More than two months after millions of employees were forced to work remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of them — and some of their employers — are examining the benefits of work-from-home and how that could become more of the norm than the exception.
While officials in all of the U.S. states are easing stay-at home guidelines and starting to reopen businesses, many remote workers aren’t ready to race back to their offices anytime soon. Major companies like Zappos, New Balance, Burton, HSN, QVC, Tapestry, Tory Burch, Global Brands Group and others are also taking a slow-and-steady approach to reopening their headquarters.
In fact, 77 percent of the workforce say they want to continue to work from home, at least weekly, when the pandemic is over — a 132 percent increase compared to pre-COVID-19, according to a recent Global Work-From-Home Experience survey. WFH-ers indicated that distractions and interruptions amount to 35 minutes at home versus 73 minutes in the office.
Employees’ happiness and proven productivity aside from WFH, there are other factors at play on their employers’ side: the need to reconfigure offices and ensure social distancing to prevent a resurgence in coronavirus outbreaks, plus the benefits of sizable reductions in expenses for travel, utilities and other overhead costs. Executives repeatedly emphasized the importance of health and safety for all as the guiding force in any decision-making. Suddenly routine aspects of office life, like open-office floor plans and hot desking — having multiple workers use a single physical work space at different times — seem like potential health hazards.
If employers needed any validation that WFH could be a more lasting set-up, that was delivered from Silicon Valley. Earlier this month, Twitter’s chief executive officer Jack Dorsey informed employees that they have the option to work from home permanently. Facebook said last week it is shifting to a substantially remote workplace over the next decade. Morgan Stanley, Nielsen, Barclays and other companies are reportedly envisioning how they might extend WFH on a more regular basis. Others like Shopify helped to get their workers acclimated at home by giving them a $1,000 stipend for office supplies and said last week that most of its employees will work remotely in the future.
And NBC Universal’s executive vice president Adam Miller recently told all employees that those working from home should expect to keep doing so “for some period of time,” as reported by WWD last week. Sources indicated that some areas of the company that are working remotely, such as digital news, partnerships and advertising, likely won’t return to their offices before the end of the year.
Coren Sharples, founding principal of SHoP Architects, noted there are other upsides to WFH in addition to cost-effectiveness. She said, “We do a lot of work with tech companies and we had already seen a trend in remote work. This has been a grand experiment that suddenly shows the rest of this world that this actually works. We can trust people to do their work and not have somebody standing over them.”
Last year, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that only 7 percent of employers offered regular WFH to all or most of their employees. While the concept is sure to gain ground post-pandemic, it is not exactly new. Former NASA engineer Jack Nilles started researching “telecommuting and teleworking” in 1972 and coined those phrases the following year.
While some office workers may be eager to get back to normal working conditions, others would rather have a new normal, according to Ruth Holliday, professor of gender and culture at the University of Leeds in Leeds, England. “A lot of people are very hopeful that this timeout might be a period of reflection and defamiliarization. Will that space give us enough time to reflect on how things were before and whether we really want to go back to those things?”
As more companies retool their WFH policies, their decisions and any downsizing of offices could significantly impact real estate markets. In Manhattan alone, there were 239.72 million square feet of office space reported in the first quarter of this year. How the COVID-19 fallout may affect fashion companies’ real estate holdings and leases remains to be seen. Given the recent waves of furloughs and layoffs — retailers across all sectors reported 1.1 million layoffs in March — the fashion industry, like other sectors, is reducing spending wherever it can.
With 1,000 employees worldwide, including about 400 in its home city of Burlington, Vt., Burton’s senior vice president of global human resources Justin Worthley said WFH has been “a big game-changer” to its culture. “We haven’t made any proclamations saying, ‘Now we’re going to be a remote company.’ But the behavior shifted rapidly and really successfully so there are going to be lots of good things we want to sustain in this,” he said.
Given the current productivity levels and contentment, Worthley foresees a time when workers will have greater WFH flexibility. In addition to the cost savings for travel, utilities and janitorial services, Burton has found that Zoom meetings provide equal footing to all employees. In the past, three participants of any given 15-person meeting might be participating remotely, whereas Zoom has equalized that. He said, “We’re getting better input and participation. With a lot of those 15-person meetings, we’re looking at who really needs to be there, how do we instill more trust in team members so we can divide and conquer and work on a lot more? The trust factor has been huge,” he said.
Through two pulse surveys, employees have indicated that “things were actually going better at home. People are more productive and there is an increase in transparency and trust because people have to rely on their teammates more,” Worthley said. “We’re working at communications harder than we ever have to keep people connected. That transparency flows from the senior team in all directions.”
While Vermont’s guidelines are easing, Burton only expects 20 employees — mostly those who can’t work from home, such as research and development technicians, photo studio staffers and fit lab specialists — to return to its head office this month. Employees’ survey responses, like “I’m good. I can settle in here, as long as I need to,” are helping Burton’s leaders to determine where they need to prioritize their time and energy, Worthley said.
”We’ve been talking to a lot of companies that have stayed open, and it’s just chaos if somebody has symptoms. Basically, our only recourse right now because of the testing that is available is only to quarantine them and to do our own contact tracing,” Worthley said. “Until there is much more reliable testing and a contact-tracing process that either we create or is created through states, there is no reason for us to bring people back.…We think it will be at least through September but that’s really a guess to send the message it’s not going to be anytime soon. We’ll evaluate month-to-month.”
Given the success of WFH, Burton expects to be able to recruit talent that won’t necessarily have to be based in Burlington. The company plans to hold onto its 150,000-square-foot office, which it owns. One stipulation of the soft reopening is that employees will not be allowed to bring their dogs to work, due to cautions by the CDC. On any given work day, there are between 80 to 110 dogs in the office. “There is probably going to be more pressure to get the dogs back to work than the people,” Worthley said.
Zappos, the Amazon subsidiary that is based in Las Vegas, is also exploring new ways of working. The company recently informed employees that the earliest return date to its campus will be in October. “That date will be evaluated for confirmation, as we get closer to better assess the current landscape of things,” a company spokeswoman said.
She also said, “While it’s too early in the process to say exactly what a return to our Las Vegas campus will look like, we do know that it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach. We’ve been openly communicating with employees throughout the quarantine, including surveying them to see how they feel about coming back on campus, and what an ideal WFH or return to campus schedule would look like.”
The health and safety of “each and every Zapponian has guided our decision-making process, since the very beginning and taking into account the comfort level of Zapponians is a key element to the future return process as well.”
Aside from saving money “at a time when it is important to do so,” Reebok has “super streamlined” its Zoom and Microsoft Teams skills, and the team’s WFH practices have gotten “so good and are only getting better,” according to a Reebok spokesman.
Reebok has yet to release any specifics about when its Boston headquarters will open, but the spokesman said additional WFH flexibility may be a takeaway from the pandemic for those whose work does not require they be in an office. Reebok is working in accordance with local guidelines throughout the world. “We might be in a different place than our colleagues in Asia Pacific and in Western Europe,” the Reebok spokesman said.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has unveiled a five-phase reopening plan and “safer-at-home” recommendations for his state, which is among the hardest hit by COVID-19 in the U.S. As of May 25, nonessential offices can reopen with 25 percent capacity, as well as social distancing, staggered schedules and reconfigured community spaces. Unlike the rest of the state, Boston has a reopening date of June 1.
Unable to predict whether Reebok employees will be back in the home office this year, the spokesman suggested the need for an industrywide collective of executives to develop a set of best practices and how to roll them out. “That would help shed some light “on what everybody else is doing and what we should be doing,” the Reebok spokesman said.
He added, ”We’ve become so good at working from home. We’re all really comfortable. But I can’t stress enough the importance of being in touch physically with our peers. We all have this feeling of isolation and inherent loneliness that obviously in the long term could affect productivity.”
New Balance, with is based in Brighton, Mass., also indicated an openness to a new way of doing business. A company spokeswoman issued a statement that noted the company will “continue to support new ways of working, including remote work, as we have seen firsthand that we have the ability to move with speed and urgency and collaborate globally under creative and varied work conditions to drive our business forward.”
With maintaining the health and safety of workers, customers and communities being New Balance’s top priority, the company has a phased reopening that follows “location-specific government guidance and expert-recommended safety protocols,” according to the statement. Executives also plan to use what they have learned from the recent reopenings of stores in China and Europe.
The New Balance statement referenced how “store openings are particularly important as we rebound from this crisis in parallel with strategic business pivots that leverage our strong global e-commerce business.”
The Qurate Retail Group, which is based in Chester, Pa., and includes HSN, QVC and other companies in its portfolio, has directed all team members who can work from home to do so. Social distancing is among the mandates for essential workers who are unable to work from home. Significantly limiting the number of visitors and contractors in its buildings, canceling all large gatherings, staggering lunch schedules and removing furniture from common areas and posting signs about the 6-foot rule are among the practices that have been put in place.
Closely monitoring the ever-changing situation, the conglomerate will continue to take action based on state and local agency guidance and mandates as well as cues from the CDC and other leading health experts.
In Manhattan, companies surveyed said they are learning a lot from their work-from-home experiences, and some are more eager than others to continue it. Without a firm reopening date in New York City, companies said they’re getting their offices ready for the day when their employees can return and are planning a phased approach.
“I believe we will never work the same way again,” said Rick Darling, chief executive officer of Global Brands Group, which has its New York headquarters in the Empire State Building, but is a believer in working from home. “I have no expectations of anyone having to be in an office environment. We think these last eight weeks has broken the back of something that’s been discussed for three or four years in our industry. It’s not where people work, but how they work.”
What he’s found is “we are probably more productive and more collaborative, we are more integrated with people in the company, and we spend more time talking face-to-face, albeit we use MS Teams, teams for Zoom. E-mails are down 70 percent of what it was prior. Our teams and Internet connectivity is obviously through the roof, and we’re finding it not only has helped us collaborate and get to know each other much better, but it’s broken down a silo that we’ve been trying to break down for 10 years. In terms of how people work across function and for us, across geographies. While it’s been an unbelievably difficult time, not just for the business but for all the reasons we know, their personal lives and social lives and everything else, we will probably change how we work and where we work.”
Certain employees in finance who never dreamed they could do their jobs at home are now saying, “Why would I commute an hour and a half each way when I’m doing everything that I was doing in the office, and maybe more, and maybe more effectively?” he said.
Of course, Darling recognized that the way his company is working today will be different than six months from now, because now children are out of school, spouses are working in the same space, and college students are doing their work online. “Everything about it right now is quite different than what I think will take place when we get to the other side of the social isolation, which is still a long way away. Our take is our offices, at some point, will be available and I don’t consider them reopening. They will become available to people who feel they need to be in the office. If people don’t feel they need to be in the office, they don’t go. What I have found is the vast majority is not black or white…almost everyone is saying I need the flexibility to be home.”
He believes the biggest challenge is getting management to readjust their thought process to managing a business remotely. “The challenge is for managers who have been doing this for a long time, that may not have people sitting across the desk from them but still have to get their projects done and still have to do it in an excellent way. And they have to manage people in a very different way. It takes a different level of respect that when people are working from home, they’re not necessarily available nine hours a day when you want them to be. They have other things going on in their lives. You have to trust that they’ll get the work done, and they’ll do it differently than they’ve done it, and probably differently than you thought they should do it. As long as the company is performing excellently, it doesn’t matter where people sit.”
According to Darling, working from home has proven that design can take place anywhere in the world now. “We always said it could be, but nobody ever acted on it.…Now we see the things that were really good about it, and what that might look like down the road.”
Asked if Global Brands will get rid of office space, Darling said, ‘I don’t know. Instead of thinking of getting rid of space, we’re thinking of reconfiguring space. People who might come in twice a week, or three times a month, they still need a place to work. I see our spaces becoming a combination of collaborative areas, more than a WeWork-looking kind of space. A shared service space, we’ll need some showrooms, but 3-D design and all the virtual tools are making showrooms less critical right now.”
He said they are booking orders for holiday “without ever having face-to-face meetings with buyers” and with virtual samples.
As for making plans for those who do come back, Darling explained, “We’re in the Empire State Building in New York. The landlord is doing tremendous things, getting the building ready for reoccupancy. Getting it ready for the way people enter and leave, and sanitizing the building itself, they’ve changed the infiltration in the building.”
He also believes there will be a lot less travel for the next year. “We’ll also realize — retailer, supplier and factory — we can do this without all the expense, time and energy that travel means,” he said. Personally, he travels to Hong Kong twice a month, but hasn’t been since January. “I conducted two board meetings, a shareholders’ meeting and we’re about to conduct our earnings announcement all via video. Why would I ever go back? If I was making 18 trips a year to the Far East, it may be five,” he said.
Sarah Dunn, global human resources director at Tapestry Inc., parent of Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman, has also seen a lot of advantages to working from home for most of the company. But they’re making plans for the majority to return after Labor Day.
“Really we are incredibly happy with the way people are working from home,” said Dunn. She said she found out in their pulse survey that the majority of corporate employees say they are as, or more, productive working from home than in the office. “There is a minority that are really important groups, around products, design, creating, people who touch samples, where they clearly have a need to be together and to work cooperatively and collaboratively. But in many cases, the work is now being done really efficiently and effectively remotely,” said Dunn.
Does she think people are working well from home because the world is closed and they have nothing else to do?
“That’s an interesting take. I don’t think so. I think people feel connected and know what they’re accountable for and they’re working effectively even though some of them are dealing with difficult home circumstances, child care, and other distractions, roommates. I think certainly for us, people have adapted really well,” she said.
“We’ve already announced that for the vast majority of our employees, we won’t be expecting to see any of them back in the office until after Labor Day. We do think we will have some of the product, design, merchandising, creative teams come in. We’ll be a small, skeletal team. Most of our teams will continue to work from home through Labor Day. I personally feel this experience will usher in a more flexible working practice that will be with us forever. I don’t think anybody is going back to the office in quite the same way,” said Dunn.
Tapestry occupies floors nine to 23 at Hudson Yards. “We know that elevators and escalators will be at limited capacity. We’re going to make plans as well as learn more about what is best practice from a health and safety point of view,” she said.
As for the office, she said, “We’re looking at a compete revisit of our office seating density, which will dramatically increase personal space in our offices. Of course, allowing people to work from home will help us achieve that.” With Hudson Yards as a whole, they’re looking at the use of elevators and the public spaces, and limiting use of conference rooms.
Do you feel the younger employees enjoy the office experience more than perhaps the more seasoned ones?
“We haven’t seen a demographic shift, we all miss the water-cooler effect, and the happenstance. Certainly, working from home, people feel more scheduled. You have to get on a call at a certain time. We learned from reopening from China, people do enjoy and look forward to the community spirit of being back in the office. That’s the intangible part of being a company culture.” In China, they’re fully open and took a phased approach. “The early weeks were an A/B rotation, in order to achieve density. We are now fully open.”
If Tapestry were to have more people working from home, would they downsize their office space? Tapestry occupies 546,000 square feet in Hudson Yards, and an additional 135,000 square feet at 2 Park Avenue for Kate Spade.
“We’re still thinking about that. I think it’s too early in the recovery to really say the office-space needs, but it’s certainly something we’re looking at. We’ll certainly look at our corporate office space as we learn to work in new ways,” said Dunn.
Morris Goldfarb, ceo of G-III Apparel Group, is looking forward to getting his troops back to the office.
“It’s a hybrid. Some will work from home, and the schedule will change on a weekly basis,” said Goldfarb. He said they plan to play it by ear and will test a couple of concepts and see what works. Goldfarb doesn’t know when his employees will start returning to the office, which depends on what Mayor Bill De Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo say.
He said working from home has been fine. “There’s an amazing amount to do. We’ve been troubleshooting in every area and it’s working out.” Meetings go on all day, every day, “and our people are incredibly productive, but it’s time to get back to work.”
He said if he took a vote, he’d find people are enjoying working from home “but that is not practical the way we’re structured.”
In order to make the office safe for return, they are creating Plexiglass petitions. He said the company’s offices at 512 Seventh Avenue have five elevators exclusively for G-III’s use. There’s also a second-floor walk-up to eliminate use of elevators. He said they plan to take temperatures of people walking into the building, and employees must wear masks.
He believes they’ll start out scheduling staggered work hours so they don’t see a 9 o’clock traffic jam. The biggest problem, of course, will be public transportation. “That’s a major issue and we’ll make accommodations as appropriate suggestions are made,” he said. G-III occupies 32 floors in 512 Seventh Avenue, encompassing 350,000 square feet. There are 1,500 people in the building.
Tory Burch, whose fashion company is based in Manhattan, said, “I have never been more proud of my team; their resilience and dedication inspires me every day. Seeing everyone in person again will be such an incredible moment.”
“Getting back to the office is a priority, but our primary concern is everyone’s health and well-being. We are closely monitoring the situation and will move forward in phases when the state government gives us the green light, beginning with those who most need to be in the office to do their job. For now, we are using this time to work through the details, ensuring that we have the necessary equipment, supplies and cleaning protocols in place so that everyone can do their job safely and feels confident about being back,” said Burch.
VF Corp., headquartered in Denver, said beyond the mandatory use of face masks and social distancing, it will also limit occupancy in its buildings once employees return to work. Offices will see a phased return, modified work schedules to limit building occupancy to 20 percent, and a halt to large meetings.
Rag & Bone, the New York-based contemporary sportswear firm, is instituting a schedule of flexible hours and working arrangements for employees. This includes working from home and staggering start and end times when employees are expected to be in the office. The brand plans to implement enhanced cleaning and sanitizing protocols, and air-handling systems will be adjusted to prevent virus transmission. Rag & Bone will also provide face shields and other protective equipment to employees when they are onsite, a well as organizing the workspace to accommodate social distancing guidelines..
Asked about their game plan to return to the office, Shoshanna Gruss, founder and creative director of Shoshanna, a New York-based ready-to-wear and swimwear firm, said, “I think we will have something like day-on/day-off teams so that we can reduce the amount of people in the beginning. We are still trying to figure it all out, but it will likely be half of one team on X days a week and the other half the remaining days. We will ensure all proper protocol is in place to make it a safe environment. At first people will come in on the basis of [how much they] need to be in the office; anything that can be done from home will continue to be, but the ultimate goal will be to return to our old situation, when and if it is safe for everyone.”
Would she consider letting people work from home indefinitely like Twitter? “Prior to the pandemic, we had a few people working from home. Going forward, if there is a situation where the job allows it and it works for everyone, we can do that for however long we have to, but that is not the ultimate goal. We are a creative community and we work better together.”
Read more from WWD:
WATCH: Working From Home With WWD’s Fashion Market Team