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Is WFH the real reason fashion is so lacking in new ideas?

Marcus Jaye
26 April 2024

Professional Marmite, working from home has been a standoff between employers and employees since the pandemic. While many employees relish the freedom and time and cost savings of working from home, many employers have continued to push for more office time.

Last week, Nike CEO John Donahoe blamed remote work for the company falling behind on innovation, saying that it was tough to be disruptive when people are working from home.
“In hindsight, it turns out, it’s really hard to do bold, disruptive innovation, to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom,” Donahoe told CNBC. “Our teams came back together 18 months ago in person, and we recognise this. So we realigned our company, and over the last year we have been ruthlessly focused on rebuilding our disruptive innovation pipeline along with our iterative innovation pipeline.”


Nike CEO John Donahoe. "It's really hard to develop a boldly disruptive shoe on Zoom" (Image: Alamy)

The American sportswear giant with annual revenues over $50 billion has hit a rocky patch. Nike is forecasting a "low single-digits" decline in revenue during the first half of its 2025 fiscal year despite it being an Olympic year. At the end of last year it announced a restructure to strip out about $2 billion in costs over the next three years and said it was losing 2% of its workforce, around 1,600 employees.

Donahoe’s comments repeated what was highlighted by JD Sports CEO Regis Schultz the previous month. Schultz said young customers wanted new styles and colours, and they were turned off by a lack of innovation in products, such as fleeces. He said Nike's lack of innovation caused a sales drop, while adidas and New Balance, by comparison, were "doing very well".

Over in the scientific world, researchers at Oxford University and the University of Pittsburgh looked at 20 million scientific studies and found that the more we worked remotely, the less likely we are to come up with true innovations. Collaborating in person, the study found, produced more breakthroughs than remote work. The farther away team members were from one another – even if they were in the same time zone – the worse chance they had of producing work that was groundbreaking. Teams located in the same city, for example, were 22% more likely to produce innovative patents than teams spread out by several hundred miles or more — and 27% more likely to produce pioneering insights in scientific papers.

So, is WFH stifling product innovation and the real reason fashion is so boring right now?

Sportswear, and fashion in general, thrives on newness, novelty and innovation. Even before the pandemic many fashion brands were being accused of "design by email"; dialling in designs and changing colour ways and small details on previous best sellers.

JD Sports Nike

JD Sports says young consumers want more innovation (Image: JD Sports/PA)

Much of fashion has been struggling with new ideas and has become stale and repetitive. The industry as a whole has been lacking good design relying instead on branding and new variations of old products and collaborations to drive sales.

The current slowdown could be an opportunity for brands to rethink ways of working and what will drive the best outcomes. Luxury brands especially need to lead in this area, and with fashion’s global way of working, over different time zones, it is more important than ever to get everybody in one place and working together.

The pandemic was extremely disruptive and was a catalyst for new ways of working and many took it as an opportunity to improve their quality of life. Many employees will fight employers who force them back to the office full time and will be suspicious of some of these points of view. It could be seen as difficult for Nike to complain about people not innovating enough when it is making redundancies and cutting costs.

Companies won’t be able to treat R&D teams differently from the rest of the workforce. Three days a week in the office seems to be the compromise many office-based businesses and employees are willing to accept, but will this be enough time to breakthrough with the innovations that drives sales and help companies compete and grow?

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