Walmart pushes forward with new HQ plans to help staff collaborate post-pandemic

In contrast to the many tech CEOs viewing work-from-home as the new standard well after the pandemic eases, Walmart’s chief executive says face time at the office will remain crucial to how the retailer’s corporate employees function when things get back to normal—and once its new campus opens.

Walmart last year heralded a new 350-acre home office project expected to open in its hometown of Bentonville, Ark., in stages and be completed by 2025, revamping an outdated facility in hopes of more easily attracting and retaining talent for which it has to compete with the likes of Amazon, Google, and Apple.

But the plan was announced well before anyone could imagine a pandemic like COVID-19 would have people working from home for months on end. Yet despite that, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon firmly believes the value of in-person collaboration with colleagues will endure and says it won’t change the future home office’s design much.

“As this crisis has gone on, we’ve noticed things that were missing,” McMillon said on a webcast of Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. “How do you get to know people? How do you get a sense for what the culture is like? Culture inside a company is such an important aspect.”

The future Walmart headquarters will boast features of modern-day office life including mass timber construction, ample biking paths (the company wants 10% of employees to commute by bike), green space, and outdoor meeting rooms to position itself as a high-tech, cutting-edge company worthy of today’s biggest tech and retail talent, and not just a mammoth discount chain.

Walmart, the largest private U.S. employer with 1.4 million workers, has a staff of about 14,000 at its headquarters. The current campus is made up of a decentralized series of 20 nondescript buildings, many with one floor only in deference to founder Sam Walton’s aversion to flash. The new campus will be made up of offices and cafés with smart building design, solar panels, and regionally sourced materials, surrounded by outdoor spaces.

Still, the pandemic has led countless companies to rethink whether they really need people come into the office as much. Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke recently told Fortune that most of the Canadian e-commerce company’s employees would work from home from now on.

“One thing we’re not going to get back to, at least in the tech industry, is office-centricity,” Lütke said. Twitter and Square have also given employees the option to work from home permanently, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg thinks half of his employees could be working remotely in five to 10 years.

Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, Dan Bartlett, said the new office project was still in the design stages, so changes could be made to reflect any longer-lasting impacts of the pandemic and how Americans like to work without “disrupting the overall time frame of the project.”

The company was long afflicted by a silo culture in which different divisions didn’t work together well enough. That was notably the case with its e-commerce and retail divisions for years. But now Walmart has emerged as a strong No. 2 to Amazon, and the retailer is benefiting from more harmony across its divisions, a crucial advantage in the retail and e-commerce wars.

“In a post-vaccine world we’re going to need office space, and people are going to collaborate,” McMillon said. “Being present with each other is going to matter over time.”

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