Comment: The new front line

While delivery keeps on growing, there's a serious lack of appreciation of the people keeping this industry going, says Colin Nagy.

Colin Nagy is a brand strategist based in New York and Los Angeles.

If firefighters put out a fire in your home, you’d probably offer them a glass of water. But as the world endures a pandemic, the people we take for granted – members of the on-demand economy, the people delivering our goods – are now propelled to becoming essential front-line services and the lifeblood of so many communities. And although their services are proving vital, they don’t receive the care they deserve.

The delivery business is huge – and increasingly essential for restaurants to survive. To give an idea of the scale involved, the biggest player in the US, Doordash, delivered 236 million orders in the three months leading up to the end of September 2020; triple the amount over the same period last year.

As cities have ground to a halt around the world, these workers are driving people from point A to point B, delivering families their groceries, serving the last mile when it comes to delivering packages, and also delivering our takeaway dinners. It might seem like just a convenience, but ask the elderly and immune-compromised if they want to risk the scrum at the local grocery store.

In the case of restaurant delivery workers, they do the hard yards day in, day out. Queueing up, managing inclement weather and the inevitable city puzzles en route to a drop-off. All too often, we don’t account for their needs or what is required to match the need our society places on them.

As countless stores are closed, there are basic needs that must be met for all types of on-demand workers: clean, reliable bathrooms (either on-premise at a restaurant or offered up by the city); waiting areas where bicycles or other transportation can be safely tucked away; and courtesies like a glass of water or cup of tea to warm up while they wait. 

The design imperative is there, but it will be up to the companies that rely on these types of workers to think about how important that is going forward. Sure, there have to be retrofits of existing real estate and design. But as many companies experiment with smaller delivery and to-go urban footprints, there’s an opportunity to do some major rethinking. For example, Starbucks has been piloting Starbucks Now stores with a singular purpose: to get customers in and out without friction. It surely has to think about delivery drivers and their needs, too, as these designs roll out.

Worker protections and classifications also need to change. Recently, the CEO of UK food ordering company Just Eat said he’d rather run his business with employees getting benefits and protections, rather than just be classified as ‘on-demand’. He said workers will be insured and have taxes paid on wages.

Also, as the supply chain has moved heavily into mobile and online orders, the interface and system for pickups and the interface with drivers and delivery people is vitally important. All too often there’s a mass of people waiting; when their time is wasted, their livelihoods are affected. An orderly, clean, efficient system for to-go orders, replete with creature comforts for those who fulfil them, will hopefully be the table stakes of the next generation of restaurants, both during and post pandemic.

This article was first published in Courier issue 39, February/March 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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