Covid-19: Musings on retail's WFH evolution with Lord Mark Price

Last week, Twitter told its employees they could work from home (WFH) “forever” if they so wished.

In a potentially landmark moment in the evolution of the workplace, the social media giant said the WFH measures implemented due to Covid-19 proved it could operate with a largely remote workforce.

“If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen,” it said, in the wake of tech titans Facebook and Google saying most of their staff could WFH until the end of 2020 as the companies navigate a post-coronavirus environment.

And when commercial property owner and shopping centre operator Landsec said on 12 May that only 10% of its office sites are currently in use, it was difficult not to start imagining how the virus lockdown might change working patterns forever. Will the global pandemic help accelerate an already-in-motion shift from work being somewhere one goes to something one does?

Lord Mark Price, the former managing director of supermarket chain Waitrose and short-term minister for international trade in David Cameron’s government, certainly thinks so.

“I think one of the challenges for employers is going to be getting people back into the office – there will be concerns, obviously, about health and commuting, but I think more people will say ‘I’m more productive, it’s better for me and my family, and I’d like that freedom to work from home’,” he argues.

“The good news for employers is that, based on what we’re seeing, they can certainly trust people to work hard at home.”

In retail, specifically, shop staff, warehouse workers, and delivery drivers will clearly find a WFH model prohibitive, but thousands of the sector’s head and regional office staff have been operating from home in recent weeks – many for the first time. Footwear retailer Dune, for example, fast tracked a “smart-working” initiative, which entails flexible hours and WFH options, due to the coronavirus.

“People have worked pretty effectively from home in almost an ad hoc manner – I think companies have got used to a lot of workarounds,” Price comments.

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, of the 32.6 million in employment in 2019, around 1.7 million people reported working mainly from home – or just over 5%. The proportion of the working population who predominantly WFH has gradually risen every year since the metric has been tracked.

Price, who is now running Engaging Works, a platform that aims to gauge employee happiness, and match them with the most appropriate jobs while offering relevant professional support, says there’s a growing desire among people to WFH.

Over the last three weeks, coinciding with the coronavirus-prompted lockdown, Engaging Works surveyed around 4,000 employees from a variety of sectors – with around 20% of respondents from retail or retail-related job roles. Their answers show people are overwhelmingly in favour of more WFH opportunities.

“People working from home rate themselves as happier,” Price notes.

“About two-thirds of people are saying they either want to work from home permanently or a couple of days a week.”

He suggests only around 8% said they want to go back to full-time office or on-site working once the current health crisis subsides.

“There isn’t an area of our survey where people feel less happy than they did at work, which is remarkable,” Price says, although he adds there are concerns around career development, and socialising – particularly among younger respondents. The reliability of technology to ensure people can efficiently work from home on a more regular basis is also still a major worry, notes the former Waitrose boss.

Retail ripple effect

There is a concern, of course, that by adopting more home and remote working practices, retailers will actually contribute to fast-tracking radical changes in industry structure.

If fewer people are working in offices and commuting to their place of work, what happens to the retailers and hospitality providers that make most of their revenues from commuters, the lunch crowd, and the after-work rush?

Perhaps it is something for retailers to give serious thought to before adopting new working policies in the aftermath of Covid-19 and as they reopen HQs in the coming months. Perhaps it’s just part of a natural evolution of society.

Price raised many similar points during his keynote at last month’s virtual RetailEXPO, and he predicted several major Covid-19-related consequences for the retail industry. The events the UK is experiencing now, he says, will “speed up the evolution and the revolution in retail high streets”.

“I suspect there are lots of retailers in the middle ground – legacy retailers with too much space and which aren’t efficient enough – and what’s happened will exacerbate change,” he warns.

The Conservative peer also suggests new working patterns will raise a plethora of questions around the viability of retailers at stations and airports, for example, or those which have set up around office space. He also says retailers will be querying how much office space they actually need – but it was ever thus.

“I’d expect there to be some kind of boost around local community shopping, obviously a very strong continued transition towards online shopping, and arguable a more difficult time for big shopping centres, in the first instance, and big high streets where there are a large number of offices,” he notes.

Price points to China, where shops have reopened after the country’s own Covid-19 lockdown, saying “retail volumes are not returning quickly because people aren’t dashing back to their offices”. It is taking time for society to switch back from WFH.

“This is a trend that’s been heading in one direction for around a decade but what has happened now has sped it up – and, in a way, bosses have become more comfortable with that speeding up,” he adds.

Any escalation of the WFH trend, it seems, will drive retail sector change in several ways.

After the respective announcements from Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and in light of government suggestions around rebooting the consumer economy from June, UK retail staff – currently based at home – await news of their new workplace arrangements.