At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in northern Italy, DHL closed its busy hub at Bergamo airport. It was an unprecedented decision and a huge logistical challenge which forced staff to be flexible – and ultimately saved lives.
Normally, the iconic underwriting room at Lloyd’s of London is packed with thousands of brokers and underwriters, and buzzes with activity. But these are not normal times. In March, the underwriting room closed for the first time in Lloyd's 333-year history, an occasion that was solemnly marked by the ringing of its famous Lutine Bell. If anything sums up the chaos that COVID-19 has wrought, it’s that the centuries-old, hallowed hub of the international insurance market falling eerily silent in the City of London.
The closure at Lloyd’s proves that no institution or business is immune to the impact of the coronavirus, no matter how established or large it may be. Since the pandemic took hold, big-name organizations have been forced to stop operations around the world. Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Volkswagen – to name but four car-makers – have temporarily closed factories in various locations, while prominent high-street chains – such as McDonald's, IKEA and Gap – literally had to shut up shop in order to stop the spread of the virus. In severely hit northern Italy, DHL even took the unprecedented step of closing its busy international hub at Bergamo's Orio al Serio airport.
A tough decision
This decision wasn’t taken lightly because it was a massive logistical challenge, says Jesús Sanchez, MD Hubs and Gateways Italy, DHL. The Bergamo hub is a crucial part of the company’s delivery network, handling 50,000 air shipments from Europe and around the world every day. Yet, in February, Bergamo found itself at the center of the pandemic and with the unenviable reputation as the world’s worst COVID-19-hit city. According to the latest official figures, around 15,000 of Bergamo’s 120,000 inhabitants contracted coronavirus and, tragically, more than 4,500 have died. “At the peak, everything stopped in this region,” remembers Sanchez. “It was unnervingly quiet, except every three or four minutes the silence would be punctuated by the sound of ambulance sirens. Every house, every neighborhood had people ill or dying.” The numbers quickly overwhelmed hospitals and morgues.
Sanchez pinpoints a conversation he had with Pamela Asperti – former Italian HUBs HR Director with background among others as Italy Customs Export Manager, – as the catalyst for the hub’s closure.
In mid-February, Pamela voiced her concerns to Sanchez when she saw how quickly the pandemic was escalating. “She said that Bergamo was in the eye of a hurricane and that the hub, which employs more than 800 people, was a time-bomb,” says Sanchez. “She rightly pointed out that when one person working at the hub were to become infected – and in Bergamo it was a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if’ – the virus would quickly spread among the workers, who would take it home to their families.” It would be deadly.
A reluctant pioneer
So, with the support of his boss – Roy Hughes, SVP Network Operations Europe, Sanchez took a brave decision and began the closure of the entire Bergamo facility. This was as momentous and difficult as it sounds, and was complicated by the fact that DHL had never closed one of its hubs before, so no one knew how it would affect staff or customers. No wonder Sanchez was a reluctant pioneer. “It was a tough decision to say: ‘Let's do this’ when no one else in the network had ever done it or was thinking about doing it,” he admits. “I had to accept that the company would have to pay a toll, which was lower productivity and some service deterioration. Then again, if many staff members became sick, the hub would be unable to fulfill its customs clearance duties, which would be a disaster not just for Bergamo, but for the whole Italian territory. However, the most important consideration had to be the health and wellbeing of our people. That was our overriding concern.”
Working from home
Telling staff to work from home was the easy part. Getting them the right IT equipment to be able to do it effectively was hugely complex, particularly as computers and keyboards were suddenly a precious resource. As the pandemic took hold and working from home became the norm, DHL had to purchase an additional 2,300 laptops for its entire European workforce. In the customs department at the Bergamo hub, everyone who had a laptop was sent home immediately, while all other staff began taking the PCs, monitors and keyboards off their desks. Meanwhile, Sanchez sourced an additional 50 laptops from DHL locations in Spain. Suddenly, coronavirus was forcing everyone to think and act in unprecedented ways.
On February 20 - one month earlier than other entities - the customs department, back office and support functions began working from home. A week later, all air operations staff were told to stand down so that, by March, the entire facility was closed. All cargo that normally went through Bergamo was sent to DHL’s Italian gateway facilities instead, and specifically the facility at Milan Malpensa airport, which had been less impacted by COVID-19. Employees did an incredible job, and some were even reporting for work after losing close relatives. All were regularly updated about the situation on the ground and sent links to videos about how to cope in lockdown that had been recorded with a psychologist. “Some people call working from home ‘smart working,’” says Sanchez. “I call it ‘safe working.’ I truly believe the action we took saved lives.” Normally, customers could expect their cargo to clear customs and be delivered overnight or within 24 hours. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Sanchez is proud to say that average delivery time increased to just 48 hours, such was the dedication of the customs team.
In all, air operations at Bergamo hub remained closed for a month. In future, it will have a smaller function and is now transitioning to become a gateway, while Malpensa will upgrade to become DHL’s main hub in the region. Sanchez, however, believes that home working is here to stay for the customs department. “I don't think we’ll ever bring everyone back to the office at one time,” he says. “Staff will still come in regularly to meet and greet their colleagues, receive training and talk to their supervisors. We don’t want them to be completely unplugged from the company.
“But we’re reassessing the way we work in future, because smart working is better for human beings. If anything, we found it makes people more productive and more motivated – and they’ll save on fuel, which is good for the environment. If they can have a proper work/life balance, it’s better for them and for the company. There are only benefits, as far as I can see.”
Image: Mario Rota for Delivered