Corporate retail employee working from home on a laptop during the COVID-19 pandemic

Opinion: Navigating Corporate Retail’s Return to Work Requires Flexibility

Foko Retail's Director of Customer Success discusses the pros and cons of remote work

  • By Fayrouz Abu-Hamdan

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the entire retail industry. Retailers have been forced to furlough staff and close their doors with little notice. Businesses have gone bankrupt. And those who’ve remained open have had to adapt to constantly evolving protocols and ways of operating. But store teams aren’t the only ones who’ve been affected—corporate employees have been forced to adjust and find new ways to connect and collaborate with staff remotely.

With vaccination campaigns gaining momentum in the U.S. and elsewhere, it seems like some semblance of normalcy is finally near, as retailers and businesses are beginning to plan a return to physical corporate workspaces, at least on a part-time or as-needed basis. LVMH, for instance, recently announced plans to bring Tiffany employees back to its U.S. offices for two days a week, beginning in early March. Others are eyeing as early as mid-May to late August as ideal months to return to work.

But not everyone is ready for it. Many people have experienced the previously impossible privileges of working from home and aren’t ready to give up the 30-second commutes, distraction-free (for the most part) work environments, unexpected cost savings, and comfort that come with it.

Which begs the question: with stress levels at an all-time high, churn and burnout a significant problem not just on retail’s frontline but at the corporate level as well, and modern technology replacing the need for many in-person interactions, should retailers be focused on bringing office-based employees back to work? Or is doing so a detriment to morale, productivity, and retailers’ bottom line?

For the past year, I’ve been working remotely and having daily conservations with many major retailers through my role as Director of Customer Success at Foko Retail about the struggles staff members and executives face as they navigate their returns to work.

Here’s what I’ve learned—either anecdotally or directly from colleagues and confidants—about what’s going through everyone’s minds as they weigh whether or not 2021 is the right time to return to work.

 

Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus

We’re over a year into the pandemic, and a lot has changed. While the novelty of working from home and our interests in sourdough bread and Tiger King may have waned, many are still finding silver linings in our work from home lives, making the idea of a full-fledged return to work hard to muster.

For those without children at home, many cite a renewed focus due to fewer in-person interruptions. Sure, the number of meetings has increased because there are less spur the moment conversations. But in some ways they’re more goal-oriented and straight to the point, allowing teams to address the topics at hand and get back to work, so they can focus on moving the needle forward. Lunch breaks are easier to take. And, in addition to a lack of daily commutes and fewer sick days overall (the 2020-2021 flu season was basically wiped out), many are arguably finding an abundance of our most precious resource—time.

But it’s not only employees who are seeing advantages to having more staff members work from home—many corporations are downsizing their office spaces and seeing cost-saving benefits as a result, in addition to enhanced levels of employee productivity and job satisfaction. (Both CVS Health and Ralph Lauren plan to reduce their office footprint by 30%, and others—like Nordstrom and Old Navy—are letting leases expire, consolidating workspaces, or finding smaller ones.)

 

Stuck at Home

Of course, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for everyone stuck doing Zoom meetings at home. Due to repeated lockdowns, many employees have been forced to juggle work, parenting, and help with online learning throughout the day, making it hard to focus on important, work-related tasks.

Meanwhile, younger employees who are new to their careers have had a more challenging time communicating with co-workers and establishing the connections needed to learn and grow in their careers. A recent Pew survey found 65 percent of workers new to teleworking felt less connected to their co-workers and younger employees had a hard time finding the motivation to do their work.

Employers, in general, also often wonder if a lack of in-person interactions is making it harder to effectively collaborate and problem-solve together, regardless of industry.

 

Deciding What to Do

I don’t envy retailers who are still settling on when or whether to return to work—clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to all options available and opinions on each of them.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Still, experts say employers can do a few things to make the transition back to work an easy one:

– Consider a phased-in approach, bringing team members back to work gradually, so employees don’t feel overwhelmed and don’t risk their health if case counts flare-up suddenly

– Push your start date back to late-summer or early fall, just in case vaccination campaigns hit a snag (in my native Toronto, for instance, it’s been a total mess) and to provide employees ample time to set up child care arrangements, if necessary

– Finally, experts say to be aware that employees may not be ready to return and anxiety is likely to persist long after the pandemic is over—being understanding of their plight can go a long way to making employees feel comfortable about returning to work

And, if possible, maybe let employees decide what’s best for them: another Pew survey found that half of the employees polled said, if given the option, they’d prefer to work from home part-time—maybe one or two days a week—even after the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, and those findings mirror what I’ve heard from others in the industry and elsewhere.

Although human interaction is powerful and important, technology is increasingly replacing the need for in-person interactions. Do we really need to be in the office five days a week when, as previously discussed, meetings can be conducted more efficiently from home?

Communicating with colleagues, employees on the road, or frontline staff has never been easier (and arguably more productive), thanks to consumer and enterprise software that helps teams stay connected, making a hybrid working model not only necessary right now but beneficial for some teams moving forward.

It’s also important to note that a flexible work model is essential to bringing some of those hit hardest by the pandemic—parents (and particularly working mothers)—back to work more sustainably and could lead to greater workplace equality, less burnout, and higher employee retention, all of which are win-wins for competitive retailers.

Still, no matter what you decide—whether it’s to keep working remotely or embrace a hybrid working model—don’t let your team culture take a hit. When you work remotely, you often lose those seemingly inconsequential, in-person interactions that are important in establishing trust with new recruits and long-term employees at the corporate level. Try to schedule a small outdoor outing (if it’s safe enough to do so) with your team or host an informal meeting to talk about life and discuss what’s on everyone’s minds. (I do the latter with my team every day after our morning scrum where we talk about everything from the latest streamable TV shows and movies to new recipes.)

Working remotely isn’t for everyone and every organization. But it’s certainly the safest option right now and may end up being more productive, cost-effective, and beneficial in the long run.

 

About the Author

Fayrouz Abu-Hamdan is the Director of Customer Success at Foko Retail, a psychology grad, and former customer service and sales representative at Tommy Hilfiger. To read more of her thoughts on the retail and software industry, connect with her on LinkedIn.