and two-thirds of large enterprise bosses said their companies would probably conduct fewer face-to-face meetings. Visiting, exhibiting or speaking in person at conferences was on hold for the time-being.
DfBB previously probed leadership issues in its gap analysis tool, finding that only 57% could demonstrate a clear top-level commitment to work-related road safety within the business. Fleet risk assessment also scored poorly (with an average score of 64%), while a ‘staggering’ 41% of companies had no Driving for Work policy.
Situation not improved
The pandemic has done little to improve this situation. The survey found that issues related to Driving for Work were “simply not reported and discussed at board level enough by either SMEs or large enterprises”. Fewer than a third of respondents raised issues around cost, just over a quarter discussed fleet insurance and fewer than one in five raised driver behaviour.
“Many companies are failing to realise that these have a material effect on the financial performance of the business,” says Turner.
“The upshot is that these organisations are missing the opportunity to identify where operational costs can be controlled and efficiencies gained, improving the firm’s business resilience and financial strength to deal with whatever the future holds. If you’re not measuring, you’re not managing. Without reporting key issues to the board, they are starved of critical information and unable to ask questions of the firm’s leadership.
“If the leadership is not being questioned about its policies and procedures, if leaders are not being monitored and measured against industry standards, if there are obvious gaps in training or operating procedures that are not being brought to light, there is little or no chance of any change in operating practices. This may be detrimental to the operating efficiency of the company.”
Turner adds: “The findings indicate a net increase of vehicles on the road being driven for work purposes. Improving the management of staff who drive for work, and the vehicles they drive, could make all the difference in these uncertain times.”
As and when the UK slowly emerges from the pandemic, finding these management gaps will never have been more important. The DfT is urging all fleet operators to begin benchmarking their own internal procedures – and see how they match against other organisations here.