Before the pandemic, Tradesy’s offices were a start-up dream: a fully stocked kitchen, daily gourmet lunch, video game stations and monthly “beer demos.” Employees could watch the waves crash onto the Santa Monica beach from their ergonomic chairs or standing desks.
But Tradesy exited its lease in June, and the offices were effectively dismantled, with staffers taking home desks and chairs that had been gathering dust since the spring. The fashion resale platform will hold annual team trips to spark the sort of bonding that might once have taken place around the ping pong table, said founder and chief executive Tracy DiNunzio.
“The whole team is going to summer camp for a week in October — all expenses paid,” she said.
For Tradesy, with 120 mostly desk-bound employees and an office lease nearing expiration last year, closing the office was a straightforward decision. For thousands of other companies across the fashion industry, whether to make last year’s shift to remote work permanent, return to the pre-pandemic office or find a point in between is a tougher decision. With more than 1.3 billion vaccination doses given worldwide, and cities like New York preparing to fully reopen, it’s a decision businesses will have to make soon.
Some jobs are unlikely to ever go fully remote: most garment workers, store associates and warehouse teams will have to remain on-site for the foreseeable future. Employees in other jobs, including marketing, strategy and design, might already have spent the bulk of their pre-Covid time on computers. Many don’t want to go back: a Harvard Business School study in March found that 81 percent of professionals either don’t want to return to the office or would prefer a hybrid schedule.
Getting out of commercial leases and downsizing office spaces — a step taken by companies ranging from Target to Under Armour — comes with its own set of challenges. But for many, the barrier to permanent remote work is more mental than physical: companies and employees are looking for ways to replicate in-person collaboration and create a productive corporate culture without an office.
Remote work “flattens the human experience” leading many staffers who are stuck at one dimensional computer screens for hours on end to feel “sensory deprived,” said Siobhán Lonergan, chief brand officer of Shapermint, a shapewear and intimates marketplace with 200 employees across 80 countries.
Sometimes the fix is as simple as “spending eight to 10 minutes at the start of a Zoom meeting asking people about their kids and family,” she said.
“We’ll do a collaborative thing where we all wear the same colour one day or play a game to get to know each other better — sometimes small human things can be easy to forget but are so important when you’re remote,” she said.
Shapermint has also introduced tools to replicate some of the nonverbal cues that can be lost over emails and direct messages. Recently, the company started using Loom, software that allows employees to record and share video messages of their computer screens. The purpose is to ensure that key ideas aren’t lost in translation.
“Over-communication is key here — whether that’s with video, visual or tangible examples,” she said. “[You have to think] beyond Slack or email.”
Tradesy has approached remote work like a new business venture with a fresh set of policies and practices, treating onboarding of new staffers like “doing a product release,” DiNunzio said.
Each of the 40 or so employees hired during the pandemic was assigned a “lunch buddy” and provided with meal delivery gift cards. Tradesy also runs a hub for social groups and activities, with clubs for everything from parenting to social activism. Employees can access meditation, yoga, stress management and cooking classes on a health and wellness app. Tradesy also offered a monthly office equipment stipend of $100 to each employee to help take care of incidentals that crop up in a work-from-home environment.
“People used to be able to absorb ideas about the company culture from the office, we now have to be a lot more explicit and force communication … so that we [replicate] the incidental conversations that happen when we’re in person via Zoom,” she said.
People used to be able to absorb ideas about the company culture from the office, we now have to be a lot more explicit and force communication.
Striking the Right Balance
Even companies that are committed to ditching permanent office spaces say in-person interactions will remain vital to their operations.
Emme Parsons launched her brand of minimalist sandals from her dining room table in Los Angeles in 2017. When the pandemic ramped up, she moved to Florida in order to be closer to her parents. Since her six-person team is spread out across the United States, she has no plans to acquire permanent office space but has started flying in staffers for in-person meetings. Recently, she flew in her Los Angeles-based designer as well as a production person from New York. Both stayed at Parsons’ family guest house, where they did everything from fittings to inspecting materials from the kitchen island.
“It’s really the modern way of working,” she said. “I prefer having a very flexible schedule — where people aren’t tied to certain hours or [physical locations] and it was something that I wanted to build into the culture of my company. There is a time and place for in-person collaboration but we have to listen to the people we work with and respond accordingly.”
Parsons said she’s had to be mindful of “Zoom fatigue” and is taking extra steps to help her team avoid burnout. She also suggests employees schedule emails sent late at night or on the weekend to go out during business hours, so the recipient doesn’t feel obligated to respond right away.
“I really encourage my team to take proper days off to unplug and recharge,” she said.
DiNunzio said companies need to evaluate the need for in-person collaboration on a case-by-case basis. Her company’s newly expanded marketing group will likely be meeting more frequently than other teams, she said.
I prefer having a very flexible schedule, and it was something that I wanted to build into the culture of my company.
At CocoBaba, a vegan skin care brand launched in Germany in 2016 and that entered the US in March, founder Emma Heming Willis said her team is more productive since meet ups are limited to the occasional small lunches and coffee catch-ups.
“When we’re on Zoom, we get more work done and when we’re in person it feels like a novelty and we get to just have fun and connect with each other — and not talk about business,” she said.