Tech giants such as Facebook are calling the coronavirus-imposed remote-work experiment a success, and plan to make the shift permanent. Will automakers and suppliers follow suit?
Although certain jobs, especially those performed to make parts and build vehicles, must remain on site, industry executives say their off-site staff have remained productive, and some are exploring ways of keeping employees at home full or part time.
“Before this crisis, I think we looked at [remote work] and thought, ‘That’s something that Google does; we’re the automotive industry and this is how we do things,’ ” said Todd Sheppelman, CEO of Toronto-based automotive plastics supplier ABC Technologies. “We don’t all have to be in the office 100 per cent of the time. We can still be effective and productive as a company.”
Sheppelman said his teams quickly adapted to remote work by learning to collaborate using digital tools such as Microsoft Teams, WebEx
and email, and the company “did not skip a beat” as output remained close to pre-COVID-19 levels throughout the transition. For example, he said that as the company worked toward closing its fiscal year on June 30, preparing the annual budget while working remotely took about 40 per cent less time than in previous years.
The shift was sudden for most companies as the virus triggered government stay-at-home orders and business closures in mid-March, but those with existing remote work infrastructure cited an easier transition. Hyundai Canada, for example, already had a proprietary internal conferencing system in place that allowed communication to continue seamlessly among its 227 employees. ABC Technologies had a virtual private network (VPN) in place beforehand with 100 accounts, but access was expanded as its 350 Canadian nonmanufacturing employees initially had to share login information when they were all working from home at once.
In Dearborn, Mich., Ford’s Mustang Mach-E engineering team was finalizing development work in mid-March, when employees took home infotainment systems and even completed prototypes to enable them to continue their work. Ford of Canada is surveying its 1,000 nonmanufacturing employees as part of a global survey to assess whether staff prefer to be at home, or whether a hybrid approach — a mix of home and office — is the right model for the remainder of 2020.
Hyundai Canada’s strategy has been to set up what CEO Don Romano calls a “control tower” — 10 employees, including himself, stationed at head office — of people who centrally coordinate meetings and other business functions.
Romano said the initial remotework measures were necessary to help employees cope with pandemic-related stresses such as having children out of school and caring for elderly parents.
“It provided a lot of options and relief for our employees to be able to manage the challenges that they were facing as a result of COVID-19 and their personal circumstances.”
However, the company intends to return most corporate functions to centralized work at the head office as soon as it is feasible to do so.
“We cannot [continue remote work] in most areas of our business because it is a team sport, and to be a strong team you need to trust each other,” Romano said. “It requires a team that can work closely together to come up with really creative solutions.”
So far, there is no specified timeline for when employees will return to the office.
“We’ll know when it’s safe,” Romano said. “It could be later this year. It could be 2021. It could be 2022. There is no timeline here, nor will there be.”
Remote work, however, appears to be a popular option for Canadian employees. A recent study of 505 Canadian employees conducted between mid March and mid-June and published by the University of Toronto found that 83 per cent of respondents do not want to return to their former ways of working.
“Before the pandemic, we were at all-time records of stress and burnout,” said John Trougakos, the author’s study and associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management for the Rotman School of Management.
“It was costing multiple billions of dollars to our economy a year. ... It’s clear that the appetite for change was there.”
Trougakos said that a solution in which employees work from home part time and return to the office on a rotating basis is preferred by 69 per cent of workers surveyed by his department. Businesses across all industries will need to adapt and integrate increased flexibility into their work methods if they are to remain competitive, he said.
“I think just to rule it out completely is a mistake,” he said. “When you give employees choice and the freedom to have some say as to how they’re going to work, they are more satisfied, they’re less stressed out and they’re more productive.”
EMPLOYEES NEED TO FEEL SAFE
Maria Soklis, president of Cox Automotive Canada, says apart from a skeleton staff for the Manheim auction division, her company has had all of it almost 1,000 employees working remotely since mid-March. The company is in “no particular rush” to return workers to the office and intends to keep some positions remote permanently, she said.
Those who return to the office will do so slowly and with staggered work hours to reduce in-person attendance requirements, which Soklis said could trigger a re-evaluation of its office space requirements should these arrangements become permanent.
“Will the vaccine work? Will there be another wave? Will there be a different strain? I don’t know. I would rather be sure that our people are coming back slowly and feel comfortable.”
Sheppelman said ABC Technologies currently has no more than 40 per cent of its Canadian non-manufacturing staff in the office at any one time and plans to maintain this ratio at a maximum of 50 per cent to ensure the comfort and safety of staff in the new environment, which will be reassessed periodically. He says the company is considering a hybrid solution where some positions may permanently work remotely part time but that decisions will be dictated by feedback from staff.
“We have had all of our team members back to work during this timeframe in both [Toronto and Detroit] locations, just not all at the same time,” Sheppelman said. “I believe there can be a blend for certain positions in the organization. ... We know there are both advantages and disadvantages to working remotely, so it is important that we listen to our team membersonthis.”