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Fleets pivot to remote communications strategies

Jan. 13, 2021
COVID-19 accelerated a trend toward more virtual communications among commercial fleets. Although the industry won’t eliminate in-person interaction moving forward, it will likely embrace a hybrid approach.

Over the last 10 months, many commercial fleets have shifted toward trends that have been commonplace outside of trucking for years. Whether it was a transition to more online orientation for new drivers, the proliferation of Zoom virtual meetings and other online platforms to stay connected with employees and industry peers, or the reliance on podcasts and social media platforms to keep employees informed, fleets have turned to more creative ways to stay connected in this new socially distant world.

For years, Kansas City, Mo.-based American Central Transport (ACT), a dry van carrier operating in the central Midwest and Southeast, had a weekly hotline that drivers could call in and listen to company updates. The problem with that hotline was every week a new session would be recorded over the previous week’s session, so if drivers didn’t have a chance to listen in one week, it would be too late the next. Since March, however, COVID has been a driving force for some of the changes ACT has made when it comes to communicating with its 300 drivers.

ACT has since begun creating podcasts, where drivers can log in through Transflo’s trucking app and listen to the most recent and previous company recordings. The carrier also created a separate podcast called “The Voices of Trucking,” which covers a deeper dive into industry-specific topics, noted Josh Mecca, recruiting director for ACT.

Earlier in 2020, ACT was forced to lock down its facility due to a COVID-19-induced mandate in Kansas City. “It broke our hearts,” Mecca said. “We were really disappointed with that, but our hand was forced to make that call. That really put separation between us and the office, so we went remote, and we weren’t physically here in the building.”

During that time, Mecca pointed out that the company, which prides itself on having an open-door and inclusive culture, had concerns about closing its doors, particularly to its drivers. So, ACT began leveraging WorkHound’s real-time, anonymous driver feedback platform, and developed a monthly Zoom call to facilitate more communication with drivers. During its monthly calls, ACT presents company happenings and addresses driver feedback and concerns compiled from the WorkHound platform.

“More importantly, it gives our fleet and anyone who chooses to dial in that face-to-face interaction with us and senior leadership,” Mecca explained. “It also gives our drivers an open forum where they can ask anything they want in front of the whole fleet in real time, and it’s completely raw and unscripted.”

ACT records the monthly calls and uploads video and audio links for those who were unable to join in real time. And because the video calls allow fleet managers to see drivers’ facial expressions and body language, Mecca said managers have been able to pinpoint where operational improvements need to be made.  

“With us being an over-the-road model, it is hard to get everyone together, but you get to see drivers stand up and see drivers take the lead asking questions,” Mecca added. “It has really been neat to see them. We also see how they are networking. We are seeing more video use among drivers and how drivers are interacting with each other, which is fantastic.”

Onboarding new drivers

After wrapping up scoring for the latest edition of the industry’s Best Fleets to Drive For program, Mark Murrell, co-founder of CarriersEdge, has noticed a shift in online orientation among commercial fleets. Rather than onboarding new drivers solely in person, many fleets are managing documents electronically before bringing in drivers for in-person exercises. 

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, Groveland, Fla.-based Carroll Fulmer Logistics Corporation, a fleet of roughly 500 trucks that are operated by both company drivers and owner-operators, relied heavily on Tenstreet’s remote communications solutions to recruit and onboard new drivers. Tenstreet offers a paperless onboarding solution for trucking companies that allows them to digitize driver packets and hiring paperwork. Tenstreet also offers video training solutions.

Ray Lloyd, director of Safety and Risk Management at Carroll Fulmer and chairman of the Safety Management Council for the Florida Trucking Association, explained that COVID-19 provided an opportunity for the fleet to start a virtual orientation for new drivers. 

Pre-COVID, new hires stayed on the company’s campus for three to four days of instruction during orientation. But during the initial COVID spikes in the state, the company had to scale back in-person orientation for new drivers. Carroll Fulmer turned to Tenstreet’s solutions to compile instruction videos for its incoming class.

“We still give them that virtual orientation option today,” Lloyd explained. “They can do it remotely at home and at their leisure. We send them all the videos and the onboarding paperwork and then we can set them up for a drug screen wherever they are. They can get all that accomplished and then we will have them in for half a day to do their screening with our medical clinic and complete a road test.”

In addition to driver onboarding, Carroll Fulmer has used Tenstreet’s other platforms to streamline communication and workflows. The company has relied on Tenstreet to keep its regulatory compliance paperwork organized and in one place. Lloyd said Carroll Fulmer has found Tenstreet particularly helpful when it comes to submitting queries within the federal Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse.

Marilyn Surber, transportation adviser at Tenstreet, has seen an uptick in companies adopting remote onboarding and training. Tenstreet has also noticed that many fleets are returning to in-person workflows. Either way, now, more than ever, fleets are giving their drivers more options.

“We know retention starts with onboarding, so it really helps carriers put their best foot forward to drivers,” Surber explained. “When everything is streamlined, drivers are going to one place to fill out all their paperwork, to submit documents, and to watch training videos. Everything is in one place to manage that hiring process and their career.”

Transportation and logistics giant Schneider National has had a long history of training experienced drivers, inexperienced drivers, and owner-operators at numerous training academies across the country, noted Tom DiSalvi, Schneider’s vice president of Safety, Driver Training, and Compliance. Eight Schneider locations across the country are utilizing remote orientation technology to keep trainees socially distanced.

The remote course, which is covered in hotel conference rooms, is the same curriculum that is being presented at Schneider training academies; however, it’s broadcast remotely. An instructor in Atlanta is the host for all the virtual training for the training academies in the eastern time zone, and an instructor in Dallas hosts the virtual classroom training for the training academies in the central time zone.

“This ensures complete consistency in our messaging and approach. Remote orientation is a seamless experience for students no matter their location or time zone,” DiSalvi explained. “While we have coordinated remote training classes for our office and shop associates in the past, this is the first time we’ve done remote training for our driver associates.”

Schneider has found that training doesn’t need to be done in person in order to be effective, DiSalvi added. The company offers computer-based training modules that are available in a comprehensive video library to provide safety awareness and training to every driver in the fleet, every month of the year. Schneider also created phone coaching tools that allow drivers and trainers to hold more timely training sessions than if the driver were to be routed to a facility for in-person training.

In addition to its remote training process, Schneider has developed a self-paced training opportunity for drivers with past driving experience. Drivers who would have been required to take classroom training at a Schneider facility can now take the training virtually at their own pace over the course of a two-week period. When they complete the self-paced course, they schedule an in-person training day at a Schneider operating center.

“This was started as a solution for the pandemic, but we have continued to improve safety metrics with remote options in play,” DiSalvi said. “Another advantage we have found is consistency in material being presented.”

Navigating new strategies

Since the start of the pandemic, WorkHound co-founder and CEO Max Farrell has seen an increase in the usage of remote communications technology in trucking. “I think it’s refreshing for the trucking industry because often people would joke that trucking is 10 years behind the times when it comes to technology, but the industry caught up really quick in 2020,” Farrell said.

One of the biggest shifts WorkHound saw from the start of the pandemic to now is that companies have been playing the role of co-pilot for their drivers, Farrell noted. Historically, for instance, fleet managers might have only checked in on their drivers to ask about freight, where the load is, and what the roadblocks are to get the freight to where it needs to be. Now, however, Farrell has noticed a more empathetic atmosphere.

“They want to know ‘How is that driver?’ ‘How is their family?’ ‘What are the worries that the driver has,” Farrell said. “It is about creating more regular touch points than what they would have historically.”

WorkHound has also seen an increase in transparency about the state of the business. For instance, when trying to navigate abrupt shipper closures, drivers shared feedback on WorkHound, and fleet managers learned they needed to do a better job providing more up-to-date data for their drivers.

“There are things that happened this year that aren’t going to disappear because there’s a vaccine available,” Farrell noted. “The industry has been paying attention to the challenges of loneliness and isolation for drivers on the road. I think that’s a huge step in the right direction for this industry that may have been slower to adopt otherwise.”

CarriersEdge has also noticed a shift in meetings and how fleets communicate with their drivers. Even up until last year, Murrell pointed out that many trucking companies were still relying on in-person, live driver meetings, or nothing at all.

“All of a sudden, in 2020, they realized that they can have people together and they don’t have to be in the same space,” Murrell said. “It’s something we have been watching because outside of trucking it is commonplace—people have been doing virtual meetings and conference calls for a long time and finding ways to collaborate when people aren’t necessarily in the same place. We were starting to see it over the last couple years, but it would be maybe two out of 70 participants in the Best Fleets to Drive For program that were doing it, so it really wasn’t growing that much. Now, all of a sudden, it’s 60 out of 75 participants.”

One of the gripes from drivers for a long time has been they are asked to come to in-person meetings, but they aren’t getting paid for it, Murrell explained. Fleets transitioning to virtual meetings removes some of that pressure from drivers, allowing them to call in or watch a recording on their own schedule. 

CarriersEdge has also noticed that fleets are getting much more creative when it comes to remote communications. One fleet in the Best Fleets program that couldn’t gather in person began using an online survey tool to handle elections for its driver committee in 2020. Another fleet used online tools to make sure its drivers were staying informed and finding ways to disseminate information quicker.

“In the past if you had something to share with a driver, fleets had the luxury of time,” Murrell explained. “But over the course of the pandemic, information has been changing so fast that you can’t wait a month or so to get that information out to the driver. That put a lot of pressure on fleets to find ways to not just communicate when people aren’t specifically there, but to do it quickly and make sure everyone was getting that information quickly. That’s where things like Zoom and GoToMeeting, or the online tools that will track who has actually read or watched things, will be beneficial for them so they can make sure everyone is getting all the information.”

Murrell also pointed out that Slack, a business communication platform, is a tool that no one in trucking was talking about a year or two ago. Now, fleet managers are using Slack to keep in touch with their drivers.

When ACT first pitched the idea for its monthly video forums, it was solely centered around COVID. Moving forward, Mecca said ACT will continue to leverage the video calls that have delivered fleet-wide transparency.

ACT’s owners and fleet managers review driver feedback from WorkHound weekly and then make it a point to act quickly. Because of that, ACT has been able to retain more than 96% of its drivers who have expressed a concern within the WorkHound platform.

“It has become part of our culture, and because we are able to get to the root causes of the concern quicker, we have been able to retain a much higher level of drivers,” Mecca said.

Moving forward, Tenstreet’s Surber expects to see more of a hybrid of in-person and remote communications solutions.

“What 2020 has taught us is that we have to be able to do our work wherever we are,” she said. “I don’t think we are ever going to replace the value of in-person learning, and I don’t think we should—that’s an important part of training drivers and building engagement and loyalty to a company. But I think you’ll continue to see companies move paperwork and training online to give drivers that option.”

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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