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Saks Plans for Full Office Return in September

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Marc Metrick, the company’s chief executive, says employees will have more flexibility but for reasons having to do with corporate culture, “the default needs to be our office.”

After more than a year of remote work, Marc Metrick, the chief executive of Saks, has a message for the company’s 500 corporate employees in New York: Starting in September, the office will again become the company’s primary workplace.

“This was really great to be able to get work done at a time when it just wasn’t safe, but as it becomes safe, this isn’t the right option for us and we need to be much more office-based,” Mr. Metrick said of remote work during a recent Zoom interview. There will be new flexibility, he said, but “the default needs to be our office.”

As vaccination rates increase, warm weather takes hold, and fully vaccinated people are able to shed their masks in most settings, in accordance with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, corporate leaders are making fresh determinations on how to structure post-pandemic office life. That question is especially pressing in New York, where remote work has ruptured aspects of the city including retail storefronts and the subway.

Employers are taking a number of different approaches. On Wall Street, Goldman Sachs is pushing New York employees to return as soon as June 14, while numerous companies are planning to return in September with hybrid models, including The New York Times, which will allow two days of remote work each week. Still others, like Spotify, have told employees that they can work from anywhere in the future.

Marc Metrick, the chief executive of Saks, called remote work a “culture killer for companies.”
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Saks, which recently split off from its store fleet and now oversees the company’s robust e-commerce business, has about 500 workers at its office in Brookfield Place in Manhattan’s financial district. (A few hundred other Saks employees work outside the city in distribution centers and in India.) Its thinking could provide insight into how other retailers — a significant industry in New York — may handle workplace returns.

Saks will require employees to be fully vaccinated when they start going to the office this fall. “If we’re asking people to come back, we have to make the environment as safe as we possibly can,” Mr. Metrick said. (Requiring vaccines for corporate workers remains a topic of some debate.)

Saks is a member of the Partnership for New York City, a major business group that has expressed frustration with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the pandemic. The organization, for which Mr. Metrick is an executive representative, said last fall that the mayor had neglected cleanliness, public safety and other “quality-of-life issues” in the city, with the effect of keeping people off the streets.

“New York City is a city that is built and exists around density, and when no one’s here, it’s not a great place,” said Mr. Metrick, who lives on the Upper West Side. “The work force is going to bring back the day trippers, and the day trippers and work force bring back the tourists. It’s about having people feel good about coming to New York City.”

He added that office workers represent “the first wave of a very essential layering of the density of New York City that’s needed to bring this city back.”

Still, people will be returning to a new type of corporate environment. Saks started making changes to its office in the fall, when it had been contemplating a broader return until the pandemic took a turn for the worse. It has added amenities like a nail and hair salon and subsidized lunches to ease the lives of employees. It is also pursuing a fully open floor plan, where only a handful of people, including Mr. Metrick, will have offices. Other offices will be converted into Zoom rooms or in-person conference rooms.

“It’s literally round tables with five chairs and people can plop down there with their laptops,” Mr. Metrick said. “It’s kind of like a student union in college would have been. It’s a very social and open work environment.”

Mr. Metrick, who has led Saks since 2015, said that the retailer has hit a wall with Zoom, comparing its popularity to “when cigarettes went mainstream.”

“It wasn’t until a few years later that people realized, ‘Oh my god, this stuff kills you,’” he said.

Mr. Metrick said he did not agree with recent comments by WeWork’s chief executive, Sandeep Mathrani, who said at a Wall Street Journal event last week that the least engaged employees are the ones most comfortable working from home.

Saks, like many consumer-facing businesses, has a close and collaborative work environment based on its business model, where “it’s not as easy to draw lines about where responsibility ends and where the next person’s responsibility begins,” Mr. Metrick said. He has been more concerned about company culture than how hard employees have been working at home, especially as new hires have joined Saks, he said.

“Zoom and the virtual world is a culture killer for companies,” Mr. Metrick said. “It doesn’t mean the individual is engaged or not engaged, or working hard or not working hard, or productive or not productive — but culture is so important to a business. And there’s no way that having 900 people dispersed and only existing in an intentional Zoom world with no unintentional conversation is good for a culture.”

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