Fleet News

Coping with Covid: Fleets and suppliers reveal how they dealt with the pandemic

The past 12 months following the first ‘stay at home’ Covid-19 instruction have thrown up countless challenges for fleet decision-makers.

Some have seen a surge in demand for services, resulting in a need to co-opt more vehicles at short notice to cope with requirements. Others have seen field-based staff now working from home, with their cars barely turning a wheel.

During the height of the pandemic, UK organisations stepped up to help save lives and keep the country running. 

These progressive essential services companies range from bluelight to postal, delivery firms to telecommunications, and utilities to housing associations. 

They have been quietly working away in the background implementing new process and keeping the vehicles on the road that we rely on: the ambulances, the fire engines, the police vehicles, the vans delivering food, parcels and medication, the refuse trucks and gritters, the plumbers, electricians and gas engineers. 

It’s a world where, as John Gorton, head of transport at Kent and Essex Police, puts it, “the vehicle is a transmitter”; where:

• Simply handing over a set of car keys presents a risk. 
• Initiatives that have brought efficiencies to fleets, like van sharing, have had to be dropped and new ways of working found. 
• Communication and staff morale has, arguably, never been more important. 

So, a year on from the first UK lockdown, what lessons have been learned? 

Be aware of mental health and wellbeing

Fleet operators are conscious that their drivers, workshop staff and other fleet team members may be feeling anxious, suffering from fatigue or feeling lonely and missing ‘office chat’ if they are working remotely. 

Royal Mail Fleet kept track of how staff felt by asking them to give scores for tiredness and morale during team meetings so they know who may require extra support. 

At South Yorkshire Police, staff have access to an app which includes hints and tips for wellbeing and mindfulness techniques. 

Meanwhile, the fleet team at National Grid has a daily Webex call, with work discussion banned, to “help lift spirits” and “have a bit of banter and humour to help relieve the impact of lockdown”, says fleet manager Lorna McAtear. 

Justin Laney, general manager – fleet at John Lewis Partnership (JLP), increased the number of “huddles” from one during office times to two for home-based workers via video. It gives the chance to share a brief update on what is happening within the department and to ask questions.

“We prioritise video calls, partly because so much of human communication is non-verbal, but also because for someone working on their own from home it can be very lonely. Some of these calls have 50 people all on video. That works really well,” Laney says.

“Within the teams, if there is something to celebrate, we’ll do that within the huddle. It is always good to celebrate good stuff.

“Every Friday, the company hosts virtual drinks with a quiz. It brings everyone together on a social level and is good fun.”

While Yodel’s fleet has been in full operation during the pandemic, head of fleet operations Ian Leonard offers words of advice for fleets whose drivers are due to return to work in the next few weeks, saying “put your people first”.

He adds: “The return to normality will be a big shift and those who haven’t driven for long periods of time will have to adjust.

“I also recommend checking vehicles thoroughly before putting them back on the road as nothing impacts vehicle performance more than standing idle for a prolonged period.” 

Crisis management/planning is vital 

Covid-19 has been a true test of resilience, even for public sector organisations who plan for emergency situations like pandemics. 

When Covid-19 hit, the police service put its contingency plans into action (essentially a command structure whereby a chief officer oversees every aspect) but plans have to be continually adjusted as the situation evolves.

As John Gorton points out: “No matter how good your planning is, it never survives contact with the ‘enemy’. You always end up having to adapt.” 

In its response to the pandemic, Defra implemented a full incident management structure, with fleet establishing its own incident management team to maintain core services. 

Dale Eynon, director at Defra Group Fleet Services, says: “This cell deals with keeping the assets on the road, managing supply chains, and working with the end users to ensure continuity of service.”

The majority of the fleet remains operational, namely vehicles and plant that are part of Defra’s critical incident response or are related to protecting the health and safety of the workforce or others.

Some vehicles are on standby and are used as required. Responding to an incident or maintaining critical infrastructure (such as trash screens, which collect debris on rivers) often now requires two vehicles to ensure employees don’t travel together.

Vehicles that are not in use are started up at least once a week to make sure they have full batteries etc. Drivers also undertake risk assessments/inspections to ensure they are safe to use. Where they require maintenance, this is booked in with Defra’s service provider. 

“No matter how good your planning is, it never survives contact with the ‘enemy’. You always end up having to adapt.” John Gorton, head of transport at Kent and Essex Police

Sarah Gilding, head of joint vehicle fleet management at South Yorkshire Police and South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, set up a central Covid-19 team at the outset of the pandemic to deal with contingency planning. It sends daily updates to all staff such as PPE availability, staff absences and the number of local infections. 

“We have analysts looking at the absence figures and we plan for how we would cope if we lost 10%, 30% or 50% of our staff,” Gilding says.

“As a police force and fire and rescue service, we have business continuity plans and we carry out exercises to try to test for situations like this. I’ve sat in those exercises and thought ‘well, this will never happen, will it?’. And this is beyond any expectation.

“We’ve certainly been tested to the limits in terms of technology and resilience.”

Jan Kozlowski, ComCab London operations director, urges fleets to have to have a pandemic response as part of their contingency plans. 

“Viruses like Swine Flu or Sars have flared up before,” he says. “I think it would be naive to assume there will never be another virus in the long term. Our contingency plans will remain in place for the foreseeable future.”

Sanitisation and social distancing are new norms

South Yorkshire Police and South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue has minimised the instances in the workshop where more than one person works on a vehicle. In cases where that is unavoidable, masks give added protection.

“We’ve introduced other distancing measures,” says Gilding. “For instance, officers no longer drive into the back of the compound, we’re asking them to wait outside the front of the building, and we’ve changed meal breaks so there are not as many people having breaks at the same time.”

Graham Telfer, Gateshead Council fleet manager, has also changed the process for vehicle maintenance.

“We have one centralised depot for maintenance, but to maintain safe distances we’re working a 50% team reduction in shifts, so across the total team of 35, we’ll have a team of 10 one week on, then the week after another team of 10 will come in,” he says.

“There’s some scope built in for eight or nine people to be off self-isolating if they or members of their family have symptoms. 

“We got ourselves into a pattern, so we don’t find ourselves over encumbered and the scheduling thrown into disarray.”

Supplier partnerships are more important than ever

These are unprecedented times. But the fleet operators have been effusive in their praise of suppliers.

Well Pharmacy, the UK’s third largest pharmacy chain, had to take on a number of new staff to fill gaps in its workforce. The challenge was to get them full trained within days.

However, internal departments and support from Well’s fleet suppliers “made this process easier”, says fleet manager David Sharples. DriveTech, for instance, carried out driving licence checks instantly with the DVLA as part of the screening process. 

Well’s lease provider, Lex Autolease, set-up a critical workers helpline. This “ensures our essential workers have the ways and means to maintain their vehicle, so it is fit for purpose”, Sharples says. 

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, which makes up the majority of Well’s fleet, and TrustFord also offered their demonstrator fleets should it need to boost vehicles numbers, and Wilko offered staff and vehicles to help with pharmacy deliveries. 

“It’s great to see everyone working together for the greater good,” Sharples says.

“The lockdown prompted the fleet team to commit to a minimum of 50% reduction in travel once we return to some form of normality." Simon Gray, SSE head of fleet and travel

Leonard says the support from Yodel’s dealer networks, such as Mercedes-Benz and Daf, as well as its tier one conversion and specialist vehicles suppliers, including Cartwright Fleet Services, Terberg and Jungheinrich, have been essential to maintaining service levels.

He says: “We have really experienced a fantastic service from our dealer network throughout the pandemic. 

“Our suppliers have really stepped up and offered us excellent service and, as a result, we have not yet needed to defer anything. Our service providers have continued to work for us as before.

New working environment

In the long-term, fleet operators expect there to be less need to travel for face-to-face meetings as video conferencing has worked well for staff meetings and keeping in touch with suppliers. 

Staff currently working from home may wish this to continue beyond lockdown and expect flexible hours. 

Fewer miles could mean fewer cars or different ways of funding them with potentially more interest in flexible contracts. 

Telematics will play a greater role in determining vehicle utilisation and will be increasingly important in helping organisations find savings in the wake of the financial pressures many will face. 

Eynon says: “As well as all the terrible sadness about the loss of life that has occurred in this pandemic, I always like to reflect on the positive challenges and opportunities that have come from this experience and believe the fleet industry will emerge a stronger, more vibrant service that can make better use of technology to deliver its services.”

Julie Davies, Amey group fleet and plant compliance manager, has settled into using video conferencing rather than site visits to carry out compliance checks.

This includes checking in with the transport manager at each Amey depot to audit 10% of the fleet to check for insurance documents, main-tenance and driver licencing, among other checks.

She selects five vehicles or 10% of the fleet at random and the same number of drivers.

Davies says: “I use suppliers’ online systems to look at documents and maintenance schedules, along with our online pre-use vehicle checking portal. It’s been a learning curve for me, but I am confident we’re able to continue the same level of checks and audits that we would do in a normal situation.”

Gate checks are still carried out, but with the assistance of the depot transport manager who will screen share with Davies to show images of notice boards and to documents such as insurance certificates and operator licences.

She says: “If anyone was to audit me, I can show them the evidence, there’s always traceability.”

Video conferencing will change how Davies manages suppliers when face-to-face meetings are allowed to resume. 

Meetings were previously face-to-face each month, but may be reduced to once a quarter, with the monthly catch-ups now on a video call.

SSE had a work from home solution within its business continuity plan, which put it in a strong position when the crisis hit a year ago.

Simon Gray, SSE head of fleet and travel, says: “The lockdown prompted the fleet team to commit to a minimum of 50% reduction in travel once we return to some form of normality.

“I am an advocate of working from home as there is no point travelling to sit in an office and answer emails which can be done at home in the same way. While video conferencing does have its limitations, it should allow us to question our own travel arrangements to cut costs and reduce our environment impacts.”

Funding flexibility has also become a greater priority for many fleet operators, with some considering shorter term leasing options.

Matt Hammond, head of fleet at Altrad Services, says: “I can definitely see an increase call for short term two-three-day hires and a greater requirement for pool cars at strategic locations.”

Chris Connors, head of facilities and fleet at Countryside Properties, adds: “There definitely needs to be a shift in approach in my opinion. We need flexibility to keep the company car relevant to the perk users. I am not so sure it will be six-12 months leases as that is, effectively, a long-term rental approach, but we need to be less rigid.”

Leonard believes companies will look to review their business models, with particular attention to home working and video conferencing.

While he thinks it is still too early to say what the long-term impact on fleets will be as a result of Covid-19, Yodel has experienced millions of consumers having to shop online more.

People who might have not been familiar with e-commerce now have become regular e-shoppers and this will continue to drive up parcel volumes and future demand for delivery.

“I believe the past few months have shown we have been able to operate as close to normal as possible while under pressure through unprecedented circumstances,” Leonard says.

How frontline fleets have changed their working protocols

• Create new regimes for cleaning vehicles, offices and workshops. 
• Introduce social distancing measures. 
• Source personal protective equipment (PPE).
• Review MOT, maintenance and servicing schedules. 
• Engage with unions. 
• Recruit staff or partner with other organisations.
• Stock up on bunkered fuel and introduce contactless fuel cards. 
• Respond to the latest Government and industry developments. 
• Liaise with suppliers. 
• Delay tenders. 
• Put projects on hold and accelerate others. 
• Provide equipment and test new technologies for those working from home. 
• Monitor staff absences and have strategies to cover them, and support those who are ill. 
• Find ways to boost staff morale and support their mental health.

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Coronavirus - news and insight

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