Like most American companies, General Motors radically altered the way its employees work throughout the course of the pandemic and, now, it is launching a flexible work plan that may only see a fraction of its global team return to their offices and other worksites.
The plan, dubbed “Work Appropriately,” allows individual managers to work with their teams to craft an effective strategy that may see some employees return to a traditional office while others will continue operating from locations that could be halfway around the globe, officials explained during a Tuesday afternoon Zoom meeting.
“It is a culture change for us all,” said Laura Jones, an HR director, adding that the plan is not only flexible but likely to evolve as GM watches what works best, post-pandemic and the years to follow. “We’re going to learn our way into this.”
Lessons learned on the fly
It has already been a learning experience for the largest of the U.S. automakers. GM began sending workers home about the time COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020. Even its factories were shut down for two months. Some then began returning to work, notably hourly workers at parts and assembly plants. There’s also been the need to bring together designers, product development team members and some others — though not always full time.
The majority of the GM workforce has continued operating remotely. And many do so permanently.
Like many other U.S. companies, the automaker learned there are advantages to this flexible approach. Freed up from what can be lengthy commutes, workers often are willing to devote a bit more time to their jobs, said Jeff Massimilla, a director who oversees connected and software technology operations.
Allowing workers to work remotely offers additional advantages, he added, letting GM reach out for talent in places where it currently doesn’t have a physical presence, such as Pittsburgh where there is a large pool of software engineers who focus on autonomous vehicle development.
“Over the last months we’ve been hiring significantly more diverse people than we did before,” added Cyril Jones, GM’s talent acquisition leader.
That said, “There are also people who desire personal interactions for a variety of reasons,” and want to get back to an office, Massimlla added, even if just occasionally.
Sussing out advantages and disadvantages
Like other companies, GM is looking at the pros and cons of a more flexible approach to work. For some, there are big benefits to bringing employees together for what HR Director Jones calls “water cooler interactions,” where a chance meeting might spark a new business opportunity or deliver an unexpected solution to an old problem.
Under the Work Appropriately plan, GM will let individual group leaders decide what works best after consulting with members of their teams. So, two similar departments may take very different approaches. In some cases, they may stick with a work-from-home policy. Others may want folks back in an office. Still others may use a blended approach where staff could be called back for meetings or, perhaps, on set days of the week.
“The notion behind this approach,” GM CEO Mary Barra said in a blog post, “is that our employees are capable of making smart decisions without overly prescriptive guidance.”
What’s all but certain, Jones said during the Tuesday Zoom meeting, is that “We don’t have all the answers now,” and may revise the plan “in 2022 and beyond.”
Technology key to success
GM isn’t alone in trying to find a post-pandemic approach to work. Rival Ford also plans to use a mixed strategy as it begins resuming operations in what it hopes to be a post-pandemic era.
What’s clear is that technology is playing a critical role going forward.
“The pandemic has forced us to create tools that are super secure,” something essential when working on programs to develop vehicles that won’t reach market for years to come, said Massimilla. The tools almost make it possible, he said, “to have people in multiple locations” operating almost as if they’re sitting together.
But technology does have its downsides. There are growing concerns about what many call “Zoom fatigue,” especially among those who must spend hours a day in video calls.
Jones says it’s critical not to turn people into “Zoom robots.” Sometimes, she said, it makes sense to stick with a relatively old-fashioned telephone call, instead, so someone can go for a walk, rather than finding themselves stuck behind a desk, whether it’s at an office, or in their home.