Retailers rethink the future of the workplace

Retailers with head offices in Victoria are rethinking the future of their workplace after the state’s premier Daniel Andrews told residents last week they must continue working from home until at least the end of June.

On Friday, May 29, Andrews announced the easing of restrictions on cafes, restaurants, pubs, nail salons and other venues, which were allowed to reopen this week under certain conditions. But he said Victorians who had been working from home must continue to do so to prevent a second wave of coronavirus cases.

“By working from home, we limit the number of people moving around – and we limit the spread of this virus,” Andrews said.

The edict does not apply to sales assistants, as they were not working from home prior to the announcement, but it does affect thousands of other retail jobs, from management and marketing to design and customer service. And businesses found to be violating the rules will face significant fines.

“Retailers should be aware that the Premier has encouraged employees to ‘dob’ in their bosses if they are forced to return to the workplace,” HR Legal’s workplace relations and safety lawyer and partner Georgie Chapman told Inside Retail.

“Any retailer who forces their employees to return to work and breaches this direction could face significant penalties.”

Some of the biggest retailers in Australia are affected by this policy, including Coles, Myer, Kmart, Officeworks and JB Hi-Fi, which are all headquartered in Melbourne, and Cotton On Group, which is based in Geelong.

Head office staff at Melbourne-based Country Road Group have been working from home since mid-March and will continue to do so in line with the latest advice from the Victorian government until further notice.

“Where roles cannot be effectively performed from home, a small number of team members have been approved to return to our head office with strict health and safety measures in place, including rigorous social distancing guidelines,” Scott Fyfe, Country Road Group’s CEO, told Inside Retail.

“We will continue to respect the direction of government and play our part in maintaining community health and safety.”  

The local arm of US outdoor brand Patagonia had been planning to reopen its head office in Torquay with the same level of caution and flexibility as it employed in the reopening of its retail stores on May 25, but that has changed.  

“Like many businesses, we are now reimagining what our workplace will look like in a post-COVID-19 landscape,” Dane O’Shanassy, country director of Patagonia ANZ, told Inside Retail.

Death of the office?

Prior to the premier’s announcement, businesses were already facing a very different way of working in the head office, including staggered start times and weekly shifts to reduce the number of people in the office at any one time, no-go zones around communal spaces like kitchens and couches and increased cleaning and sanitation regimens. But now, some businesses are rethinking whether it makes sense to return to the head office at all.

Following the news last month that Twitter would let its roughly 4000 global employees work from home permanently, Julie Mathers, founder and CEO of eco-friendly online store Flora & Fauna, announced she was adopting a similar policy for her Sydney-based team.

“There will be times we need to be together but long gone is the ‘in at 9, leave at 5’,” Mathers wrote on LinkedIn in May.

Facebook, Shopify and a slew of other tech companies have since shared plans to increase their support for remote working post-COVID-19. And while most retailers may not be prepared to close the head office for good quite yet, the past three months have proven that it’s possible.

Justin Dry, CEO of Melbourne-based online wine retailer Vinomofo, said he has been “super impressed” with just how productive team members have been while working from home.

“We have a lot of regular catch-ups and virtual meetings, but the meetings have been really focused. Everyone is there and present, and there’s not a lot of wasted time like there is in the office. It’s more purposeful,” Dry told Inside Retail.

While Dry doesn’t envision shifting to a fully remote workplace, he expects more people will start working from home permanently, or at least more frequently, in the future.

“We’ve always had a small percentage of the team working from home. This just proves it’s possible in every role,” he said.

But as Brava Lingerie director Lin Windram notes, there are some challenges when you can only communicate via email or Zoom.

“It does feel more disjointed and things certainly get missed, but we all try to help each other and not get into negative territory,” Windram told Inside Retail.

Brava Lingerie’s head office staff have been working from home and will continue to do so as per the advice of the Victorian government. When that changes, Windram expects people will work according to their personal preferences.

“Maxine, my co-founder and my daughter, works mostly from home anyway. My preference is to be in the office around our online dispatch people and ensuring I am on top of how other people are coping,” she said.

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