Nobody questioned the routine: It was part of the rhythm of the Motor City, whose economy depended on those automotive employees who were driving the cars and trucks their companies built.
But on Tuesday, General Motors CEO Mary Barra called time on that tradition.
Writing on LinkedIn, Barra said GM was instituting a practice called “Work Appropriately.” It allows employees, when able, “to work from wherever they can have the greatest impact” on achieving GM’s goals.
GM trusts employees to “make smart decisions without overly prescriptive guidance,” she wrote, an idea that might have made legendary GM chiefs such as Alfred Sloan and Roger Smith blink.
Ford, for its part, announced last month that it was allowing 30,000 employees worldwide the option of working from home, although they can go to the office for group tasks.
It’s as if a century of American business culture just cracked and crumbled to the ground. Perhaps most significantly, car company employees — and indeed, others in the corporate world — have long viewed their physical offices as company status symbols, comparing them in size, decor and proximity to power. In the Detroit headquarters buildings, and elsewhere, the goal was first an office with a window, then digs on an executive floor, then ultimately the coveted corner office that only a boss got.
At the old GM Building, just down West Grand Boulevard from the original home of Motown Records, Smith’s office, which I visited in the early days of my years covering the auto industry, had a sprawling view of Detroit, all the way across the city to Canada beyond, a constant assurance of his company’s reach.
Elsewhere, auto company managers stood in their entryways to survey the worker bees around them. They hosted guests in the executive dining rooms, had their cars washed and gassed up during the workday and rode home in darkness to luxurious suburban homes with spouses and families that they only occasionally saw.
Eventually, cubicles and open offices came along, as did business casual (what GM calls “Dress Appropriately”), helping loosen some of those traditions, but offices themselves were still essential. In California, tech companies such as Google and Apple created vast campuses where employees were expected to congregate, bused in from San Francisco, but those less traditional layouts weren’t all that popular or effective. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2018, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Weber found employees were figuring out workarounds that gave them more privacy.
“They avoid eye contact, discover an immediate need to use the bathroom or take a walk, or become so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (perhaps with the help of headphones),” the two wrote.
These types of open offices caused face-to-face interaction to fall 70 percent, Bernstein and Weber found. So it might not be such a surprise that remote work has been something companies want to keep, post-pandemic.
Since stay-at-home orders took effect last year, millions of employees have performed remote work, and at least one in four employees is going to continue doing so throughout 2021, according to an estimate by Upwork, a platform for freelance work. Upwork found 56 percent of hiring managers felt remote work had gone better than expected, and only 10 percent thought things were going worse for their companies.
Now, GM, long a leader in setting standards for American business culture, is on board. CNBC reported that GM held 52 workshops for 1,100 company managers to talk about the new effort, which remains fuzzy and won’t include all 155,000 workers. You can’t build cars in someone’s den, after all, but the workers could receive training remotely in new manufacturing concepts, and they already perform numerous tasks via laptops right on the factory floor.
For an industry steeped in hierarchical practices, the move raises cultural questions; namely, how can proximity be power if you never see your boss? How can a sense of camaraderie be encouraged over Zoom?
All that is being studied, too. Researchers Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott, also writing in the Harvard Business Review, interviewed executives from around the world to see how they were keeping company values intact. They discovered that companies have shifted some of their team-building exercises online. For example, employees at Alibaba North America held a quilt-crafting exercise, creating one coverlet for each company location. IBM employees organized an effort to collect groceries for homebound parents and communicate over Slack to check in with one another.
“Leaders have a stark choice to make: do nothing, work to craft new ways of reinforcing the existing culture, or capitalize on the shift to remote work to profoundly reset the culture,” Hinds and Elliott wrote in the review. “This time can be used as an opportunity to reset aspects of culture as an organization evolves or as a new way of working requires it.”
For years, GM didn’t change. It was so paternalistic that it was known in Detroit as Mother Motors, generously compensating its employees from the time they joined the company until they received their gold Patek Phillipe watches at retirement. In return, they expected compliance with corporate customs.
But in her note this week, Barra wrote, “We are not yet ‘back to normal’ and in truth, we may never be.” Anyone who was stuck in those traffic jams on I-94 is probably fine with that.