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Haircuts and workouts are part of the workday for remote employees. Will return-to-office end midday appointments?

By Erin McCarthy, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: March 31, 2024, 6:02am

PHILADELPHIA — Victoria McCutcheon washed a client’s hair as sunlight streamed in the floor to ceiling windows of the corner salon she owns in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties.

It was 11 a.m. on a Wednesday at Wash~Day and, per usual, the curl specialist’s appointments were booked solid until 5:30 p.m.

“Since quarantine, and everything from COVID, I find that people are more flexible,” said McCutcheon, who opened the salon last April. “They’ve just been taking the time off that they need for self care.”

“Some of them do still come in with their laptops, or they’ll be on a call,” she added, “or someone will just have their mouse moving on their leg to make it seem like they’ll still working.”

Leaning back into the shampoo bowl, Rachel Lopez, a tattooist in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood, said she’s seen this in her line of work, too: Someone getting a tattoo on their calf, for example, will lay on their stomach with their laptop in front of their face, typing away.

But there are signs the midday-midweek-appointment tide is changing, albeit slowly.

In recent months, McCutcheon said some regulars — most of whom spend at least two hours and more than $200 per appointment — have started booking on Saturdays, instead of midweek, as their employers require more in-office days.

The Inquirer talked to more than a dozen Philadelphia-area business owners and consumers about how remote and hybrid work has impacted their scheduling of appointments, workout sessions, and leisure activities. The demand for midday appointments differed by industry and location, with salons, spas, and fitness studios in more residential areas reporting a larger bump in customers during the traditional working hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

During the work day, local consumers said they have become more likely to squeeze in shorter services, such as a 20-minute eyebrow wax or an exercise class that they can fit in during a lunch break. Some said they were also comfortable taking hair appointments, during which they are able to at least access their phones if they need to answer an email, make a call, or just stay active on Slack.

Philadelphia workers, some of whom asked not to be identified by their full names in order to speak candidly, said the increased popularity of midday appointments has become an open secret at remote and hybrid workplaces. The level of openness varies by employer.

“Ninety percent of the time, I don’t tell my job that I have an appointment scheduled, because they just trust me to get my work done,” said a Philadelphian in their late 20s who works in the nonprofit industry. “It does make it a little nerve-racking and a little risky.”

Most of the time, the nonprofit worker said they can work on their phone during appointments. If they schedule a rare midday massage, which requires being unplugged, they take more extreme measures: Opening a word document and placing a heavy object like a candle on their keyboard to mimic typing. That keeps their laptop from going to sleep and maintains their active status on Slack.

Others don’t exactly advertise their facial or hair cut on their work calendars, but they said they don’t hide their whereabouts from their supervisors either.

If the boss calls during a manicure, “I’m like, ‘Hey I’m getting my nails done, can I call you back in 20 minutes?’ “ said Alexandra, a 30-something Philadelphian who works remotely for a health-care company. She still logs at least 60 hours a week, often working until 8 p.m.

“It makes me work harder,” she said. “ I want to be good at my job and to be able to continue to have that balance.”

Dorothy Townsend, 35, said the ability to break up her day with a nail appointment, yoga class, or even a quick errand has benefited her mental health, while allowing her to patronize small businesses.

“It made me have a healthier lifestyle when it comes to work,” said Townsend, who works remotely in sales. “If I’ve had a couple of bad calls, I can go out, walk my dog, take a breather, get a coffee, come back to it.”

‘Technically at work right now’

The pandemic hasn’t bucked all trends in the self-care and leisure industries: Prework and right-after-work time slots remain the most in-demand times for a hair appointment, sweat session, or trip to the driving range, business owners said.

In 2022 and 2023, the most popular time for a workout class in the Philadelphia region was 5:30 p.m., while the most popular time for a salon or spa service was 6 p.m., according to a spokesperson for the ClassPass, a subscription service that allows users to schedule at dozens of area businesses. In 2019, pre-pandemic, the most popular times were 9:30 a.m. for fitness classes and 11 a.m. for spa or salon appointments.

At the Underground Luxury Spa at The Logan Hotel, director Lanez Perry-Boone said her team actually saw more quick lunchtime appointments pre-COVID, when foot traffic around Logan Square was higher. She is optimistic that some downtown employers’ new in-person work policies will boost business at the spa, where massages and facials range from $165 to more than $400. The subterranean environment is conducive to a “reset,” she said, and clients unplug with no phones or laptops in sight.

Elsewhere, the weekday afternoon now looks vastly different.

At the driving range at Burholme Golf, one regular perches his laptop on the divider between stalls, working between each swing, said co-owner John Kirincich.

It’s not uncommon to see gymgoers sitting in the lobby of Royal Fitness typing away on their computers before or after a workout at the Barrington, New Jersey, gym, said fitness director Danielle Zacamy.

Tuck Barre & Yoga in Washington Square West started enforcing a no-phone-in-class policy last year, co-owner Ann Thornton said, though some students still get notifications on their Apple watches.

“We certainly hear the phrase ‘I’m technically at work right now’ a lot,” said Adam J. May, owner of American Mortals in Center City. The salon recently replaced individual dryer chairs with a communal table so working customers could be more comfortable.

Business owners adapt to remote, hybrid workers

Customers’ increased flexibility has led some business workers to change their hours and offerings.

Tuck Barre & Yoga in Washington Square West recently added a weekday 4 p.m. restorative yoga class, Thornton said, and is looking to add a 10:15 a.m. class in response to demand.

At Skin Devotee Facial Studio near Rittenhouse, owner and aesthetician Joanna Kula hasn’t offered weekend appointments since 2022. Most of her clients were coming in during the week, often to prioritize family time on the weekends.

Forever Valentine Beauty now closes its South Philadelphia and Haddonfield, New Jersey, studios earlier than it did pre-pandemic. There is little demand for nighttime appointments, said owner Kelly Haney. Some clients have mentioned their employers will soon require them to be in the office more days, and Haney said she can adjust hours again if needed.

But more in-office days may not necessarily mean zero flexibility.

After working fully remotely since the pandemic, Sara Elwell, 29, of South Philadelphia, started a new job at Comcast in the past year. Going into the Center City office four days a week has meant Elwell can no longer fit in a midday gym session or hop over to get her nails done at her neighborhood mainstays. But she will schedule lunch appointments in Center City.

“People who have to leave for any number of reasons have more flexibility to do so without having an explanation for what you’re doing,” Elwell said. “The overall consensus is you don’t have to be confined to the office, even when you are in the office.”

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