Case Study

CDW’s Distribution Centers Navigate the Pandemic

How the company protected workers and adjusted its business to COVID-19 while remaining true to its service-focused model.
by: Alex Slagg |
November 20, 2020

In early March, CDW issued a companywide work-from-home order for office coworkers. Ray Nair, VP of operations, knew that even while some coworkers could work from home, the distribution coworkers that he managed would need to remain onsite. He immediately began implementing CDW’s contingency plan, which included enacting a process to maintain the safety of the coworkers in the company’s distribution centers. He also needed to figure out a way to safely continue the daily flow of the fully configured IT products that CDW’s customers desperately needed.

“We had to do two things right away,” says Nair. “We needed to limit disruptions to our customers. And we had to keep our coworkers safe.”

Nair and his peers across CDW were challenged to keep their coworkers safe while still maintaining their business operations and meeting the needs of their customers. Even though the company regularly conducts business continuity tabletop exercises, there was no playbook for this exact situation. By confronting these business issues head-on, CDW is now positioned not only to meet the technology and services needs of its customers at scale, it’s also sharing its learnings and assisting other organizations in doing the same thing.

Changing Distribution Center Operations Flow

One of the first challenges was how to implement social distancing guidelines among coworkers working within the distribution centers. Logistically, Nair started by shrinking several different work shifts with varying start times down to just two physically separate shifts, a red team and a blue team. Different operations groups within these two teams were then given color-coded shirts to wear. The color of the shirt indicated where within the facility that team should conduct their work, isolating coworkers to specific areas and further enhancing distancing efforts.

In tandem with the work-shift changes, the entire operational flow of the distribution facility was reorganized to accommodate the required social distancing between workers. “Our plan to remap the facility ran counter to the Lean Six Sigma approach we had being using,” says Mike Grisamore, VP of services delivery. “But we needed to maintain social distance among our coworkers. Their safety came first.”

Keeping Coworkers Safe: Temperature Screens and PPE

Initially, CDW hired nursing staff to do screening and temperature checks at each distribution center entrance. But this early approach resulted in a bottleneck of socially distanced coworkers queued up outside in unpredictable March weather. To address this, additional temporary entrances were added for coworkers to enter the facilities, reducing the bottlenecks and getting coworkers inside more quickly.

By July, this screening process was updated with the implementation of thermal imaging cameras at each facility entrance. CDW was one of the first companies in the United States to implement this technology in this way. Coworkers arriving for their shifts stood in front of the camera and allowed it to quickly scan and record their average body temperature. The addition of these thermal imaging cameras reduced the amount of time needed for coworkers to enter their facility and get to work.

Because coworkers are required to wear masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) before entering the distribution facilities, CDW connected with a supplier early in the pandemic to secure PPE for coworkers to use in the distribution centers.

Efficient communication throughout the company became imperative to keep operations humming as it adjusted to the new challenges. Posters and digital signage with social distance messaging were placed throughout each facility. The safety team implemented weekly audits to provide timely feedback on ways to improve coworker safety and business continuity. In addition, leadership convened steering groups from across the organization to examine how contact tracing and response communication needed to function.

“We had to quickly evolve our communication strategy, increasing our digital signage and other multichannel communication, making sure we had English and Spanish versions,” recalls Grisamore.

Keeping Coworkers Safe: Catered Meals and Deep Cleans

In the lunchrooms, the number of chairs was limited to one per table, and for safety purposes, coworkers were no longer allowed to bring in meals from outside the facilities. Instead, CDW began providing catered meals to coworkers in both locations. “We maintain nearly 24x7 operations in the distribution center,” explains Nair. “We wanted to keep lunches out and not risk having our coworkers touching microwaves, shared refrigerators or vending machines.”

The catered meals provided an opportunity within the company to show the appreciation CDW’s staff had for its distribution center colleagues who reported for work each day to make sure CDW was able to continue delivering for customers. At different times, various teams and departments within the company offered to “sponsor” the catered food, covering the costs from their own budgets.

With coworkers onsite working at the facilities more than 18 hours a day, figuring out a way to clean and disinfect both locations was going to be a challenge. Balancing operations and safety, the distribution center shuts down to allow for two cleanings throughout the day when a crew comes through and does a deep clean of all the surfaces. The first cleaning takes place before the first shift’s 4 a.m. start, and the second cleaning happens before the second shift’s 2 p.m. start.

Piloting Innovative Safety Solutions

CDW continues to test innovative solutions to help keep coworkers safe. One pilot being tested is the use of wearable proximity sensors. “These are badges worn by coworkers to help maintain social distancing on the floor,” explains Nair. “They buzz whenever a worker gets within 6 feet of someone else [with a badge].” The RFID technology also tracks these encounters and management has access to reporting, which can assist with contact tracing and determining who had contact with who in the facility.

Digital cameras are also being leveraged as a resource to assist in contract tracing. The footage from the video security cameras mounted throughout the distribution centers can be made available for contact tracing in the event of a coworker testing positive for COVID-19.

Configuration Services Challenges

Aside from the enormous inventory that the distribution centers house, one of the core operations taking place there is CDW’s Configuration Services. It is these value-added services that set CDW apart from much of its competition. Available across the hundreds of partner technologies that CDW provides, configuration services run the gamut from asset tagging and custom imaging to hardware integration and rack configuration. Configuration operations proved particularly challenging to rework amid COVID-19 restrictions.

Because of social distance limitations, the number of configuration coworkers able to work on an order was significantly reduced. So the configurations centers were expanded to increase capacity, and the team got creative ― with plastic partitions and plexiglass. “We added dividers in some work areas to help maintain social distancing,” says Jocelyn Guiwan, senior manager, Configuration Services. “This helps them stay separated when working on the same configuration order.”

Steadying the Supply Chain

Another area of the business CDW had to navigate was how to address supply chain challenges. Early in the pandemic, China temporarily locked down its manufacturing plants where much of the world’s IT components are manufactured. This quickly led to shortages of IT-related products that had previously been ubiquitous including microchips, laptops and webcams.

But CDW’s leadership had the foresight to quickly double the amount of inventory it was carrying. Working closely on logistics with some of its key distributor partners, CDW was able to stock up on what its customers would be most needing as the COVID-19 pandemic continued.

These efforts were informed by the work of a data science team within CDW’s marketing department. The data science team contributed data on what technology CDW’s customers were looking for, helping guide the inventory purchase decisions being made. Then the challenge became figuring out where to store the additional inventory.

“We doubled the inventory we were carrying in order to be able to meet our customers’ needs,” says Nair. “But now we had to figure out where to put it. We went out and stood up five external warehouses to house it.”

With literally tons of additional inventory on hand, CDW was positioned to quickly assist its customers, who were often struggling to support their IT resourcing needs while setting up their organization’s remote work arrangements.

Prioritizing Frontline Needs

The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated building out an entirely new fulfillment process. “We needed to make sure products were being allocated to COVID-19 response above all other orders,” explains Guiwan. “So we worked with the sales leadership to prioritize which orders came first. Lots of communication between sales and distribution on fulfillment dates was required in order to make this happen.”

“We moved from a first in first out schedule for orders to implementing a priority fulfillment of COVID response orders ahead of all others,” adds Grisamore.

Guiwan’s configuration team quickly found itself wearing many hats as the pandemic progressed ― including configuring devices, solving customer delivery challenges, and consulting on setup best practices. Moving beyond the immediate needs of frontline COVID-19 fulfillment, the configuration team’s focus began to shift from large bulk orders to configuring and shipping devices to individual users as organizations implemented work from home orders.

“We have been configuring individual devices and products for our customers’ end users, getting the devices configured for work from home,” says Guiwan. “We’ve created custom solutions to provide organizations with work-from-home solutions and students with distance learning solutions.”

Serving Customers and Community

For CDW, the pandemic has presented difficulties that had to be overcome. Coworkers and the business had to adjust their operations, while keeping their service-centered directive intact.

“My philosophy as a manager is that you take care of coworkers because ultimately, they are the ones taking care of our customers,” said Guiwan. “And my team has been really great at adapting to changes. They’ve been resilient and continued to serve our customers. They’re our frontline heroes.”

CDW worked through many of the same challenges its customers were facing – keeping workers safe while maintaining business operations and meeting the needs of customers. Having overcome these business challenges, CDW is positioned to continue meeting the technology and services needs of its customers as the pandemic continues to evolve.

Discover how CDW can assist you with keeping your employees safe while maintaining business operations.

40 MILLION

The number of units CDW ships annually on an aggregate basis from its global distribution centers.


Discover how CDW can assist you with keeping your employees safe while maintaining business operations.

Delivering Customer Success During the Pandemic

After implementing safety measures to keep coworkers in the distribution center safe, securing a deep inventory of products, and organizing a fulfillment strategy that prioritized frontline organizations, CDW went to work — serving its customers and meeting its IT product and services needs — at scale.

One of the most challenging fulfillments during COVID-19 was supporting a government agency with a complex order that included more than 600,000 devices requiring custom device configurations, equipment staging, kitting, imaging and inventory management.

Another large project during the same time period was for an education customer. CDW kitted and shipped out 250,000 Chromebooks with learning accessories to ensure that all the customer’s students were able to successfully learn from home.