Why Is There No Fridge in the Break Room?

Office reopenings face a new and totally unexpected challenge: shortages of desks and refrigerators. 

The office redesign is gorgeous: spacious floor plans, air-filtering plants, sunlight, and three dozen kitchenettes to maximize personal distancing. It’s all ready for the January office reopening. Except there’s one problem: there are no refrigerators. The fridges might not arrive until summer.

It’s an inconvenience that companies around the world now face. As they design their “future of work” in time for January office reopenings, they’re finding themselves stymied by global shipping and supply chain meltdowns. It isn’t unusual to hear of corporate fridge orders placed last winter that haven’t yet arrived. “This is absolutely a new set of problems,” says Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits at Korn Ferry. “If you don’t have the desks and appliances to open your remodeled office, it’s not going to work.”

It’s hard to understate the unlikelihood of ordering furniture or appliances in a timely manner. The appliance market is marred by shortages of steel, plastics, and computer chips, not to mention labor and shipping shortfalls, while orders have spiked from corporate redesigns and pandemic-driven home remodels. Wait times have creeped up to as long as a year. The appliance scenario makes the office furniture backlog look balmy: orders for desks and office chairs are facing months-long waits due to similar shortages and demands, as well as—perhaps predominantly these days—the shipping slowdown.

Experts say when planning office projects, forget about certainty. “This is the time for more planning and planning for multiple contingencies,” says Andrew De Marco, vice president of human resources for the Americas for Korn Ferry. He suggests “scenario planning,” which is making plans and investing in multiple future possibilities. For example, a company might plan three reopening timelines, and supplies that fulfill openings in November, January, and April. “It might cost a few extra dollars to plan for multiple scenarios,” De Marco says, “but that’s what the last couple months have taught us: stuff changes fast.”

Aside from planning far (far) ahead, “don’t commit to deadlines,” says Bloom, who expects these supply chain problems to drag on through the spring. Formally announcing a January 4th reopening is likely unnecessary in most fields; that way, if offices aren’t equipped for staffers, extending remote timelines will not require announcement backtracking. Also plan for budget overages, he says. “Everything is going to be much more expensive because you just can’t get everything.”

If offices do need to open with no refrigerators, transparency is your friend, says Elise Freedman, organizational strategy and workforce transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry. It’s important for workers to understand that the company did try to comfortably equip the space with couches and refrigerators, she says, so clarify to them that the company made plans to install snazzy refrigerators and simply explain why there are none yet. “Then folks will wait it out or bring in their own coolers.” Freedman is also keeping her eye on growing shortages of disposable supplies like toilet paper. “That would be more of a problem, honestly.”