Many of the hardships facing managers today aren’t new to our industry. However, the pandemic intensified the growing challenges facing operations managers – including budget cuts, worker shortages, and shifting roles in the company.

The two most common struggles we’ve seen are (a) hiring and retaining effective staff, and (b) being recognized and respected by management. Without our employees, nothing gets done. If senior managers don’t understand how print and mail supports the organization, they won’t support requests for investment and growth.

When the pandemic hit, much of the world stayed home and began working remotely. That didn’t happen for print and mail departments. Operations staff continued to come to work. Leaders struggled to meet the company’s needs, while taking care of their employees.

The most important element of any operation is the people who do the work. Finding, training, and maintaining a motivated workforce has always been a challenge. The twin trials of the Great Resignation and Great Retirement have exacerbated the problem.

The explosion in online purchases created a staffing crisis. While robots have supplemented the labor force in some warehouses, humans are still the most critical component in the supply chain. The competition for workers intensified, with companies offering starting wages higher than the old industry average.

Older employees took a second look at their futures. When the brevity of life is the main story on the national news, how we spend our lives comes into focus. How we evaluate the cost-benefit of working more years changes. Time and money suddenly have different weights in our calculations.

The term “brain drain” describes what happens when knowledge of customers, processes, and procedures disappears with departing staff. Managers are faced with a diluted talent pool when experienced employees leave. If unprepared, the transition to the new state is exceptionally difficult.

Managers need to take immediate steps to implement the twin goals of documentation and cross-training. Key information isn’t safe if it only resides in the memories of one person. Operations break down if only one person is trained on a specific process or piece of equipment.

Going forward, managers should formalize cross-training on the different types of equipment and processes. With the limited staff, this would allow for greater coverage and flexibility when there is a vacancy due to illness, vacation, or career change. Formalizing and documenting training will be helpful with new equipment and new staff.

To keep track of employee development, managers should create a cross-training matrix for all functions and equipment in their department. The matrix can be used to document the existing processes, functional knowledge by associate and identify any gaps.

Too often, print and mail operations don’t have any documented procedures. Clear procedures should be written for all major activities. Work and production schedules can be included with the procedures. Preparing and updating procedures must be given a high priority by management.

And by management, that includes the leaders of the department – and the people who are their senior managers. People who may not appreciate the work that takes place in the print and mail operation, or even understand what happens on a daily basis.

The most common challenge is the language barrier. Terms for measurement, postal regulations, and technology aren’t common to the rest of the world. At times, it may feel like there are two different languages, or at least a different vocabulary. One side only sees apples, while the other expects oranges.

Both sides own the problem. Whenever possible, mail managers need to use plain English to explain what is taking place in their shop. Telling an executive that the company needs to “apply for a CRID and then decide upon the appropriate STID for the IMb and Mail.dat” won’t have much impact if they don’t have a mailing background. They may better understand the issue if you say that the “US Postal Service requires customers to request a unique client identification number, and then indicate the level of service on the mail piece and the accompanying data file.”

Managers should also learn the vocabulary of their company, especially in financial matters. New equipment, software, and training need to be identified as “investments” not “expenses.” Explain how the dollars spent will offset labor, material, and postage costs.

The differences for many in-plants were highlighted during the pandemic and continue today. Beginning in March 2020, much of the world stayed at home. Thanks to high-speed internet connections and online meeting platforms, workers found that they could accomplish their jobs from a home office – or dining room table. Many people continue to work at home as jobs have transformed.

That isn’t true for the people who work in print and mail. Envelopes still have to be picked up from the USPS. Contents have to be physically processed and scanned into systems. Machines that print and insert outgoing documents require operators to be onsite. The two-tier employee status has become amplified – those that have virtual or hybrid jobs and those that come into the office.

One way to bridge this gap is to focus on the common goals of the organization. Managers at all levels have to share the same vision of the company’s future. Just as importantly, they need to understand and recognize the role of every employee in that vision.

That begins with public acknowledgement of the hard work taking place every day. Senior managers should personally visit the mail center and thank the employees. If they haven’t visited in the last 90 days, then the operations manager should extend an invitation. Increase the impact by publicly acknowledging the staff’s efforts in company-wide emails and on the corporate intranet. Sincere “thank-yous” are the first step in closing the gap.

The struggle to run a successful operation is real. The right response isn’t to settle for less, or give in to the negativity. Effective managers will take a proactive approach toward solving the problems – before they become crises.

Mark Fallon is President of The Berkshire Company; learn more at Neal Fedderman is the Senior Manager, Parcel and Mail Operation at CarMax. Mark and Neal will be presenting “The Struggle is Real” at the 2023 National Postal Forum in Charlotte, NC.

Sidebar: 5 Bankable Ways to Improve Performance and Reduce Mailing Costs

By Mark Fallon

The Berkshire Company and GrayHair Software recently held a webinar that provided new strategies to improve the effectiveness of your mail, the accuracy of your addresses, and lower postage costs. Here’s a recap of five ideas you can take to the bank.

1. Remember, it begins with the address. The address is the linchpin that holds the mailing together. Validate the address at every interaction with the customer.

2. Cycle O moves the goal post for best practices. The bulk of the changes is to provide mailers with additional information that will enable them to make smarter mailing and business decisions. Work with your software vendors and service providers to get ready now.

3. Return mail is an opportunity to improve. Understand the true costs of return mail, including print, postage, customer service calls, and lost sales. Work the return mail every day. Also, use ACS and Secure Destruction to further reduce volumes.

4. Take advantage of the USPS mailing promotions. The USPS promotions are designed to help offset the costs to a mailer to implement solutions that enhance the effectiveness of mail and/or the efficiency of the mail handling. Sign up for every promotion through the Business Mailers Gateway.

5. Never stop improving your processes. Make addresses a priority. It’s part of integrity. Speaking of which, add integrity to every mail piece. Implement piece-level tracking and closed loop processing – in your shop and in the lifecycle of the mail piece.

This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2023 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.