Headquarters of the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. In a recent survey of 30,000 workers, the auto giant found a majority never want to come back to the office five days a week, and it is taking that data seriously.

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The era of massive highways and major commutes was a boon to car companies like Ford, but now the automakers find themselves in the unexpected position of designing a future of work that could work against that 20th century American approach to employment.

San Francisco officials are newly looking at remote work as a potential solution for climate change, not just a short-term fix for coronavirus, with the elimination of commutes a source of emissions reduction. The car company’s thinking may be along different lines, but over the past few months, Ford surveyed over 30,000 of its workers about working remotely and their comfort level with it longer term. And the results suggest that if car commutes are not entirely out, they are going to see a substantial reduction.

Seventy percent of Ford employees indicated they did not want to return to the office full-time, and preferred a hybrid approach.

It falls to Jennifer Kolstad, global design director at Ford, to figure out how the new way of working is created for the 117-year-old company. 

‘On work’ all the time

Kolstad is certain of certain changes Covid-19 will make permanent. For one, the idea of just showing up to the workplace as as key to keeping a job is over. The employment concept of “presenteeism” — often defined by the example of people coming into work even when they were ill just to prove they were “on the job” — is being ushered out by the Covid experience and remote work experiment. 

“It’s no longer ‘If I don’t see you, you are not working. … You’re probably working more than ever before. The idea of ‘at work’ is replaced by ‘on work’ … and on all the time,” Kolstad said the Tuesday’s CNBC @Work virtual summit.

Choice of workplace is a new variable in employment, and it is also going to be new capital for employers and employees to negotiate, Kolstad said.

Research recently conducted by a group of companies, including Slack, found that only 12% of knowledge workers wants to go back to exactly the way work was in the past.

“I think organizations will have less choice than they imagine if there is large contingent of companies who say remote work is acceptable to them, because all things being equal, wouldn’t you rather have the optionality,” said Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of work collaboration software company Slack, at the CNBC @Work virtual event. He noted that he’d just hired his first senior executive not based in the Bay Area, but in Chicago.

“We will create a new landscape of work somewhere in the middle,” said Ford’s Kolstad. And there will be “new non-negotiables” the Ford executive added.

Ford constructed a think tank to envision what the future looks like, and a big theme that has emerged is that post-Covid there will be constant change, even after a vaccine is available, and companies need to build what she described as “systemic resiliency.”

That’s an idea which Vishaan Chakrabarti, dean at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design — who headed planning for Manhattan during the post-9/11 Bloomberg administration — agreed is important to keep the focus on as changes are contemplated after Covid.

“We are usually fighting the last war … protecting against a physical terrorist attack when the next one might be a different foe, and the next pandemic might be completely different than Covid. So we need to be careful about being reactionary, and think of resilience of core systems. … What I’ve really learned is you don’t know where the next thing will come from and it won’t be the thing you plan for because it was the last threat.”

The end of open office ‘factory farm’ floor plan?

One scenario Ford is exploring is called “hoteling,” a de-densification strategy which replaces designated work stations with a booking system for employees to reserve desks and collaboration spaces.

But Kolstad said Ford still has a lot to learn about employee openness to collaboration zones in a post- vaccine world. “Will they feel comfortable? Probably at some point, but there will be residual memories about it being not too long ago that close proximity made me sick.”

Just entering and exiting workplaces remain unknowns. “Do we suddenly re-size all elevators because we need to space people out in lifts to move them vertically in buildings? That’s really expensive and I don’t know yet,” Kolstad said.

The office rethink could spell doom for the open office design approach fitting workers as close together as possible that has come to define many modern workplaces, Chakrabarti said. (Michael Bloomberg was a big proponent of open floor plans as New York City mayor and at his company.)

“We may question that … we need to make workspaces better. We are a very developed economy and not making widgets at our desks, and workplaces need to be pleasant,” he said. “We’ve gone too far to ‘let’s pack as many people into office spaces as we can.’ … if we can have some people at home we can give more breathing room to those in the office.”

But he added, “We don’t have a single client who thinks they need to maintain a six foot distance forever and you can never touch a door again. … There will be interest in newer buildings with better technology and restrooms … more touchless doors and elevators you can control with your phone … but I don’t think somehow we are turned into this hypochondriac state.”

‘False choices’ in remote work migration

The changes being contemplated inevitably confront downsides of remote work.

“We are trying to identify the things we will never get out of a plastic screen, which is meaningful relationships and we are deeply trying to understand what it takes to innovate, and human connections are required to get us to that,” said Ford’s Kolstad. “Never get it through remote. You can only get it in physical community spaces and the reality of coming together,” she added.

“Does tech create new questions? Sure, remote work is possible, but to quote Jerry Seinfeld, this is just not great. I don’t know that many people who love this life. Everyone is looking forward to saying we can get together and innovate again. …. All smart business people know what is important about a great business is human capital and I don’t think the best and brightest want to sit at home all day,” Chakrabarti said. 

Kolstad stressed that the process companies like Ford are going through now is deeper than corporate floor layout and furniture being moved around. “This is not about desks and chairs. We’re talking about a behavioral and cultural shift,” and that will include, as one example, taking into account family structures and children’s educational needs.  

“We don’t have this societal resilience,” Chakrabarti said. “In New York City, why did it take so long for schools to close? Because they are also homeless shelters.”

“Most of us are hungry for face-to-face, whether it is at the office or a happy hour or lunch,” he said. “But we should also talk about what people are enjoying about remote work …. terrible commutes most people have and most people don’t miss that. We have to improve the way in which we move around to make it not such a binary decision between not commuting and missing face-to-face. That’s a false choice.”

There’s still a projection of power with a logo on the side of a building.

Stewart Butterfield

Slack CEO and co-founder

Slack’s Butterfield drew a distinction between the work-from-home period triggered by the pandemic and a work-from-home future designed to be permanent.

Right now, “If you are a working single parent with young kids and no school you are pretty much in an impossible situation, regardless of work from home or not,” the Slack CEO said.

But in a country like Japan, where people tend to live in smaller spaces, the idea of remote work as a permanent solution can be less appealing. “You would have to rebuild the country for people to work from home in Japan,” he said.

The Slack CEO thinks that 90-minute commutes, and the use of bulk square footage in offices, “which is like factory farm housing,” may not make sense in many places, and for many roles. For workers who sit at desks in headphones most days working on individual projects, there is reason to reimagine the use of desks. They may not be able to go to work in a cafe today, but in the future, that option will present itself again.

Slack is still sitting on 800,000 square feet of office space and 10 year leases, so the company will have to reimagine how it uses offices and gets teams together.

There are certain physical attributes of an office that can’t be recreated remotely, Butterfield said. “There’s still a projection of power with a logo on the side of a building.”

The history of work has included multiple revolutions going back as far as the first human use of fire and farming, according to James Suzman, anthropologist and author of “WORK: From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots.”

Right now, Suzman said, businesses can’t possibly know how the work landscape will change, but work is at an inflection point.

“Businesses are in a ‘fog of war’ moment,” Suzman said at the @Work virtual event. “They are fighting the battle right in front of us,” he said. “Nobody has the answers.”

That includes how we balance long commutes and being closer to family, versus missing out on the friction of being in the office and the dynamism of collaboration.

“Can you establish corporate culture without face-to-face engagement? There is a very real need for engagement. Sheer joy from completing a project together or enduring failure together. That is what builds teams,” Suzman said. 

But companies and workers will need to “abandon dogma” in the new normal.

“It is pointless being tied to one particular place. … Far deeper currents than just-Covid,” he said, adding that automation and AI, and environmental limits on growth and energy use, will lead to a completely transformed world of work.

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