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Fashion Finally Heads Back to the Office

Fashion Finally Heads Back to the Office

It’s been just one month since Revlon launched a pilot programme that established ground rules around where its corporate employees could work, and it’s already confirmed chief executive Debra Perelman’s hunch.

Most of the makeup giant’s staffers want to come into the office — sometimes. But the onus is on the company to make it worth their while.

The pilot programme is essentially a hybrid model — a mix of in-person and remote work — that was built around survey and anecdotal evidence Revlon collected over the last two years. When it reopened its New York headquarters last fall, it told the 350 employees based in the city they could come in on a voluntary basis. The company found that many employees saw being in-person as “more enriching” and “enjoyable,” Perelman said. But, they wanted a say in when and why they show up.

“Coming into the office really needs to have a purpose,” she said. “When people come and have in-person meetings they need to be effective, collaborative, creative and drive faster decision making.”

Amid mass loosening of Covid restrictions, much of the world is racing toward a “great reopening” and fashion firms are facing new pressures to establish clear policies around bringing people back to the office. Leaders like Perelman — and many workers — believe some form of in-person work is necessary to boost creativity and collaboration as well as help establish a company culture that can aid employee loyalty and retention.

But execution requires striking a delicate balance between offering employees flexibility and meeting critical business needs. Most companies are already finding that there isn’t a cure-all solution that will make every employee happy.

“With the advances in technology and productivity, I don’t know if there’s going to be a standard,” said Michael Prendergast, managing director of Alvarez & Marsal Consumer Retail Group, a retail consultancy. “We’re going to see a very dynamic range of different policies across the industry.”

Avoiding a Hybrid Hiccup

For fashion firms and their employees torn between the pros and cons of remote and in-person work, a hybrid model may seem like an obvious solution. But hybrid models have their downsides, too.

“Tactically, hybrid is a real problem,” said Prendergast. “What can happen is you have someone deciding to come in on a Wednesday and 90 percent of the people they need to work with aren’t there and they end up working digitally anyways.”

While workplace flexibility is among the most critical demands of today’s workforce, companies that don’t put at least some structure around their hybrid policies risk forfeiting benefits like collaboration and culture building, said Matthew Katz, managing partner at business consultancy SSA & Company.

“You’re going to have to be somewhat prescriptive in who you want in the office and when in order to create that energy in [a given] timeline,” he said.

Revlon asked managers to coordinate with their teams to establish the days during the week or month when it makes sense for them to come to the office together. Factors like launching a new product line, syncing up with other in-office teams, or simply wanting to grab a team lunch could all play into the equation, Perelman said.

At LePrix, a Bethesda, Maryland-based wholesale platform for retailers to buy pre-owned luxury apparel and accessories, co-founder Emily Erkel said its 30 employees are so enthusiastic about coming back to the office that the company is in the market for a larger space to hold them all.

“Right now, our desks are shared between two people who each use the desk on the other [person’s at-home day],” she said.

The company is operating within a hybrid model whereby teams coordinate to pick the days it makes sense for them to come in. She hasn’t yet made plans to enforce in-office work but said the company “encourages” employees whose teams have agreed to be in on certain days to show up.

“It’s really about team building and collaboration, which we didn’t get enough of during the pandemic,” she said.

Companies must be very clear on what they’re hoping to gain from a hybrid model. If a competitive advantage in a tight labour market is what they’re after, they will need to consider how they market that to candidates as well as how they put it into practice with their existing workforce.

A hybrid model on its own may not say to candidates that a company is flexible. For instance, requiring every employee, regardless of their specific needs, to show up for in-person work on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday may not sell the idea of flexibility to prospective candidates.

“Taking a one-size-fits-all approach is probably the biggest pitfall for companies,” said Prendergast.

Making In-Office Work Stick

Companies eager to bring employees back must address longstanding issues that made in-office work challenging, if not wholly impossible, for millions of people pre-pandemic. Working parents in the US, for example, have long struggled with child care and the situation has only gotten worse in the last two years.

At the height of the pandemic when dozens of companies expanded their wellness benefits, some firms looked into providing benefits like child-care subsidies, backup child care and even on-site day-care services. Companies like the jewellery brand Kendra Scott signed a partnership with platforms, an online marketplace for child and senior care, to help employees with children and elderly parents.

But overall, most fashion and retail companies haven’t made firm commitments — beyond broad statements embracing flexibility — to help their workers address child care needs, said Prendergast.

“What we have heard is a lot of undecidedness although it’s definitely top of mind,” he said.

Executives who pay close attention to the demographic and behavioural characteristics of their workforce may notice distinct patterns among those rushing back to the office and those who seem more skittish. Some younger employees, eager to get their taste of the corporate world and partake in rituals like happy hour, may be generally more excited than their peers to embrace a return to the office, said Prendergast.

“Once you’re in the office, you have to ensure that the things you’ve been touting like the cultural DNA, the creative juice and the camaraderie actually happen,” he said.

Rokt, the e-commerce technology firm that handles online transactions for companies like Wayfair, Fanatics and Lands’ End, has told its roughly 350 employees they must return to the office three days a week but it’s providing lunches, take-home Covid tests and “mental health days,” which are set company-wide days off meant to prioritise wellbeing. To combat the Monday blues, it’s also required that all teams use that day as one of their work-from-home days.

The idea, said chief people officer Sarah Wilson, was to remove some pain points that make coming to the office challenging but also harness the engagement the company was losing during the pandemic.

“We feel really passionately about having that sense of self and of identity as an organisation and that it’s something you can’t manufacture,” said Wilson. “Yes, being remote is super flexible and convenient but you lose that and it’s a higher cost for a business.”

Companies will need to engage an array of tools to measure whether their return-to-office plans are succeeding — this includes looking at employee satisfaction surveys; hiring and retention data as well as business revenues and profits, said Katz.

“You’re not just looking to create comfort and fun for employees. This isn’t summer camp, you’re running a business,” he said. “If you want hiring and retention benefits then creating the cultural interaction you want in an office is really important.”