Bill Ford Jr. talks Ford buying Michigan Central Station
In this June 2018 interview, Bill Ford Jr. talks about Ford buying the Michigan Central Station and his plans for its future.
Eric Seals, Eric Seals
Everything will look different when white-collar employees officially return to Ford Motor Co. offices after months of spending weekdays at home.
Many individual desks will be replaced with common spaces. And how work is done will change dramatically because thousands of workers are expected to remain remote, with supervisor approval. Workers will return to Ford properties only as assignments require.
In the months after the initial COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, employees packed up their workplace belongings last summer and took things home. There will be no need to bring anything back.
Instead, the pandemic sped up a long-term plan of the 118-year-old automaker to consolidate offices and redesign the workplace, Dave Dubensky, chairman and CEO of Ford Land, told the USA TODAY Network’s Detroit Free Press.
It’ll more closely resemble workplace design in many Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay Area startup companies, which are known for common areas that resemble living rooms, open table design, reserved conference rooms and reserved private offices.
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Ford CEO Jim Farley and executive chairman Bill Ford discussed the plan Wednesday morning with employees during a virtual town hall.
First things first: The automaker has not changed its directive to have employees continue working remotely until they gradually begin to return in July. An estimated 30,000 Ford salaried employees in southeast Michigan are working off-site now, according to Ford.
It employs an estimated 186,000 people worldwide. About 100,000 Ford employees with site-specific jobs have returned safely already, said Ford spokeswoman Christina Twelftree.
The company is moving to a “hybrid work arrangement” that offers more flexibility and choice, which has led to higher job satisfaction and better productivity, Ford said.
The new Collaboration Centers will be in select renovated zones in Ford World Headquarters, the Ford Product Development Center and the completely renovated Rotunda Center. The phased return for employees will allow for recommended social distancing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
This “we” space over “me” space will be gradually applied to offices globally, too, Ford said.
“No one is having conversations about reduction in the workforce,” said Kiersten Robinson, chief people and employee experience officer at Ford. “Our focus is really on how do we pivot and continue to evolve how we’re working.”
The past year has taught Ford a lot through observation, discussion, internal studies and evaluation, she said.
“The workplace has gone from somewhere we went to every day to now it has a specific purpose largely related to the work that you do,” Robinson said. “For our knowledge workers, it’s more than likely going to be a place they go to with a purpose of innovating, collaborating and incubating. We’re designing space that fosters those elements.”
Interiors will be highly adaptable and versatile, where anything from walls and panels to furniture and fixtures can be flipped, moved or reused to support multiple uses, Ford said. From conferencing to strategy rooms, all spaces will be tech-enabled to allow for digital and virtual working among remote team members.
Initially, all Ford office buildings will not reopen. The company is selecting certain buildings as Collaboration Centers to be used for specific projects that would benefit from in-person interaction.
A day in the life could look like this: An employee working on a project that must be done at a Ford location would go online, use an electronic scheduling tool to reserve work space that requires three weeks for a team project involving 10 people. They’d add the need for technology to include subject experts from Europe to dial in, China to dial in and a digital assistant to take and distribute notes. Then, when it’s all processed, the system would provide the building location and parking access.
If someone needs private space to, say, call a family doctor — then they would book a private room. After work, an employee might stop by the supply room and get ink and paper for the printer at home.
This is about “cultural transformation” at Ford, Robinson said.
“Employees as well as people leaders will need to show up differently,” she said. “We’re working on a playbook, so they can be their best and most effective in this work model.”
Monitoring how things unfold will be essential to success, Robinson said. And work-life balance is a “watch-out” issue that remains top of mind for the company, she said.
Train station is key
This is “an unprecedented moment” and Ford wants to harness new approaches as the auto industry evolves from gas-powered engines to an all-electric future, said Jennifer Kolstad, global design director at Ford.
“We’re trying to lean into a lot of deep thinking and bringing in data from hard and soft scientists and experts from all sorts of places — anthropologists, behavioral psychologists. neurologists,” she said.
Ford doesn’t know what the future holds but the company believes employees must focus on their “complete self,” which includes emotional, physical and spiritual well-being, Kolstad said.
Key to the success of this new work strategy is the new 2-million-square-foot central campus in Dearborn, which breaks ground this month and is scheduled to open in 2023. It will have an enormous food hall with a “scratch” kitchen making organic and healthy meals that play a central role in bringing employees together to eat and visit with one another as well as work. Meals options will reflect the international employee base at the global automaker.
“Work will look very different and the way we work will look very different,” she said.
Pre-COVID-19 was about sitting at a desk and getting work done. Post-COVID-19 has shown people may work in the office, at home, in the car or at the coffeehouse. A library environment might be great for design teams.
“We’re referring to it all as an ecosystem,” Kolstad said. “This was definitely the catalyst moment for us. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. … This is such a major course correction to the way we did work pre-COVID. It’s a healthy way of working that should reenergize the workplace.”
Imagine an evolution of how work looks that’s so profound that it might affect employee families as dramatically as the $5 an hour wage once did. Some are calling it “back to the future.”
“On the surface, you think, ‘what the heck does that mean?’ ” Dubensky said. “But when you deep dive it, when you think back, when we defined a new working wage for everybody, Ford began paying this competitive wage that changed families. They move to a new level economically. Now we’re moving forward to change lives again. People have been spending more quality time with their families and doing more things because they’re not in the office.”
These times also require “systemic resilience,” he said, which allows employees enough flexibility to cope with all the changes. And anyone who once considered working from home an issue or concern, that’s gone, Dubensky said.
“Product and program engineering and software engineers who code, those are areas where metrics showed they were more productive” working from home, he said.
Ford’s future of mobility at Detroit Michigan Central Train Station
Christman/Brinker construction tours Ford’s Michigan Central Train Station after two years of work in southwest Detroit on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021
Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press
“We’re just going to have to wait and see how people come back,” he said. “If we have an opportunity to consolidate, we will. If teams are only in the office 50% or 60% or 70% of the time, we’ll adjust our plans accordingly on real estate.”
The sacred cows will be place-dependent employees who need company equipment to get jobs done, like test engineers and the dynamometer team. But people in finance and communications are another opportunity.
“This is great for people, to have the choice to work whenever and wherever they want,” Dubensky said. “We can consolidate and integrate facilities quicker, which would benefit the company. It’s win-win for everyone.”
Ford is not, however, following in the footsteps of companies like Twitter that have suggested everyone work remote indefinitely.
As Ford focuses on the new central campus building within the Dearborn research and engineering center and the train station, which is scheduled to open in 2022, “it will enable closure of some of the 90 facilities Ford has around Dearborn,” Dubensky said.
Ford never would’ve imagined sending teams home for a month, and the company was forced to do so, Dubensky said.
Savings associated with those closures are already “baked in,” he said. Lower occupancy was “all part of the plan,” it’s just that timing has moved forward quickly.
Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid.