From Flex Schedules to Innovative Team Building, Coronavirus Is Forcing Shoe Brands to Get Creative

It’s anything but business as usual for companies across the U.S. as the coronavirus continues to escalate. For smaller firms with employees who often wear more than one hat, adjusting work schedules and company policies to make sure they are both fair and viable is yielding creative options.

While many companies are encouraging employees to work remotely whenever possible in order to protect themselves and their fellow workers, firms with tighter staffs may find they’re unable to be as flexible or liberal in order to meet their day-to-day work demands.

For independently-owned footwear companies across the country, management is continuing to address the rapidly changing situation with a range of initiatives including updating staff on CDC policies, evaluating work-from-home opportunities and suspending overseas travel.

At Peppergate Footwear in Pomona, Calif., CEO Luke Chen said the company’s current structure does not lend itself easily to working remotely, particularly since its product development teams typically travel overseas. “Our design and development teams are not traveling abroad like they normally would this time of the year, so that definitely makes development more complicated, but our team is up to the challenge,“ he noted.

However, the company’s design director, Megan Gold, has turned the situation into a positive, even using it as a time to bond with her team.  “Obviously, we’re in a very wild time with first the tariffs and now the coronavirus,” she said. “As events escalated, my team and I realized we had to flip the script on business as usual. As design director, it’s my job to find the inspiration for the season. Fear and panic doesn’t translate into summer vibes. I wanted the team to be able to shake off the stress and put ourselves in a vacation mindset in order to develop and design spring/summer ‘21. So, with travel to China off the table, we rented a minivan and hit the road on an inspiration road trip down the West Coast from Seattle to Los Angeles, hitting Portland, Ore., Mt. Shasta, Napa, San Francisco, Carmel and Santa Barbara.” (Editor’s note: California and Seattle are among the U.S. states that have reported confirmed cases of the coronavirus.)

According to Gold, “Our soundtrack was a ‘60s psychedelic rock mix, and we’ve dubbed the season, ‘Itchycoo Park,’ inspired by the Small Faces song. The vocals refrain, ‘It’s all too beautiful,’ is perfect for remembering to look for beauty even in times of major distress. We’re in the thick of the design process and I must say, our plan is working. We’re video chatting nightly with our China team to get everyone on the same page, and honestly, we are very excited about where this entirely fresh approach has led us.”

For companies that manufacture domestically, the situation has been less challenging to tackle, according to Sara Irvani, CEO of Bufford, Ga.,-based Okabashi. “As a U.S. manufacturer, the coronavirus has not had the [same] impact importers have experienced,” she said, although she’s ready to address any employee-related issues that arise. “We always allow for sick time, and have encouraged anyone feeling even slightly under the weather to work from home,” said Irvani. “At the moment, we don’t anticipate stopping operations, and of course have lots of hand sanitizer everywhere.”

Flexible employee work schedules are allowing Spring Footwear in Pompano Beach, Fla., to remain up and running according to Laura Fish, merchandising manager. “Whatever the situation calls for in order to keep all employees and their families safe, the company is prepared to do whatever it takes,” she said.

Like Spring Footwear, Steve Gallo, president of Oofos, in Braintree, Mass., which has a staff of 18, said the company has alerted workers if they’re not feeling well, to take the liberty of working from home. “Typically, we encourage and welcome people to work from home,” said Gallo. “It’s about putting our employees first. We don’t want people to feel like they have to come to work if they are not feeling well.”

Putting precautionary health measures in place has been a priority at Taos Footwear, Torrance, Calif. According to President Glen Barad, “We have recommended hand washing more often and put hand sanitizers around the office,” he said. “We have about 27 people in 30,000 square feet of space so we’re not on top of each other. If anyone isn’t feeling well they’re not expected to come into the office. If anyone is concerned, we speak to them and we will let them work remotely if they so choose.” However, said Barad, “We understand that the flu is a much bigger issue than the coronavirus. We have young, healthy people working at the office. That being said, we have had many people out sick over the last six weeks [related to the flu].”

Since the company outsources its distribution, Barad said there are little concerns there will be a disruption in shipments to stores at present. “It’s a very organized well-financed company that treats their employees very well,” he said. “We will check with them to see what their take on this is,” he said. “As of right now, we’re all working at the status quo.”


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