This week, I look at big beauty’s plans for returning to the office.
Though the White House said it will likely fall short of President Joe Biden’s Fourth of July Covid-19 vaccination goals, pre-pandemic normalcy is resuming. Travel has largely bounced back, mask-wearing is optional in many places, and companies are venturing back to work. Saks Fifth Avenue CEO Marc Metrick said in June that, despite a year-plus remote work schedule, “the default needs to be our office.” Similarly, JPMorgan is requiring all U.S. workers to document their vaccination status to the company by June 30. Beginning July 6, all of its U.S. employees are expected to move to a standard in-office schedule.
For big beauty, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Though all conglomerates went fully remote in the U.S. beginning in March 2020, post-Covid office plans are still in the works. Shiseido, for instance, has not announced its formal plans to return back to the office, according to a company spokesperson. L’Oréal USA, meanwhile, aimed to mitigate confusion by announcing back in August 2020 a permanent hybrid work model, allowing eligible employees to work 40% of their time, or two days per week, remotely. Over at Estée Lauder Companies, New York-based employees will begin operating in a new hybrid work model beginning October 4. According to a spokesperson, final hybrid details are in the works, but ELC had been piloting several work experiences across selected teams even prior to the pandemic, so flexibility will be accounted for.
Many industry sources have said that, depending on mandatory in-office schedules, beauty companies may have difficulties retaining and luring talent as employees’ priorities have shifted. In an April-May 2021 Glossy and Modern Retail survey of 74 brand and retailer respondents, 28% said they’d gone back to the office full-time. A large number of respondents said they refuse to work at the office full-time for at least another 12 months.
Of the large beauty and CPG conglomerates, Unilever, perhaps, had the most flexible work schedule historically. Steve Alessandrini, head of corporate communications for Unilever North America and a member of the company’s Covid-19 incident management team, said the company had been operating under a remote premise for decades. “Our focus has always been on providing employees with more choices and great control over how, when and where they work, so they can determine the best way to meet the requirements of their role while doing so in a manner that works for them personally, as well,” he said.
As of June, Unilever began welcoming employees back to offices in California and Vermont on a voluntary basis. In mid-July, its Englewood Cliffs, NJ headquarters and several other sites will be open in a hybrid format. Other sites will return later this summer or in early fall, but for all North American employees in non-essential roles, returning to the workplace will be 100% voluntary through the remainder of 2021, said Alessandrini. Still, a fully remote environment is not being considered and more “regular” time spent in the office will begin in 2022.
“Our employees have done an amazing job adapting to remote working over the past 16 months. We’ve proven that remote working at scale can be done successfully and has benefits. Equally, we have seen the drawbacks of 100% remote working, and this has illustrated the fact that the office remains the best environment for fostering collaboration and interpersonal connection,” he said. “We also know that there are employees who want to go back to the office, either for mental health
Alessandrini added that Unilever will work with employees to establish a new hybrid way of working that sees most employees spending some time in the office and the rest working remotely to ensure a balance for the needs of the business and the individual.
Though arguably more complicated, given its dual corporate-store structure, Ulta Beauty has also prioritized flexibility. Ulta Beauty’s corporate staff went remote starting in March 2020; its store team has been back in full force after a six-week closure period last spring.
“Operationally, Ulta Beauty was prepared to mobilize remote work, and we quickly pivoted to successfully function in a full-time virtual setting,” said Anita Ryan, svp of human resources at Ulta Beauty. “No one was required to return to office during the pandemic. That said, we understood the personal and emotional challenges our associates might experience while working from home and worked to handle the operational shift with great care.”
Full-time corporate employees were allowed to work flexible working hours weekly, and Ryan said the company scheduled no meeting hours (for both in-person and Zoom appointments) and established remote work protocols.
Since the summer, Ulta Beauty has taken a test-and-learn approach to in-office life. Since restrictions began to lift, it’s been allowing 100 of its associates to work at the corporate office, including those identified as essential for accessing on-site resources. Beginning in September, the retailer will be incorporating FlexWork @ Ulta Beauty, where corporate staff will work in the office 2-3 days per week, but also have the option to work four weeks per year remotely from any location. The latter addition was due to the fact that many corporate associates moved or found a second home during the pandemic.
Feedback will be key in ensuring all of these policies work in real-time, said Ryan. “We take associate feedback very seriously at Ulta Beauty and understand the critical importance of continuously listening and learning,” she said. One way that is happening is through the online “Voice of the Associate Pulse Survey,” which was created to help understand employees’ current perspectives on working arrangements, pressure points, sentiment and inclusivity, among other topics. That feedback is then shared across the company on an ongoing basis, so executives can actively adjust. Another is through the “HR Service Center,” a company website that has become the go-to source for rapid-fire information.
“Our dedicated, cross-functional teams use our values as a North Star to guide workplace arrangements and engagement to ensure we never lose sight of who we are and what’s important to our teams,” she said.
This story is a part of a series of stories on Glossy about the future of experiential, looking at all the ways face-to-face interactions in beauty and fashion are changing. You can read other stories in this series here.
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