Staples leans into ‘working-from-anywhere’

From the C-Suite newsletter: Anticipating a rush to remote work, the retailer reimagines its "working and learning" platform.

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When office supply retailer Staples Canada announced in December 2018 that it was shifting its business model to become a “Working and Learning Company,” it had no way of foreseeing the pandemic on the horizon and the way that would affect the workforce in Canada.

At the time, the renewal effort signaled a commitment to brick-and-mortar stores when competitors in the category, such as Grand & Toy, were scaling back their physical presences and pivoting to digital-only sales.

While the business developed its digital and delivery channels, it also sought to reimagine its physical retail locations as community hubs. The first of its concept stores opened in Kirkland, Que., and a Toronto location followed shortly after; in total, there are now 15 of them across Canada, according to John DeFranco, the company’s chief commercial officer.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape the future of work, DeFranco spoke with strategy about Staples Canada’s transformational journey and how it is adapting to the new reality.

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As people consider how work will be done when lockdowns end and offices reopen, the idea of a hybrid working model – people splitting time between the office and their homes – seems to be taking hold. How is Staples adjusting to this possible new reality?

We’re transforming into the “Working and Learning Company.” So we’re moving away from just an office supplies warehouse to providing solutions for customers, and the biggest solution we can provide now is to help support the remote working and learning that’s happening. That has had a pretty profound impact on our business.

We started two large projects, one called “The New School” [focused heavily on replicating educational environments such as classrooms] and one which we call “Work From Anywhere” [focused on remote work]. They’re cross-functional, and the whole company has come together around these two big solutions because we’ve been overwhelmed by demand for the types of products that help people work and learn remotely.

One of the things we’ve done is we’ve launched a “Work From Anywhere” landing page on our website. If you go to it, you’ll get a flavour for what we’re trying to do. We’ve got the top 10 products that you need for remote work, but then there’s these four themes that have emerged: ergonomics, connectivity, mobility and organization.

Those are the four things our customers have been asking a lot about: how do I have an ergonomic workplace? How do I stay connected, so that I can stay on a Zoom call? Organization – do I have the right desk, chair and office setup? And what we’re going to start to see more of is mobility. As companies have a more relaxed position on work from anywhere, people are going to need to have all of the products and services to be able to work wherever they are. Probably, this summer, we’ll see increased demand for mobility because if people don’t have to go into the office every day, they might want to work from the cottage.

The “Working and Learning” platform predates the pandemic. How has Staples adapted it to the new situation?

We started the journey about three years ago, and we have 15 of these stores across Canada that have coworking in them, cafes, and lots of solutions for customers in them with expanded services. While we started the journey three years ago, because of everything that’s been happening with the pandemic, the ‘Working and Learning Company’ [aspect] has really come to the forefront for Canadian businesses and consumers.

Subject_NamesIt’s interesting as we think about what’s going to happen to the new world of work going forward. The office isn’t going to go away. People will continue to go into the office for specific reasons, like collaboration, training or team-building events. But a certain portion of the workforce is going to stay remote, and so coworking is an opportunity for them to work somewhere that isn’t the office, but is also away from their home environment.

One of the things we’ve learned, as well, is how important services are for managing the workforce. Our subscription service for tech support has grown tremendously during the pandemic, as employees don’t have easy access to a company IT department. And we’ve seen a significant increase in things like shipping and shredding services [through the company's on-site "solutionshop" locations].

And how has the pandemic affected Staples’ B2B operation?

We put together a vendor council where we can ask stakeholders what’s going on in the world of remote work and we also did a lot of research. Right now, 25% of the Canadian workforce is working from home – 4.2 million Canadians. That number is usually under 2 million. So there’s a significant portion of the Canadian workforce working remotely, and that creates both opportunities and challenges for businesses.

For example, they now have to figure out how to manage a remote workforce, including how to get them supplies. Before, employees could walk to a supply closet or someone would leave them on their desk. Now, companies are struggling with figuring out how to get supplies to their remote workforce. We have the ability to ship those supplies directly to the employees’ homes and centrally bill and manage it, so businesses can help their workforce stay productive without the benefit of a supplies closet.

Content has also become really important. We have a free virtual spotlight series where we have industry experts teach people how to create a productive at-home office or classroom. We’ve seen really explosive growth in the number of consumers and businesses attending that spotlight series. We actually went as far as having a Work From Anywhere expo [on March 24 and 25] for businesses. It was a virtual expo where people could drop in to listen to live speakers, or visit a virtual trade show booth to explore all of the products and services they could use to make sure their workforce stays productive.

So I think there’s a real hunger for content as well, and it has become a bigger part of our marketing message, because customers are hungry for new solutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities.