Ford Motor to let 30,000 employees work from home post Covid-19 crisis

Ford Motor Co told employees they can continue to work from home, allowing more than 30,000 to use the office only when they need to, even after the pandemic is over.

An employee of the Ford Motor Company makes his way to work in Cologne, Germany. (REUTERS)
An employee of the Ford Motor Company makes his way to work in Cologne, Germany.

The “flexible hybrid work model" unveiled Wednesday lets employees choose to stay home for “heads-down work," while coming to the office for meetings and team-building activities. The system will debut as soon as July and apply mostly to salaried office staff, not factory workers.

Kiersten Robinson, Ford’s human resources chief, announced the move in a global town-hall meeting with employees. It’ll apply first in North America.

Like many employers, large and small, Ford is grappling with the reality that workers have grown to appreciate not commuting every day and working among family and pets. Half of the world’s workers now do so from home, up from 11% prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a global study of employers by Willis Towers Watson, a risk-management and human-resources firm. Even after the health crisis ends, companies expect one-third of global employees to continue to work remotely.

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“People, to the extent they can, want to work where they want and when they want," John Bremen, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson, said in an interview. “Companies are seeing that and saying, ‘If we can accommodate that, we will.’"

In a survey last summer, 95% of Ford’s global nonproduction staff said they wanted to maintain a mix of home and office work after the pandemic. The Dearborn, Michigan-based company finished 2020 with about 186,000 employees.

‘No Cubicle Farms’

“No more cubicle farms," Jackie Shuk, global director of Ford’s real estate unit, said in an interview. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to be a Ford employee."

Ford will have to carefully manage perceptions since it’s giving flexibility to some employees and not to others. The pandemic laid bare how dependent the society is on the physical presence of blue-collar workers from the factory floor to the grocery counter. But the idea of white-collar employees logging on safely at home, while lower-paid employees risk their health to show up in person, has been an added source of resentment in an already stratified US economy.

Making employees happy has become a key recruitment tool for Ford, which now vies for tech talent with California’s Silicon Valley as the auto industry goes through a technology transformation to prepare for electric and self-driving cars.

“When you start looking at that key talent, and how prime it is right now, we have to become that employer of choice and compete against those tech companies," Shuk said.

Technology firms have long given employees the option to work remotely. Now, companies in other corners of corporate America are loosening the reins after seeing workers were just as productive -- if not more so -- while working from home.

“Companies have found the more flexibility you give to employees, the more productive they will be," Bremen said. “Our data show people work more when they’re working from home."

Apollo, Macy’s

In the financial industry, many banks are signaling they prefer a full return to the office once it’s safe, though there are exceptions. Apollo Global Management Inc., one of the world’s biggest asset managers, intends to give employees the option to work remotely two days a week, according to a person familiar with its plans.

Others, like Macy’s Inc, are still grappling with what to do. The retailer won’t decide until later in the year.

“It’s the hottest question that our colleagues ask us," Macy’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Gennette said in a virtual interview Tuesday from the company’s New York Herald Square location. “There’s just a lot of anxiety around it."

Ford considered requiring employees to come to the office for a specific number of days each week but abandoned that idea in favour of giving them maximum flexibility, Shuk said.

“Organically, the employees came up with when it was best to collaborate and, ‘When do I have to do some heads-down time’" at home, Shuk said. “It was kind of forced to have us prescribing" when employees must show up at the office.

Before it sent employees home a year ago when the coronavirus outbreak caused global lockdowns, Ford had begun a multiyear, multimillion-dollar overhaul of its Dearborn headquarters to make the campus more open and collaborative. The company also acquired a crumbling, century-old train station in downtown Detroit that it’s converting to a mixed-use hub for creating the cars of the future.

While Ford remains committed to those projects -- as well as a new 2 million square-foot office building going up in Dearborn -- the company recognizes it won’t need as much real estate in the future, Shuk said.

“Real estate is kind of turned on its ear," Shuk said. “You’ll definitely have some reduction. The whole workplace design is evolving."

First Published Date: 18 Mar 2021, 09:00 AM IST
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