When Kays Medical moved into its new Liverpool headquarters in 2017 it didn’t expect it would soon be at the forefront of what CEO Ben Ludzker calls a “paradigm shift” in workplace culture.
However, starting in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how many of us do our jobs and, as an occupational health specialist, Kays Medical found itself in the middle of an historic period of change.
“Hybrid working and working from home has become the norm across large sections of our economy,” said Ben. “But what many employers are still only just waking up to is that they have the same duty of care to their employees wherever they work. They need to wake up to that quickly.”
Kays is a family business that started off with a high street pharmacy in Liverpool in the ‘70s. It still operates three pharmacies in the city under a separate division. But from the 1980s onwards it diversified into a specialist occupational health supplier covering medical products, equipment and pharmaceuticals.
Across its business it now offers a catalogue of more than 10,000 products and services, ranging from workplace assessments, psychological health support, various training courses and an array of physical products – anything from a defibrillator to a box of sticking plasters.
And now, in a major investment, Kays is diversifying further still. On the same four-acre site of its Speke headquarters, the company is in the middle of the construction of an additional 35,000 sq ft warehouse.
Kays Logistics will see an expansion of the firm’s own logistics and supply operation and will also offer third-party logistics services to other businesses that need to store and distribute products as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Ben explained: “When we had our old headquarters in Liverpool we only had a small volume of warehouse space. So when we moved to the Speke site it was always the intention to increase that capacity.
“Now, due to the pandemic, we have seen a significant rise in demand for storage and logistics. We are all now much more dependent on deliveries of goods than we used to be. Our operations director has a background in third-party logistics. He said ‘we can start doing this’.
“When the new warehouse opens later this year we will be offering a full third-party logistics service – we’ll be doing storage, inventory management and ‘pick pack’ which means we will manage the process from start to finish, making sure that goods are sent straight out to the customers. Demand for this kind of service has gone through the roof since COVID.”
Kays itself, which employs around 80 people, wasn’t immune to the impact of the pandemic. Despite pivoting towards things such as COVID testing, the increase in the number of empty workplaces meant a big downturn in traditional sales.
Ben added: “We really took a hit last year. We are a business-to-business operation – that is a major part of our work. For long periods during the pandemic, people were not in their workplaces so demand for our goods and services fell significantly.”
In the last few months the UK has started to emerge from the pandemic but many of the changes that occurred in the workplace in the last two years have been permanent. However, says Ben, some employers are still grappling with the implications of the ‘new normal’.
“Businesses are now faced with a new paradigm,” said Ben. “Hybrid working for many businesses has become the norm. And what they need to start appreciating is that, even if someone is working from home, the employer has exactly the same duty of care as they did when they were in the office.
“Not all businesses are managing to get their heads around this, although there are many others that are more progressive and forward-thinking. They realise that they have the same responsibilities to members of their teams wherever they are working. But, how many companies have done risk assessments for people working from home?
“What happens if an employee says they developed a repetitive strain injury because they have been sitting on the couch with their laptop on their knee for the past two years? How is a business ensuring they are looking after the mental health of their staff while they are working remotely?
“Employers now have to ensure they have mechanisms in place to facilitate the wellbeing of people they may only see once or twice a week at most. For many businesses this has really heightened the awareness of occupational health – it has been a positive step in the right direction”
This, he adds, is now a real feature of the recruitment market. People looking for jobs, particularly younger people, now have very different expectations of their employers than the generations that came before them. Much more than before, they expect their employer will be prepared to look after their welfare.
Ben has also observed that this fundamental change has seen the emergence of a big divide between those people who work off-site or from home and those whose jobs cannot be done flexibly. As he explained succinctly: “A postman can’t work from home – it’s impossible.
“It is very much an advantage people in certain jobs have – those who work in offices for example – have over those that just have to be in-situ to do their jobs. But it isn’t just a blue collar white collar issue as some may portray – all of our front line workers went through this very issue during lockdown; whether a doctor or a supermarket cashier, we rely on these people to be at their place of work. It may seem unfair in some ways but it is just the reality.”
Kays works with clients in all sectors across the UK but many are still in manufacturing. He said: “Occupational health is, of course, important in office environments and we are doing more and more every year but there are obviously much greater risks and demands for our services in an industrial setting.
“We have a number of clients in the automotive sector, for example. These days they tend to be very progressive and forward-thinking in their approach. It is also true to say the larger the business the more they are on top of occupational health.
“It is when you get down to the SME level – the owner-managed businesses of which we have so many. So often they will do their own HR but, of course, they are not HR professionals or lawyers. It is more of a challenge for them and they tend to pick up in changes further down the line after the bigger firms.
“Kays is a great example of a business that has made that transition. Up until the pandemic we enjoyed several years of significant growth. And as we have got bigger, we have found our approach has become more bureaucratic and policy-driven. Little ‘mom and pop’ companies, in contrast, often have to fly by the seat of their pants.”
Ben will continue to steer Kays through its next period of growth. He says general awareness of what they do is now much higher – something that has accelerated during the pandemic.
He added: “In theory, the shift in workplace culture shouldn’t change the demand for our services because as I said, the duty of care is the same. But there is an increase in demand for Occupational Health Services as employers are now becoming more aware of those responsibilities.
“10 years ago if I told my mates I worked in occupational health they would shrug and ask ‘well what is that?’ I would say that nowadays 8 out of 10 people would know what it is. They wouldn’t know the finer details, necessarily, but there is much greater awareness now of the value of what we offer.”