A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 28, 2020

Why Ford Believes Office Work Will Remain Remote Long After Covid

Two converging forces are driving major global corporations to reconsider the future of the workplace. Both are driven by the economics and sociology - the social science - of work.

The first is the efficacy of work in the face of a global pandemic in which concerns about healthcare and physical safety may impact talent recruitment and retention, productivity and other performance metrics that drive competitiveness and optimization. These, in turn, have caused organizations to reassess the very nature of work, now and in the future, as technology coupled with other influences reconfigure what needs to be done, by whom and where. The result is that decisions about bringing workers back into traditional workspaces may be deferred as a prudent means of navigating what appears to be a period of prolonged uncertainty. JL

Mike Colias reports in the Wall Street Journal:

70% of workers aren’t interested in returning to the office soon. Most others prefer a schedule that would allow them flexibility to come into the office on some days and work remotely others. Many companies have pushed back their timelines for returning workers to offices. Ford is reconfiguring the workplace for a new era in which employees will have more options to do their jobs remotely. Organizations are not ready to say what 2021 or 2022 is going to look like. It affords them an opportunity to think about how work gets done and who does it and when.”
Thousands of office employees at Ford Motor Co. 1.32% have come back to work in recent weeks to retrieve their things. All of their things.
With its white-collar employees working remotely at least until January because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ford is taking advantage of its empty buildings to reconfigure the workplace for a new era in which employees will have more options to do their jobs remotely, a company real-estate director said in an interview this week.
Most of the roughly 30,000 employees who work at or near Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters have returned to the office this summer to clean out their desks and workspaces, all while donning face masks.
Ford has emphasized to workers the collect-and-clear exercise that began in July has nothing to do with layoffs.
Rather, the No. 2 U.S. auto maker is trying to prep for a future in which many, if not most, employees won’t come into the office every day, said Jackie Shuk, a global director at Ford’s real-estate arm.
Many office workers are visiting the office for the first time since March, when Ford closed its corporate campuses because of pandemic-related lockdowns.
Some employees say they have worked in the same space for many years, requiring them to dig through stuffed filing cabinets and troves of personal items with little sense of when or where they will be back in the office.
“For a lot of people this has been surreal,” said a marketing employee at Ford’s headquarters. “I think most people like the idea of more flexibility. But we haven’t been told where we’re returning to.”
Ford’s Ms. Shuk said an on-site care team has been helping workers move boxes and load chairs and computer equipment into their cars. “It was definitely emotional for some,” she said. “The biggest thing we’ve heard is, ‘I miss my co-workers.’”
The reshuffling at Ford is among the more-assertive moves being taken by companies rethinking office life longer-term, as the pandemic has shown remote work to be more productive and feasible than initially thought.
With Covid-19 cases still rising in the U.S. this summer, many companies have pushed back their timelines for returning workers to offices.

That is allowing more time for businesses to not only hang plexiglass and space out desks, but devise long-range strategies for their office layouts and personnel schedules, said Laurie Ruettimann, a human-resources consultant who works with large companies.
“It affords them an opportunity to think about how work gets done and who does it and when,” Ms. Ruettimann said. “The organizations I work with haven’t made any decisions. They’re not ready to say what 2021 or 2022 is going to look like.”
Still, Ford and some other companies are moving ahead with longer-range plans.
Twitter has told employees they can work from home indefinitely, even after the pandemic passes. Outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. is shopping its new Seattle-area headquarters in favor of smaller offices and remote work.
Amazon.com Inc. is moving in the opposite direction, this month saying it will expand offices in six U.S. cities to house thousands of workers.
Across town from Ford, General Motors Co. expects most employees to continue remote work through year-end, a spokesman said. GM as of now isn’t working on reconfiguring spaces for the long term, he said. 
Ford, under Chief Executive Jim Hackett, was already moving to more flexible office setups before the pandemic hit.  Mr. Hackett, a former office-furniture executive credited with helping to dispense with cubicles and modernize the workspace, had initiated plans to overhaul the company’s 1950s-era campus in Dearborn, Mich., last year.
The new campus design, led by Scandinavian architecture firm Snøhetta, calls for common workspaces and more freedom to choose where to work, including providing areas where employees can plop down with their laptops for the day.
The centerpiece of the plan is Ford’s sprawling engineering hub, just a few miles from its headquarters. Renovation work recently began on the facility, which opened in 1953 with a dedication from President Eisenhower. It now houses about 11,000 engineers and designers.
Ms. Shuk, of Ford’s real-estate arm, said the employee clear-out effort is separate from the campus renovation, which is a longer-term project. The pandemic has pulled ahead some elements of the overhaul, such as the need for more joint spaces where employees can meet and collaborate, and fewer individual work stations.
Specifics of the new office setup are still are being worked out, and it will likely be many months before employees are told their future work locations, she said.
“We are using this to accelerate some of those co-location efforts,” she said. “How do I redesign these footprints now, so that when a team has to come in … it’s more set up for collaboration in a safe manner?”
She also said offices will be arranged with the expectation that many or most employees will be working remotely at least one or two days a week.
A survey of 30,000 North American employees this summer found about 70% of workers weren’t interested in returning to the office soon. Most others preferred a schedule that would allow them flexibility to come into the office on some days and work remotely others.
This spring, Ford had targeted a July return for office workers, but like most companies it has since pushed the timeline back until at least the end of the year. Its U.S. factories reopened in May after a nearly two-month shutdown and so far have avoided Covid-19 outbreaks or significant production disruptions, a spokeswoman said.
Ford and GM have long had trouble attracting talent to Detroit, analysts and executives say, and both have moved in recent years to overhaul their technical campuses with a more Silicon Valley vibe.
Ford’s broader campus renovation is aimed at creating a more-walkable campus, with easier access to restaurants and cafes, and allow workers to zip around on electric bikes and scooters.
The project is moving ahead as scheduled, Ms. Shuk said. The company has previously said the renovation will be completed around 2025.


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