US outdoor gear co-op REI to sell HQ

The retailer is looking to reallocate resources and switch to decentralised homeworking in the aftermath of Covid-19

US outdoor leisure retailer REI has announced the sale of its newly built headquarters as it looks to switch to long-term remote working and reallocate resources after Covid-19.

The eight-acre Seattle campus was designed as a “ world-class, sustainable headquarters” for the co-op, integrated into its surrounding neighbourhood with open air spaces and state of the art interiors.

REI was due to move into the site this summer but has abandoned the idea and is now looking to encourage its 1,400 employees to work remotely for the long-term and is looking for a less centralised approach.

The news follows two set of lay-offs at the organisation, which was forced to axe 25% of its HQ staff in April and last month announced 400 job losses across 162 stores.

Under the new plans, REI’s “headquarters” would span multiple locations across the region, and the business will “lean into remote working as an engrained, supported, and normalised model for headquarters employees, offering flexibility for more employees to live and work outside of the Puget Sound region and shrinking the co-op’s carbon footprint”.

President and CEO Eric Artz told staff in a video call: “The dramatic events of 2020 have challenged us to reexamine and rethink every aspect of our business and many of the assumptions of the past. That includes where and how we work.

“As a result, our new experience of “headquarters” will be very different than the one we imagined more than four years ago.”

REI says the new thinking follows its adoption to remote working after the pandemic struck in March.

“[This year] we learned that the more distributed way of working we previously thought untenable will instead unlock incredible potential,” said Mr Artz. “This will have immediate, positive impacts on our ability to attract and retain a diverse and highly skilled workforce, as we continue to navigate the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.”

REI says the transition “was motivated by recent learnings and a desire to create more flexibility for employees” but says the sale will also have financial benefits after it was forced to shut stores during the pandemic.

The co-op undertook a number of cash preservation measures throughout the spring, including tighter inventory management, elective pay cuts by Artz and the board of directors, reductions in headcount and focusing around a streamlined set of priorities. It says these measures stabilised the business and allowed it to invest in customer and staff-facing programmes and innovations.

The sale of the Spring District campus will enable important investments in customer innovations, REI’s network of nonprofit partners, and the co-op’s carbon goals, it added.

“I am confident that the sale of the Spring District campus would have a positive impact on REI’s future – and yours,” Artz told employees. “This year has shown us our home is not a building. Our home is wherever we find ourselves doing our best work, pursuing our outdoor passions, serving our communities. Serving each other. That is what we will build around as we move forward – and as we accelerate into what’s next.”

But REI has also met criticism from its workforce over its Covid-19 policy, with staff at its Grand Rapids, Michigan store accusing the co-op of not informing them when a colleague tested positive for the disease.

In an online petition, they say: “We are the retail workers of the REI co-Op; the inspired guides who are the face of the co-op; the stewards of this business; and the bodies who wear our green vests day-to-day.

“We are the co-op, but in recent days and weeks, we’ve been treated as disposable. We’ve been laid off en masse, or forced to resign. Those of us that remain have been left in the dark about coronavirus response policy and have been knowingly exposed to Covid-19 without notification, denying us the ability to make informed decisions for ourselves and our families. This has been confirmed in Grand Rapids, MI, in Atlanta, GA, and in Tucson, AZ but more cases are coming to light every day.”

The petition makes a series of demands: it wants REI to:

  • Immediately offer to rehire any and all REI retail workers laid off or pressured to resign since the Covid-19 shutdown began on 15 March
  • Grant any retail workers not called back to work an extended furlough or paid leave
  • Improved safety precautions above and beyond government guidelines
  • Give all retail workers a hazard-pay increase, backdated for any time worked since 15 March.
  • Acknowledge the limited and insufficient data regarding the definition of close contact (6 ft.) and the duration of time that constitutes a prolonged exposure (15 minutes).
  • Notify all REI retail workers at the impacted store locations immediately in the event of a Covid-19 case, within the scope of all applicable privacy laws, along with the local community. The store will then be cleaned, disinfected according and closed for seven days.

In response, REI told the US media that while its previous approach to handling cases among staff met government guidelines, it has now changed its policy on Tuesday “to expressly give managers the authority to notify the full team at their store if there is a known Covid case”.

“Some employees wanted transparency above what guidelines and our policies directed, so we made that adjustment,” said spokesperson Rob Discher.