Should retailers ask workers to return to their offices?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/Orbon Alija
Feb 12, 2021

LVMH is instructing Tiffany’s corporate staff to return to offices two days a week beginning at the start of March. The decision comes as the arrival of vaccines has corporations exploring when, how and whether to bring office workers back.

LVMH acquired Tiffany on Jan. 7 and believes in-office workers will speed the merger’s transition and support a collaborative culture, according to The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Gap Inc. is consolidating Old Navy’s Mission Bay offices into the parent’s headquarters along the Embarcadero. The move supports “flexibility” for staff amid the shift to remote work due to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Salesforce announced that it is giving employees three work options. Some who don’t require an office will work remotely full-time. “Flex” workers will work in the office up to three days a week to support collaboration, customer meetings and presentations. The smallest portion will work in a location four to five days per week if their roles require it.

Another Journal report, published yesterday, said Qurate Retail, the parent of QVC and HSN, recently shifted its planned May return to offices to September at the earliest due to a slower-than-hoped vaccine rollout.

Post-pandemic surveys show the majority of employees are seeking more options to support work/life balance. Many claim the transition has been easy and they’ve been more productive due to fewer distractions.

Eliminating office space would save money for corporations, although it’s still debatable whether traditional office benefits of fostering collaboration, mentoring and evaluating employees for promotions can be accomplished to the same degree virtually.

A Pew survey taken in October found 65 percent of workers new to teleworking due to the pandemic feel less connected to their coworkers. Among more seasoned teleworkers, only 27 percent felt that way. Younger teleworkers were found to be more likely to say they’ve had a hard time feeling motivated to do their work and parents with young children had a harder time getting work done at home.

Cushman & Wakefield research found that, although many survey results indicate that people want to work from home for half of their working time or longer, the sentiment is expected to reverse once the pandemic is over as FOMO (fear of missing out) leads many to believe their careers are being hampered by fewer in-person interactions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see most corporate workers returning to offices as the pandemic eases, continuing to work remotely or shifting to a hybrid set-up? What might retail’s corporate staff lose with a strong shift to remote working following the pandemic?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Let's face it: most Americans don't have access to a vaccine. That may change at some point, but let's not jump the gun."
"“As the pandemic eases” is the thing, isn’t it? Is it safe to be out and about with people you know but do not know where they have been?"
"With the challenges of rolling out the vaccines and the continued escalations of Covid-19 cases, we still have a pandemic horizon."

Join the Discussion!

25 Comments on "Should retailers ask workers to return to their offices?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Even with an accelerated pace of vaccinations, it may take the rest of 2021 to lure office workers back to the office. Industries like retail that benefit from face-to-face collaboration between merchants and design teams may want to consider a phased reopening, where other functional areas like finance can return more slowly. The LVMH mandate to its staff looks impractical and (worse) inhumane, given that very few of its workers have access to both rounds of vaccine in the next two weeks.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

It will most likely land on a flexible option as that will be a happy medium, fostering more effective communications between co-workers to meet and plan in the office while using the days working from home to do the work and execute the plan. Coming back together in the office a few days a week makes total sense, but if we do it too early it does not.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
I feel like it’s irresponsible to ask employees to return to offices without vaccine shots. Especially when we have a light at the end of the tunnel on vaccines – sometime this year. Return should be voluntary based on employee comfort until we can demonstrate herd immunity. Plus, it doesn’t solve anything for parents of young children – if the day care or school is closed or limited, how can parents return to an office? Adding that pressure on top of so many others is not helpful. I agree that collaboration and integration and even the speed of decision-making can be improved by in-person meetings vs. WFH. And I’m a WFH veteran for sure. Aptos has evaluated and acquired now two companies during the pandemic, and been working on the integration of one since September. Could we have gone a lot faster if we could all be in a room together? Sure. But to insist on those benefits at the expense of employee safety and security during a time when people are still at the… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Ask, maybe. Force, no. Not at this time. If the goal is to keep people healthy and happy, companies need to remain flexible right now.

RandyDandy
Guest
7 months 13 days ago

Neil, no one should be forced to work at this time, if employers cant ensure their workers’ safety. But isn’t retail store staff being expected to do so with no guarantees? Other than some safety measures in place, there remain great risks facing the public. (Which includes, as much, getting to and from as well as being on the job.) My sense is that somewhere deep in this discussion, between employers and employees (and let’s not forget unions), is the realization that it is not quite as fair (to put it mildly) for retailers in particular to put sales associates and the like out in the fray while allowing corporate equivalents the security of working from home.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I agree. It is unfortunate. However, it’s a matter of necessity. Most back-end workers don’t need to go into offices as they can do their jobs from home. With the best will in the world, the same isn’t true of those who work on the front lines. What’s worse: increasing risk for everyone in the name of fairness or doing what you can to minimize risk for as many people as possible?

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

The work from home Pandora’s box has been opened and it will hard to put it all back. While there appears to be almost universal acceptance that work from home will remain in some state, there is no clear path to exactly how to best accomplish this. In fact Google’s CEO recently stated in a WSJ article that he’s concerned about maintaining Google’s culture if work from home were to become permanent. The concerns about the lack of employee spontaneous interaction, creativity and sense of community are all legitimate concerns of working remotely, but at the same time, there are also benefits and desire to continue to work from home at least for some part of the week by employees. Regardless of how employers deal with it, work from home is likely here to stay in some shape or form permanently.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

The predominant lasting impact is going to be hybrid work models. There are two things that will directly result. The first is downsized and consolidated office spaces, probably with open use designs where whoever is in the office that day can use the space. The second is a shift to production/performance versus hourly or salary compensation models. The result will be much more effective, and cost effective, office staff for employers.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I am in process of designing a benchmark study on this very question! To be published in a couple of months. My personal opinion is that most corporate workers will continue working from home. While there are some issues around propagating corporate culture, in every other way, home work is a win-win. Cheaper to build offices, more productivity due to lack of commute.

The only piece I have some questions about is the hourly workforce. So rather than just opine, RSR is going to ask retailers. I hope to read collective opinions!

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

“As the pandemic eases” is the thing, isn’t it? Is it safe to be out and about with people you know but do not know where they have been? It’s still something I think about each time I work in our office.

There has to be a lot of flexibility built into any plan to bring workers back. Are parents still required to home school? Is day care available and is it safe?

In a work setting, collaboration is better when people are together. As wonderful as Zoom as been throughout the pandemic it will never replace the connectivity that happens when we are physically working in the same space, so I understand the corporate desire to bring office workers back together.

At some point we need to get back to business but I’m not sure that time is now. The article mentions the arrival of vaccinations being part of the deciding factor. Where I live getting a vaccination is the equivalent of winning the lottery; it’s not something companies can count on yet.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust
Richard Hernandez
Director, Main Street Markets
7 months 13 days ago

From personal experience, people that have had it (which turns out was a lot) can begin to return to the office, those that have not, should continue to work from home until they get a vaccine shot. Kids here in this state have been going to school for a while now but have the option to remote learn. It will take major coordinating to make sure all bases are covered.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

The are certain tasks that fit the work from home process. But any business that relies on innovation, creativity, new ideas, and better solutions will fall behind if their primary focus for interaction is Zoom.

Al McClain
Staff

There are so many collaborative tools available for office workers that I see minimal need to force workers to return to a physical office. I agree that asking is one thing, but mandating is another. And, since we are talking about retail companies, unfortunately the store and warehouse associates haven’t had the luxury of WFH in almost all cases.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Let’s face it: most Americans don’t have access to a vaccine. That may change at some point, but let’s not jump the gun. This will be especially true of companies with headquarters in high-rise buildings — isn’t restricting elevator car access going to be a problem?

RandyDandy
Guest
7 months 13 days ago
Elevator access is an issue, Cathy. But it is something more controllable/containable by office management, et al. One that is not, and a huge hurdle to overcome is getting to work. Especially via public transport. Which was unwieldy in the best of times, and now being (nearly) the worst. It is not until cities can make commuters feel safe on subways/trains that most companies can tell or expect employees to take that indefinable risk. Meanwhile, even though working from home is more secure from a virus-spread POV, and, in some cases, a surprisingly more efficient way to work, it is also insecure in a striking way. Consider that when one works “office hours” they are definable by hours and physical presence. Those indicators are no longer as apparent to bosses and employees. What was once exclaimed as “done for the day” with an exit out the door has not the same equivalency for remote workers. Who are, sight unseen, often imagined as not working as hard by management (regardless that the opposite may be true).… Read more »
Raj B. Shroff
BrainTrust

Salesforce recently announced that they would have all three; flex, fully remote and office-based with the latter being the smallest part of their workforce. I don’t see most corporate workers returning 40 hours per week. I see a lot more hybrid – with teams using tools to figure out agreed upon guardrails. And if workers do return to the office, being their will be much more flexible.

Corporate staff might lose some chemistry aspects but so many of us are figuring out how to adapt to work and create culture remotely. I adjust at a design school and the students are all well-versed in virtual collaboration tools like Miro and Teams. In-person might be reserved for team building and bonding/social events, etc., whereas work will fall into hybrid.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

There are so many moving parts and variables involved here that it is impossible to come up with a focused “should” answer, unless it’s to say that companies should be flexible. Company culture, ease of commuting, parenting/schooling issues, timing and access to vaccines all play a role. It will take most of 2021 to sort these issues out so that companies and their workforce can determine what the next new work paradigm looks like. Needless to say Toto, we aren’t working in Kansas any longer.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

There is going to be a lot of empty office space as companies are slow to return business-in-the-office as usual. And, then some will not return at all – or at least a small percentage of what they had prior to COVID-19. The primary goal is safety. Any business should ask, “How can I operate in the most effective and safe way?” The answer is about health and that will dictate if it’s safe to return to the office. The next question is, “What will be the most effective and efficient way?” The answer is about numbers and productivity. Regardless, safety and health trump all answers to any question related to this topic.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

The determining factors for many companies will likely be what industry they are in and the type of work the employees do. There may be some companies who will require employees to return to their offices/places of work full time, but I expect that the hybrid model will endure and be the most popular. A question is, will employees want full time remote if they are asked to accept a lower pay rate because they elected to work in a lower cost of living location?

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

First question first. I don’t see “most” corporate workers returning to offices until “most” corporate workers – and everyone else – are vaccinated, and that’s not even considering the emergence of a variant that the vaccine isn’t effective against. If, or when, they do return I think we will see some hybrid emerge as the “new normal” for office workers. As to what might be lost — besides a good deal of socialization time, unnecessary meetings, etc. — that depends on the company, the worker’s role, and a whole host of other variables. But I wouldn’t be worrying about changing office decors until this fall at the earliest and possibly the first quarter of 2022 at the rate things are going.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Return to work may be the most complex part of the entire pandemic experience. Some employees will have loved their remote experience. Some will have hated it. Most will be somewhere in between. That means it will come down to corporations establishing the rules.

That said, a firm demand for employees to return to the office seems quite risky until at least this coming summer as the number of vaccinated continues to grow. Given that in Oregon and Colorado they’ve just barely opened vaccinations to 80 year olds, it’s not likely that many employees will be vaccinated any time soon.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

With the challenges of rolling out the vaccines and the continued escalations of Covid-19 cases, we still have a pandemic horizon. While companies can certainly ask, without the precautions and protections of a fully vaccinated society, nobody should be forced to return to the office if they are not considered essential workers.

If there is any silver lining of this horrific pandemic, it’s that the majority of companies have very effectively shifted to a remote operating model, keep their business going, all while protecting their associates and clients. It’s not acceptable for any company to mandate a full or partial return to the office until we as a society feel that it’s safe to do so.

The fact is that it all comes down to trust and transparency. While the relentless zoom call is fatiguing, we as professionals have proven that we could shift and be quite effective remotely.

storewanderer
Guest
7 months 13 days ago
Fauci said April should be “open season” for vaccines meaning everyone who wants one can get one starting then. I would guess toward May/June they will be giving vaccines out like crazy, going to workplaces and other crowded locations to try to find people who are not yet vaccinated but are willing to take the vaccine if it “comes to them,” so to speak. So in that case I would think toward the end of summer that part will be taken care of. But there is a segment that really does prefer to work from home…. The large corporate employers could also set up vaccine clinics at the workplace to ensure all of their employees who want the vaccine get it easily. Just like many handle the flu shot, which seems to be where this is going. Then also there are those who do not want the vaccine yet and will not take it yet and want to wait to see how it plays out regarding side effects and new strains in the next few… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

The (naive) question of course is why? If companies are functioning now, then what’s to be gained, and if they AREN’T functioning, then they probably won’t last long enough for it to remain an issue.

But as I indicated, that’s the naive view; the reality is more complicated: some companies may actually be functioning better, or better in some areas/ worse in others; but most, I suspect, are suffering in subtle ways that will become more apparent with time (that’s true from both the perspective of the employer and the employee).

And of course there are outside influences as well: both the Commercial Real Estate industry and office serving functions (ranging from retail to public transit) could collapse without a return … they will focus all their efforts and influence to make sure it happens.

Allison McGuire
BrainTrust

I think a hybrid model will be far more acceptable and most employers will embrace that moving forward. There are certain cultures that are just setup to work more efficiently with everyone back in the office, but providing some flexibility to make employees comfortable is the best approach.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Let's face it: most Americans don't have access to a vaccine. That may change at some point, but let's not jump the gun."
"“As the pandemic eases” is the thing, isn’t it? Is it safe to be out and about with people you know but do not know where they have been?"
"With the challenges of rolling out the vaccines and the continued escalations of Covid-19 cases, we still have a pandemic horizon."

Take Our Instant Poll

Do you see more benefits or drawbacks to retailers from a strong shift to remote working for their corporate staff?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...