Ford has already converted roughly a third of its southeast Michigan workplaces into "collaboration centers."
Credit: Ford

It was nearly 100 years ago when Henry Ford slashed the work week to five days from six and instituted an eight-hour workday. Ford argued his workers would be more productive in fewer hours; critics were skeptical. The result was a schedule that persists to this day.

Last week Ford Motor, which employs around 183,000 people and produced 3.9 million vehicles last year, pulled the trigger on the most significant change to its work since those early days of its eponymous founder. Under its new hybrid model, 25,000 of its salaried workers are instructed to come into the office when collaboration is needed and work at home when heads-down work is on the agenda. (Additional non-site dependent employees follow the hybrid model where local Covid regulations permit, and over 100,000 workers build vehicles at Ford facilities.) There is no master schedule; each team, usually groups of under 20 people, decides when and where they’re going to work. It’s a more progressive model than some coastal tech giants and significantly more so than some Wall Street stalwarts.

It’s interesting timing, as the company is about to roll out an electric version of its bestselling F-150 truck—part of its $50-billion effort to keep up with Wall Street darling Tesla.

To support the new work model—and in a sign there’s no going back—Ford has converted roughly 33% of its southeast Michigan workplaces, or roughly 3.35 million square feet, into what it calls “collaboration centers,” which are designed specifically to support its new definition of work. Features include video conferencing, an online workspace reservation system, and meditation areas. There are concierges to help workers who may have, for example, forgotten an iPhone charger; IT support; information booths for new workers; and a beefed-up cafeteria with an online-ordering system. The conversions to collaboration space are ongoing.

Supporting these choices is Ford’s internal research, which found that 95% of 56,000 global respondents preferred hybrid work and also that 91% of employees agreed that “Ford pride remains elevated” in the fourth quarter of 2020. In September 2020 the company convened an in-house “future-of-work think tank” of 50 business unit leaders and external experts in subjects like neurology, urban planning, anthropology, diversity, and wellness. The think tank came up with principles that included “promoting interaction and collaboration regardless of location” and “nurtured wellbeing.”

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Ford is continuing to survey and study the impact of its hybrid strategy. One early takeaway: Many workers are going into the office for just part of the day, which is evidence they are using offices primarily to interact with others.

To learn more about Ford’s new model and any takeaways for other workplaces, we spoke with Jennifer Torony, human resources director, North America. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

Do you keep track of what different teams are doing?

We do. It’s going to take a couple different forms. Right now, when we just started the launch, we are gathering employee sentiment. That’s things like: How did you know the resources meet your needs when you came in? What do you think about our new collaboration centers? Do you have any issues with technology? Etcetera. We have a small team that’s dedicated to looking at and reviewing that sentiment to see if we need to adjust anything in the near term. Longer term, we’re going to incorporate those types of questions into our employee surveys.

Are people coming in one day, a week, two days a week, four days a week? Do you have any sense of that yet?

It’s too early to tell right now because we’re only in week two. We do expect to see what those trends are over the next several months. I can tell you what the most popular day of the week is, which is Thursday. The other trend we’re seeing—and again, very early days—is that employees are typically coming in for a few hours. To us, that means that we did a great job of educating our employees on what hybrid means ahead of time. Hybrid is really intended for coming onsite when you need to collaborate. For example, if you have a meeting or a face-to-face collaboration session with your team onsite for a couple of hours in the morning, it’s great if you’re able to break away and go offsite again to your home to take heads-down meetings.

Where did the idea for collaboration centers come from?

There was a lot of research done through internal focus groups, think tanks, etc. to think about what the ultimate office environment looks like and how we can design it to be collaborative. For most of the collaboration centers we’re using, we redid the environment in the building. For instance, Rotunda Center is a building that has been a Ford building, but quite frankly, most of our employees have never worked there. That building was completely redone with hybrid in mind and with collaboration in mind. Most of the space is non-reservable, but you have a lot of team conference rooms. You have collaboration spaces with moveable white boards and couches, so that employees can really sit down and have breakout sessions to ideate on something.

When you walk into the Rotunda Center, you really notice the light. Some of us are used to those old, very traditional cube environments, which are kind of dark. These are really designed to have a lot of natural light and openness. You don’t see cubes in the collaboration center. We also have spaces where employees can go outside and collaborate—when the weather’s nice, since we do live in Michigan. We have outdoor patios and even our food service has outdoor areas. For example, in our world headquarters building, we have a barbecue patio where employees can go hang out when the weather’s nice. They’re really all around to make sure that when the employee comes in, they feel good about coming in, and that experience is great.

We also incorporated a lot of wellbeing space. There are wellbeing rooms, rooms for new parents, focus rooms. Maybe you’re in the office for a collaboration, but you need to get away to make a call. We have some dedicated focus rooms that you can go do that in.

For many people, these are their offices. It’s not like they have an office and they have a collaboration center, correct?

That’s correct. For our non-site-dependent folks, this is where they’ll come to work for hybrid. We are having everyone go into one of these five collaboration centers. Some of the education we did was helping employees understand what’s available in each collaboration center. If they were trying to decide between one or two of them, we tried to help decide which space was good for them. For example, we have a completely redone space, which used to be the conference center, but it’s all been redone. It’s the Ford Experience Center now. If you have a bigger team meeting, like a whole department with a couple hundred people, that’s a brand new space for you to use. We really wanted to make sure everyone understood what the best space for them would be when they’re planning their journey into work.

It’s probably early to say, but I assume you’ve already asked people what they think of it. How’s that going?

It’s going great. They love it. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about just how much they love the food service. One of the things we heard was just how important food is. We all kind of know that, but we learned to offer healthier options and to fit the food service into the employee experience in a better way. One of the other new features is ordering food online. The team created and launched it, and it’s been very popular. Think about when we were working remotely from home, when you could order DoorDash or another delivery service. Basically this is the same thing.

Employees are also loving that we’ve added concierges in the collaboration centers. No matter which one you go to, you’ll find someone there to help you, whether it’s that you forgot the charger for your iPhone or you don’t know where the conference room you’ve scheduled is, or what the hours of the cafeteria are. Whatever it may be, there’s a concierge there to help.

We also have IT support. Those of us who have worked remotely have all gotten used to our home setup, so sometimes when you come back into the office, you need a little bit of a refresher. Many new hires from the last couple years have never been in a Ford building, so we’ve set up the next couple of weeks to be really informational for them. We have information booths set up for those employees who may be new, where they can talk to the IT folks, hear about wellbeing, talk about the food service options, talk about collaboration technology, etc. That’s another area where we’ve heard really good feedback from employees.

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