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On HR’s struggle against COVID, current market trends, and love of sweatpants

Thursday, 15 April, 2021
@Monika Ciesielska
Dresscode

Over the past couple of months, I have had the pleasure of having a virtual coffee with a handful of HR execs from a number of companies and industries. We discussed how their companies fared in the pandemic, focusing primarily on people.

During our conversations, I was struck by how the pandemic elevated the role of HR departments within their respective organizations. But to keep the talks merry, we also dabbled a little in industry gossip and spoke at length about market novelties brought about by the changes in our habits prompted by this new normal we have found ourselves in.

Read on to learn how COVID has reshaped our work environments and what trends emerged in the wake of those changes, what sort of impact the pandemic has had on work-life balance, our mental health, and the influx of plants into our apartments, and whether house slippers are superior to heels.

CHANGES IN WORK ENVIRONMENTS

Remote Work and Work-Life Balance

The shift from office-bound to remote work went rather smoothly. A lot of companies that previously refused to even consider a remote-first model have since contritely embraced it. But has this radical transition brought only upsides? There is no single answer to that question. A mother of two schoolchildren will say one thing, a single person cut off from their coworkers and family will say something else, while a traveling sales manager may offer yet another perspective. Most of us, however, will readily admit that the line between work and home life has definitely gotten blurry. Although it hasn’t brought a drop in productivity, the move to remote operations means incessant online meetings, often without even so much as a break between one and the next.

HR in the Struggle Against COVID

And this is where the HR department comes in, recast in the era of COVID into something akin to the special forces of the workplace—with only a little exaggeration thrown in. The ability to observe employees in a new environment and reliance on new communication channels has fast become a competence that HR departments worldwide had to quickly develop to previously unseen proficiency. The HR execs I spoke with shared with me a handful of strategies that helped them manage the shift and improve remote working conditions. Examples include:

  1. Silent hours — two-hour-long breaks in the workday during which no online meetings are to be scheduled or held. Implementing such an arrangement might be difficult in international teams, given the time differences, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  2. A mental health professional on call — curiously, in manufacturing companies, production floor employees have been observed to avoid seeking the help of mental health professionals, in fear of appearing weak to their managers. The managers, meanwhile, are eagerly reaching for that sort of assistance. Most of the HR executives admit, however, that the caseload carried by the therapists their companies hired is relatively low, which demonstrates that most of us are still trying to tough it out against stress and anxiety on our own. And given their sheer intensity over the past twelves months, going it alone might not be the best choice.
  3. Morning coffee with coworkers — “My first meeting of every day is a morning conversation with my team,” one HR exec at a FMCG company told me. “We talk about everything, in a relaxed atmosphere, which helps us relieve stress and inspire each other to action.” It’s a gesture that might seem small, but it might change attitudes across entire teams.

Mental Health

While the mental health crisis has been a subject of heated public debate already before COVID hit, the pandemic has only accelerated it. As the media flood us with rising infection rate reports, heavier impact of new coronavirus variants on younger people, rising food prices, and deteriorating job security (nearly 35% of Poles fear losing their job), our stress levels skyrocket and it’s getting harder and harder to maintain even a semblance of peace of mind. Most of our emotional outlets, like conversations with coworkers over lunch or in office hallways, have now been put on indefinite hold. We need interaction, conflict, spirited debate, and because much of our opportunity to engage in these pursuits is now out of the question, these emotions fester inside us, spilling out into our homes and our family lives. That’s why I’d like to encourage everyone to take care of their mental health—it’s just as important as the wellbeing of our hearts or livers.

Business Trip to Paris or MS Teams?

Back in the summer of 2020, I spoke with a friend who’s a pilot flying Dreamliners for LOT about the disastrous reduction of his flight schedule, 80% pay cut, and taking up cargo flights to pick up the slack. But when I tried to cheer him up and said that international travel will surely make a comeback as COVID subsides, he was adamant that the changes to the aviation industry brought on by COVID are essentially irreversible and will reshape it forever.

Not long afterward, during one of my coffee conversations with HR directors, I realized that his fears about the future of civil aviation were absolutely justified. Each of the execs I spoke with confirmed that online meetings, often convened across borders and timezones, helped managers come to the conclusion that not every issue has to be discussed or solved in person at a meeting in Paris, London, or New York City. They also said that slashing business travel expenses was a boon to company budgets.

CHANGES TO HABITS, OR ON NEW MARKET TRENDS

Color Cosmetics and Consumer Electronics

According to ExpertSender’s Online Shopping in Poland in 2020 report, eighty percent of Poles with broadband access use it for shopping, with over half spending 300 PLN or more. Some e-commerce sectors saw their transaction volume double. This stunning growth was driven mostly by the fact that cohorts previously uninterested in doing their shopping online, like senior citizens, for example, have come around to using online sales channels due to restrictions brought on by the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, aside from groceries and foodstuffs, soap and toilet paper emerged as the most sought-after products among online shoppers. The cosmetics industry in Poland reported a sixteen-percent drop in color cosmetics revenues. Universal mask mandates predictably drove down demand for lipstick, but beauty industry revenue loss was less severe in Western Europe, reaching only as high as eight percent. It would seem that Polish women settled on no-makeup looks for the duration of the pandemic.

Rzeczpospolita also reported that despite huge growth in the e-commerce sector, Poles still opted for buying consumer electronics in physical stores rather than online. The inability to personally see a TV or a home theater system ultimately adversely impacted sales, with revenues falling from 20B to 4B PLN.

In Mood for Fine Spirits

While the pandemic has put a dent in our overall consumption of alcohol, the industry has observed a shift toward pricier offerings, as reported by Nielsen. This realignment has been confirmed to me by executives from a prominent brewery and a grocery chain. The biggest growth in sales has been observed for rum, gin, and whisky. Facing a choice between beer and wine (which saw 18% growth!), the average Pole is now more likely to choose the latter. Interestingly enough, when choosing beer, most will choose alcohol-free brews (+29%).

House Slippers or High Heels?

The answer to this particular question seems rather obvious in lockdown (though maybe not for all of us). We’ve grown so accustomed to the prospect of working in comfortable leisurewear that it has impacted our shopping practices. First of all, we buy less. Fashion industry revenues dropped by a third, falling by as much as $640B in the US alone. Second, when we do buy clothes, we tend to veer toward less formal wear, instead choosing pyjamas, leggings, housewear, and, above all, sweatpants. Sweatpant purchases went up by 80%, and Google has recorded a fourteen-year high in searches for the pandemic’s preferred garment.

The question is, however, what will happen after we return to our offices, which estimates believe might happen as soon as the second half of 2021? Designers often say that fashion loves extremes, offering as an example the trends that swept fashion after World War II, when many women took over traditionally male professions and began wearing jeans all the time. When Calvin Klein unveiled his very feminine collection, this “new look” quickly took over the world. For many of us, 2020 was the year of leisurewear, but given that formal office looks were already becoming increasingly casual before the pandemic, we’ll probably end up playing with them even further. And as far as high heels go, I’m planning on remaining faithful to mine forever, regardless of future trends.

Side note: as shopping malls opened following successive infection waves, the biggest growth in revenues was observed by jewelry stores. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the recession and rising inflation have prompted renewed interest in gold. Second, during most of our online meetings, our cameras show us from the waist up, so many of us opted for buying necklaces, rings, and earrings rather than shoes or other accessories.

Feeling Green

Over the past couple of months, I have found myself in something of a plant craze, most likely driven by my longing for other people. Becoming a “pandemic plant parent,” however, happened somewhat inadvertently in my case. Cut off from interaction – and before the pandemic I averaged as many as seven meetings per day – I began filling the void with plant life, and vegetation slowly started taking over my apartment. It got so bad that when my dwarf umbrella tree died from lack of water and my garden croton died of some sort of virus, I broke down in sobs (both times), leading my six-year-old daughter to try and comfort me by saying that she’ll use her magic to take care of my surviving plants, just like Maleficent had.

My newfound zeal for indoor flora, however, still pales against worldwide trends – throughout 2020, Australians bought as many as eleven billion plants, while I purchased a paltry eleven.

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