Towards the end of 2019, I was offered a position at a well-known apparel company (a legacy brand). For personal reasons, I had to turn it down, as I could not relocate where the company had the factory. Instead, I proposed them to work remotely, visiting headquarters once or twice a week, but the answer was a no go. “At this company, designers like to work very close to apparel department; therefore, it would not be possible to work remotely,” I was told.
In 2019, nearly 45 per cent fashion employees thought that their employers were flexible to offer working arrangements, whereas today, after the COVID-19 outbreak, up to 85 per cent of them in this industry are working from home. What was unusual not so long ago is now part of the working normality in the fashion industry!
Before 2019, remote work was meant to be implemented in sales, marketing, admin, customer service, etc. Other areas like distributors, real estate developers or manufacturers had much less flexibility for working from home. But with the ‘new normal’, even manufacturers are exploring this new scenario.
Most of the major players and designers in this league are located in hubs like NY, London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, etc. where new trends take place, although the headquarters might be located somewhere else for corporate and strategy reasons. For the former ones, working remotely is not an issue as long as the company provides collection guidelines; for the merchandising department, when most of the companies are designing in one country and producing in a different one, it seems it wouldn’t be difficult for them to stay in their hometowns, instead of moving wherever the designers or the companies might be.
But, could it be that simple, changing working location from office to home in such a short period of time?
There are two different perspectives here –
From the employers’ point of view:
In many countries, ‘working remotely’ is not part of the working culture, so when circumstances change, the culture must follow. Nowadays, managers and owners need to review working policies, get rid of prejudices, and swift their mindset to this new way of working. It would not be possible to work remotely if managers are constantly thinking, ‘How could I control and supervise workers? How could I make sure they are working properly as they should?’ However, the key question should be whether leaders are ready to accept this new challenge: no on-site supervision and control over daily responsibilities, performance… Are they really fulfilling their working responsibilities?
From the employees’ point of view:
According to a recent survey, among 1,500 fashion employees, about the ‘new needed trend’ of working remotely, 60 per cent recognised they had experienced a negative impact on their performance and productivity since the outbreak of the pandemic. Not just company leaders will need to adapt their mindset, but employees as well.
Moving working places from office to home needs a great degree of adaptation too. Home will be a working place to often share with other family tasks; setting up a clear division between working and leisure time should be a key factor.
Additionally, company should provide the necessary tools and technology in order to enable the employee to carry out with his responsibilities; this new scenario could be a great opportunity for organisations to implement and put in place new technology in order to create new ways of working, leaner and more effectively, according to new circumstances.
HR will be paramount and will play a major role in order to help employees in this transition. HR will have to actively collaborate with top managers and other stakeholders involved in order to build all the protocols needed to control the ‘when’ and the ‘how’; to this extent, there will be a need for training and educating for both workers and leaders to ease the communication between them; set up clear objectives (in terms of time, targets and KPIs); what is expected from employees as well as from company leaders in order to provide the necessary equipment (computer, internet access, communication channels, etc.). Even then, HR staff could work remotely.
Therefore, is working remotely in the fashion industry just a temporary measure or will remain for long? Hopefully not. We are social beings; when we interact with someone, we are interpreting, not just words but also all the signals the other person is sending; how he/she moves the hands, the tone of his/her voice, the way he/she looks at us… All of that gives us information that one computer or an email does not. It is really difficult to have a brainstorming meeting or to share creativity through a computer. Therefore, let’s aim that working from home could be used as a complementary working tool, but not the other way around.
This article has been contributed by Aida Tagarro, Production Manager & Quality Supervisor, Eastcorp Ltd., Spain, and the views are based on her years of experience in the apparel industry.