In this episode, we will hear from Lawrence Covitt, Senior Vice President of Talent at Stark, luxurious contemporary style handmade carpet and rug business in New York since 1938. Throughout this series, we’ll dive deep into the fascinating world of remote work and discover the strategies, challenges, and successes of remote professionals from various industries and backgrounds. Get inspired from insights, anecdotes, and practical advice from experts in their field who are endeavoring to master the art of working remote.
Remote Work: An HR Perspective
Dr. Thomas Wilson: Welcome to workforce remote.org, the podcast. I’m Dr. Thomas Wilson and we call this series How Do You Remote? Today my guest brings an HR perspective regarding remote work. Lawrence Covitt is the Senior Vice President of Talent at Stark Carpets. Lawrence, thank you for joining us today.
Lawrence: My pleasure, Thomas. Thank you for having me.
Thomas: You’ve got a unique situation with your company. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about.
Lawrence: Sure. So, Stark was established back in 1938, by Arthur Stark and his wife Nadia in New York. It started way back then in the business of basically luxury carpets and rugs for about 85 years or so. And we have always really prided ourselves on our products for sure, our people, our teams, and the way we just go about this particularly in the way we service designers. We primarily do a lot of our businesses through designers who have clients. We don’t generally, but we are open to working with the homeowners themselves. Therefore, we’re working with a relatively luxury level of product and a luxury level of clientele.
Thomas: And you were not just in the US, tell me a little bit about your international presence and specifically how that relates to remote work. Have you run into any challenges with remote presence in other countries?
Lawrence: Sure, so we’re international in a few different ways. Here in the states, we operate between 20-25 showrooms, probably in about 19 or 20 states. And then we also operate a showroom in London and by showroom, I mean, this is the physical location where our clients can come and visit, see product. Our showrooms in many cases have hundreds, if not thousands of different samples. And they can literally physically come in and meet with their account manager and work and see product and choices and help work on the design of their home. And in London, over in the UK, we have the exact thing set up where there’s a physical location that a client can come visit. In many cases, we are in a walk-up places where we might be part of a shopping center or we might also be as part of either design centers.
For example, in Manhattan we are part of the Decorations and Design Building (D&D Building) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That building is full, it’s probably 15-18 floors of home design products from everything from the floor to ceiling, and the same thing really is the case in London. We also operate in many locations around the world where we have agents where we have a person who owns our line or if you say owns the selling of our line in those locations. But generally we’re operating them all remotely. And certainly remote has many definitions. In this case, particularly our leadership team, our central corporate structure is based in the US. Obviously, we have leadership in every showroom around the country and as well in London, and then each of our reps around the world have a chain of command, for lack of a better word in the way that they operate. So yeah, so it is really interesting, particularly, you know, when you talk about, time zones.
I spend part of my time in New York and part of my time in Southern California. And so just those 3 hours often are one of those remote things that we need to work on. My team primarily, if not exclusively, is actually on the East Coast. My boss Chad Stark who’s our third generation owner is based primarily out of the Los Angeles area. And then when you talk about London, that’s 5 hours ahead of New York 8 hours ahead of California, when you talk about our mills and the factories that we work with. That produce the product. They are in parts of Asia that are 12-13 sometimes more hours away. So remote work certainly has a lot of different definitions and, and balls to juggle in the air, I guess I would say.
Thomas: Now it is my understanding that with COVID as with other companies when COVID hit, remote was accelerated some, was that true in your case with Stark? If that was the case what effect has that made transitioning or increasing the idea of remote work in your company.
Lawrence: Yeah, that’s a great question, thanks for asking. It certainly was a catalyst for a lot of what is present day. There certainly were roles that were remote even before COVID. We have, over time, centralized some of our operations and those operations, for example, order processing and things like that. The clients signing on the dotted line, so to speak, and signing an agreement and really engaging us in product is only the first step in many between order and delivery. And so we had a lot of folks around the country who were working from home, etc. And this certainly put us a little bit further ahead and really was fortunate to really help us accelerate those kinds of plans.
Since the world has reopened, we have moved people back to the office. We do currently post roles that are both on site, hybrid, or remote and anything kind of in between. We had showrooms, of course, depending on the state and the local municipalities that were closed, of course, depending on the state and the local municipalities that were closed for short times or longer time, but generally we were like the rest of the retail municipalities that were closed for short times or longer time. We were open within a few months, but generally we were like the rest of the retailing world open, within a few months of the initial shutdown world open, you know, within a few months of the initial shutdown in March of 2020. And we do have these show rooms and they do require folks to be on site. But we even now, frankly, we’re in the more discussions about what remote slash hybrid could look like.
Thomas: Along those lines of recruiting people and how it’s different now than it was before. I’m wondering what effect that has had in your recruiting. Have you noticed that applicants are demanding flexible jobs or do they just appreciate it? Is it something that you think is part of the fabric of recruiting now that needs to be offered?
Lawrence: Yeah, I think what we’ve learned is that setting expectations early, meaning in the job hosting is super, super critical. I think for starters it saves time on both the candidates and my talent acquisition team’s end to be upfront about that. And that way if someone only wants to be one or the other and we hear people who absolutely don’t want remote or absolutely don’t want onsite. And so we hear both of that and we really make sure that we’re upfront.
I like to say that we’re pretty open minded and that we would be open to some discussions, but generally we put a lot of thought into what the role will require. Some of that is what team do they work within, you know, the role that we’re, advertising for. And so we put a lot of thought into that ahead of time. We really try and be as upfront as possible, and really be very clear with candidates beforehand. It is very interesting. There was a large spike, 9 the 18 months after the initial shutdown that there was a big swing to I only want to be remote. People got very used to that. They really enjoyed it, whether it was rolling out a bed and being in the office in a minute or 2 min. And then we see now more folks looking forward to being around colleagues and being without around people and wanting that personal connection.
Some of our creative team, product development, design, our art department, our marketing teams, which are mostly remote, we are looking towards setting up more in person collaborative sessions, whether that’s monthly, quarterly or whatever. I think will be worked out between the teams, but we think that there is merit in as much as we can, allowing the teams to be able to function the way that works best for them.
Thomas: So along those lines of adapting to your employees. Your policies probably have had to adapt as well. Talk about some of the policy changes or perhaps proposals at this point. Regarding remote and hybrid there’s a range of issues right onboarding, accountability, company culture. Tell us a little bit about what your company has been considering regarding policies.
Lawrence: Sure. We are about 750 people when you talk about all of the different divisions and subsidiaries of the company. And the numbers won’t be exact, but roughly a third of those folks work out of our warehouses, which are based down in a suburb of Atlanta, maybe about 90 min outside of Atlanta. And then about another third are our teams that work directly in the showrooms. And then we’ve got this other third that’s kind of, in the middle. It does present these challenges in all facets of leadership. I mentioned before we went on that I was setting a couple of technical problems that I find myself to be really tech savvy, but we certainly have a spectrum of people. So how do you get IT help to someone whose office or their home, their home office is in the middle of nowhere where our folks are located? We talk around things about onboarding for sure.
There actually was just an announcement around the I-9 completion. I’m going to get a little technical but when you first start a job and you need to show your documents that provide verification that you are eligible to work in the United States, whether it’s your passport, your driver’s license, security card, etc. Some of those rules were suspended post COVID where you didn’t need to see the physical document. We could take those documents electronically, and the rule now is going to go back into place in August where you are going to be required to see those physically. Frankly, when you read some of the articles about this from SHRM and the Society for Human Resource Management and others, you’ll see that they expect that those rules might get pulled back and that there will be a for more remote work. So just how do we even check documents and what’s our policy going to be around that? How do we be compliant with the person who’s working in the middle of Nebraska that we don’t have anyone physically in that area?
We in the midst of a conversation around our account managers, those folks who deal directly with clients. and we have account managers that are writing 3, 4, 5 even more 1 million dollars a year of business. And there’s a philosophy, or let me say at least the discussion around, if someone is a top tier performer writing that kind of volume. Do we care the way that they do it? Now, certainly in some ways we had certain minimum expectations for how you treat clients, how you do business, you know, systems, uses, etc. If I do that, 40 hours a week in the office, or 20 hours a week at home and 20 in the office, or if we never see the person for 3 months and they are being really extinct, but then they deliver that volume. You know, in a brand appropriate way, meaning the way that the company wants business done, do we have a problem with it? And so that’s the debate frankly right now.
There is that school of thought that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re doing. And I’ll make a confession. Here that when I got involved in the conversations, I said, I don’t have a problem with that, but I don’t think it should be Friday. Fridays and Mondays maybe shouldn’t be the work from home days if you’re going to have 1-2 days a week. That sounds like it lends itself to long weekends. But then again, you know, when I put on my Devil’s Advocate hat and I say, but if they get their work done Monday to Thursday, right? And they’re delivering the volume that we set. We set goals in many ways and lots of KPIs for our folks do it matter the method in which they do that as far as the space in which they’re standing?
Our business really works very directly with designers interior decorators etc. and those folks don’t really punch a clock either, you know, if it’s a couple that they’re working with and one part of the couple is in the office 40 hours a week and wants to see the samples, well, how do we do that in our business hours and we really adapt to what the designer needs. So does it really matter?
I’ll tell you that I previously was with an organization and we were very much in the office and I was there until 2019, so pre-COVID and one of the owners said to me, “Lawrence, does it really matter if this person is going deliver the volume that we expect, their clients are going to be happy and all the things that we want go into place, does it really matter if they’re sitting in a desk so we can keep an eye on them?” You know, I like to say that we only hire adults. And as adults, we all come with a sense of responsibility and by accepting this job, you take on additional responsibilities and one of those, when you’re a salesperson, is delivering expected levels of revenue. If they can meet those expectations are these other things more just about making myself feel good, or is it really should be about more making the person feel good, assuming they’re delivering what we want.
We’re constantly talking about some of those things. How do we complete some compliance trainings that we have to do from an HR standpoint? How do we build culture? When it’s me, I sit in my counter, I have a kind of like an island in my kitchen, and generally my coworker is my three-year-old French bulldog. That’s my coworker most of the days, right? So how do we ensure what goes on during the day?
For me, I might start at 5 or 60’clock in the morning because that’s my team schedule on the East Coast. And so I might get going for a few hours and while they’re at lunch, which is like 9 o’clock here, I might take the dog out for an hour or go to the gym where those things. And so if I’m getting my work done, and I’m more or less remote, if that’s what I’m being asked to do, that’s what I do, right? You know, in some weeks that might take me 60 hours, some weeks it might take me 70 or something to like take 30 hours. My boss, that’s a very clear expectation of what he wants me to accomplish, and is pleased when I get those things done whether I’m sitting in an office or whether I’m sitting at home and vice versa, of course.
Thomas: Well, that is definitely a twentieth-first century mindset. Whereas the, emphasis is on results, not on location. And so, that idea of being able to, as long as you get the work done, does it really matter where you are?
Lawrence: Yeah, I’d say twenty-first century, Thomas, right? Yeah, and you know it’s funny because when I probably started my career and I don’t know how far you want but I started my career in luxury department store retailing and that was very much in the office on the floor with the customers interacting with them supervising your team is making sure the product was out and so on and so forth. But even then with that sort of mindset, you know, I used to always say and still say to my people, you know, if you need to leave early, whether it’s because you have a doctor appointment or your kids softball game or whatever it might be, I expect you to ask me as a courtesy, but I’m never going to really say no.
You are an executive, a salary exempt employee, you’re going to do whatever it takes to get the job done. And if this week it means you’re only going to work 30 hours and next week you’re going to work 60 hours or whatever it might be, then that’s absolutely fine. You know, and again, that was a little bit different. It wasn’t about remote, but it was about people taking responsibility for what’s expected of them in the role that they took, right? Nobody’s holding a gun to our heads to keep these jobs or take these jobs. But if you do, it comes with certain responsibilities. And if you’re living up to those, we should have that level of flexibility.
Thomas: Yes, hiring adults, yes, hiring adults and expecting them to follow through. When you’re hiring, from an HR perspective, discuss remote work in relation to diversity and inclusion. First of all, do you have 100% remote people or are most people hybrid?
Lawrence: We have a pretty good balance. For example, my role technically is a hundred percent remote. I choose, and certainly my boss encourages, to visit our showrooms to visit our corporate office. We do have quarterly meetings of our senior leadership team. So it gives me technically hybrid means you work. Number of days at home and why number of days in an office. For me, I call hybrid. I work remote, but I get out and I’m kind of boots on the ground and you know. Real grassroots marketing, grassroots management kind of stuff.
We do have a little of both. We do have folks though who are 100% remote that central processing team. In particular, that’s a very remote team. And they really are working on just what it sounds like, processing the orders that are delivered from the account managers, the ones who are making the sales to get it all set up in the system so the orders are done correctly. I mentioned about our creative team, they’re generally remote 100%, unless we have these kinds of quarterly get-togethers, but we’re really sensing that on the creative side that there might be a great opportunity for some cross collaboration between teams between totally remote teams, whether it’s marketing and product. And the more we can see in touch a little bit that we think there’s a benefit.
We’re not talking about pulling back and making those jobs on site or even hybrid, but more so about more regular face to face time because when they do that, you can really see the benefit that they get out of it both work wise, meaning results of work, and just frankly that kind of team building and camaraderie. My last role was 100% remot,e and I missed going out for lunch together or what are you watching on Netflix? I’m sure you could do that over Zoom and we would have the Zoom happy hours. But it as never the same as being able to bond together or go after work and have a beer.
I think when you talk about diversity, equity, and inclusivity, I feel remote work has enabled us to be more inclusive. We aren’t then tied to the small, albeit, you know, sometimes large geographically, but small footprint to recruit for a role that must work out of the corporate office in New York. And a lifelong New Yorker myself, you couldn’t find a place with more diversity, but now image a job that could be sourced anywhere from across the country, that just gives us more of an opportunity to engage a ore diverse workforce.
Thomas: So. You’ve been working with remote, you’ve been, working with hybrid, you’ve been looking at policies. In your experience with Stark, what are some of the biggest challenges that you faced in this transition to remote?
Lawrence: I would say, particularly from my seat, and we get into an issue where let’s just say a person struggling, you know, my team will hear me talk about can’t or won’t a lot. And so as a person not performing at the level of expectation because they can’t do it. Meaning, maybe they haven’t gotten the training right. Maybe they just haven’t really absorbed the material. We are a very systems driven organization, our product, the depth and breadth of our product is really extreme. So can they not perform because they really haven’t been educated or we haven’t taught them in the way that they like to learn. Or is it a won’t? I have the tool. I have the skill set and I’m just using consciously or unconsciously to not, be successful or not need expectation. And I think I find that when we’re getting into these coaching opportunities that without sometimes seeing what the person’s doing, that does present its own unique set of variables for getting the person to success.
I’m not talking about, you know, off boarding someone or anything. It’s like, I’m only getting to 80% of what my expectations are, so how can we help you get to 90%? It’s easier if I look down the hall or if I look in the next office and I see what and how you’re spending your time. It’s a lot easier to have someone sit next to you. You might have seen for my LinkedIn or my, my background that I am on the faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. It is one of the premier design and luxury retailing colleges in the country, and I’ve been working with that team for about 10 years just as an adjunct professor. I teach a handful of courses a semester. Over time I’ve learned that some students need to hear it, some students need to see it, some students need to spend some extra time with and sit next to them in the classroom and show them. I teach in the business school, and I teach finance and retail math and things like that, and that becomes harder and we were mid semester when we went remote because of COVID and the whole dynamic of teaching changed.
I see that and feel it in my other, my full-time professional career where when I’m trying to teach someone something that it is you’ll be more successful more easily when you can engage the person face to face. And we put some things in place, to enable some of that. So we started using an LMS, and we got more folks involved in training than we had before, we hear about the role of coaching more and different ways of being successful. It certainly presents unique challenges.
Thomas: With, with those challenges you mentioned, training people, you know, finding the way that they learn best. And you’re talking about training them on how to do the carpet side of their work. Do you have any training to help them with the remote side on how to be a good remote employee or, how to overcome, avoid the pitfalls of remote. Have you gotten to that point yet?
Lawrence: Yes, so we’ve spent time more about managing a remote team and how you really lead and be successful with your team. We’ve only scratched the surface of dealing with a person as a remote employee. That really is an opportunity. Many of our peers that I know from outside our organization really kind of almost take for granted that people now have been doing it in many cases for 3 years or did it even in an onsite job when it was forced for 6 months, etc. and that we’re supposed to all be good at it. I think particularly both from a skill set and then also from a culture standpoint, you know, how do you build culture when people are by themselves? How do you really do things that make people feel part of the team? And that’s certainly something that continues to be something we’re going to focus on.
Thomas: Now shifting from the challenges to the benefits, what would you say some of the biggest benefits are of remote and hybrid work?
Lawrence: I think from a company standpoint. No, secret. We don’t need to have big offices that have as many people as would be necessary if we were all on site for sure. We are in business, like I talked about, almost 85 years and we really want to be sure that we’re operating as efficiently as possible. You know, one of my objectives is to be sure that we’re using our payroll efficiently. And so, frankly, the same job that’s based in a metropolitan area versus somewhere more remote, no pun intended, is more often cost effective. The cost of living in places is certainly different than it might be in San Francisco or in Los Angeles. And so that’s certainly the benefit. I talked about the real estate benefit and other things, right? We don’t need to outfit the office. We really, everyone gets the laptop.
We can be much more efficient with our work. We can enable people to work where they are and not have to travel into the office, not have to do things that they would normally have had to. You know, people leave their house if you live, let’s say in the outer boroughs in Manhattan, you could be 30 to 45 min in each way, whether it’s in a car, etc. And so that enables us, frankly, to hire folks who don’t want to put up with that, don’t want to leave home or at least their hometown. It enables us again both the diverse workforce when we talked about DEI, but also workforce that might be, you know, have different life experiences be at different stages their lives and be able to really capitalize, and frankly from a recruiting standpoint, the better candidates or more candidates you have the more certainly it makes our lives easier and more likely to fill a role with an A level candidate.
Thomas: All right, Lawrence, I appreciate it. Parting thoughts, what advice would you have? For fellow managers who are overseeing a remote team.
Lawrence: Yeah, I say a few things. One is just be open minded. I think there’s such an opportunity to have people that you might not have looked at below. We also have people on our team who are showroom logistics reps and they might be the one doing the heavy lifting of the rugs and moving things and showing the samples that they’re in back of rugs. And so certainly some things can’t be remote and that’s just the way it goes. But there are certain roles that could be a variety of things. And I think, you know, we have a concept of trying to meet our client where they are, whether it’s in our showrooms whether it’s on our website and I think to some degree that’s the way to get your best candidates.
And then from the side of the just the day-to-day running is be sure that you don’t allow culture to only mean what happens within four walls. Culture means what everyone does and how they feel. You know, recognition, how do you recognize people in front of their peers? How do you recognize team members that are remote and a hybrid and on-site and all of those things, so that you try and create as universal an employee experience as possible so that your team is happy if they’re on site every day or if they’re sitting in their kitchen with their French Bulldog, like I do every day.
Thomas: Great. Well, thank you, Lawrence. We appreciate you sharing your insight. And I’ve been speaking with Lawrence Covitt, Senior Vice President of Talent at Stark. You can check out their impressive carpet and rugs at their website at Stark Carpet. Thank you for listening to WorkForceRemote.org The Podcast. This is Dr. Thomas Wilson saying see you next time.