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Metro Detroit employers ramp up return-to-office plans, but with new flexibility

The Detroit News
Mar. 14, 2022
Jordyn Grzelewski and Kalea Hall

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic — and after numerous stops and starts prompted by new variants of the virus — major employers in Metro Detroit and beyond are ramping up return-to-office plans as the latest COVID-19 surge subsides.

Still, workplace experts and some employers say the return to office buildings and corporate campuses won’t necessarily mean a return to the way of doing business before the pandemic. Rather, many white-collar workers are coming back to their desks gradually, under flexible work models developed after two years of working from home and amid a tight labor market that is giving employees greater leverage.

Rocket Cos., DTE Energy Co. and Ford Motor Co. are just a few of the Metro Detroit employers bringing workers back to the office under hybrid work models that allow employees to split time between their homes and the office.

Major companies across the country are making similar moves. Microsoft Corp., for example, reopened its Washington state and San Francisco Bay Area sites under a hybrid work model last month. Google LLC is requiring its employees to come back to its Bay Area offices three days a week, the Mercury News reported, while Twitter is reopening its offices but telling employees they can permanently work remotely.

Even President Joe Biden has weighed in on return-to-office plans, earlier this month urging an end to remote work. Still, experts expect remote jobs to play a bigger role in the workforce going forward, as employees demand greater flexibility and employers realize benefits such as being able to draw from larger talent pools.

About 75% of the increase in remote work over the course of the pandemic is likely to remain, Bloomberg reported last month, citing research from Arizona State University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Dallas Federal Reserve. And twice as many workers will be fully remote compared to before the pandemic, the research suggests.

“Here in Michigan and across the country, you’re seeing more employers asking people to come back — typically in a graduated type of format where people will come back maybe a couple of times a week or have one core day that they need to be there and then have some flexibility,” said Angela Hall, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Management.

“With the Great Resignation, with the worker shortage, as you compete for top talent,” she added, “you’re going to have to think about, ‘Hey, employees are going to have more of a voice in how they set the conditions under which they work.’”

Downtown workers trickle back

As of Feb. 14, Rocket Cos., the parent company of mortgage lending giant Rocket Mortgage, brought workers back to its downtown Detroit headquarters on a hybrid schedule.

“As we think about coming together, collaborating and pursuing greatness, working to innovate and disrupt industries, all the things we do to build our Rocket platform to be even better than it is today, we see that team members coming together, and collaborating and working together helps drive that forward,” said Mike Malloy, Rocket’s chief amazement officer who is the head of human resources, in an interview.

The company started to bring back employees last June and ramped up into the fall. The spread of the delta variant, and then omicron, interrupted Rocket’s plans, as well as those of many other businesses.

But with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations trending downward across the state, employers are trying again. Michigan added 1,819 COVID-19 cases and 45 deaths from the virus between Thursday and Friday, bringing the state’s total to 2,065,912 confirmed cases and 32,419 deaths since the virus was detected here. Hospitalization rates and cases have been declining for several weeks.

Nationally, average daily cases stood at 34,232 as of Saturday, down 48% over two weeks, according to the New York Times. Still, about 1,300 deaths continue to be reported most days, per the Times. And the U.S. has recorded more than 970,000 deaths attributed to the virus.

Meanwhile, starting Monday, DTE Energy is offering 1,000 employees the option to work at its Detroit headquarters a few days a week. DTE employs 5,000 and expects to gradually expand this option to all employees by the end of June, said Tony Tomczak, a DTE executive who’s leading the company’s “Future of Where We Work” project.

“The biggest thing we learned is that working remotely is fine,” he said in an interview. “We can make it happen. We’re productive. We’re all those things. But we also know that doing that all the time doesn’t make sense. But coming to the office every day also doesn’t make sense.”

DTE has been contemplating a hybrid work environment since 2018. With the pandemic, the utility had to dive into it to see if its technology would hold up, and it did. To make the move back to the office, DTE kept up engagement surveys with employees and continued to make adjustments to the plan. The company will continue to seek feedback from employees as they enter this next phase, Tomczak said.

“People feel empowered by being able to work in a place that they feel meets the needs of what they’re doing,” he said. “Our leaders are adjusting also so we’re going to see how it goes. We’ve been anxious to get this going for a long time now, so it should be fun.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which is headquartered downtown and has about 9,500 employees across the state, said in a statement that it is “actively discussing return to office plans for remote workers, which will include a hybrid model, but those plans have not been solidified yet.”

Essential employees have been working in offices while others continue to work remotely for now.

Autos embrace flexibility

Stellantis NV, maker of Jeeps and Ram trucks, previously said that starting early this year employees would begin returning to its Auburn Hills campus under a new model that will allow most salaried workers to be remote about 70% of the time.

Its “New Era of Agility” pilot is supposed to run for four to six weeks, with 650 employees in two suites at the campus’ technical center and after that allowing employees to return on a rolling basis, the company previously said.

The pilot, originally scheduled to launch in October, started in February.

“Stellantis North America continues to make progress in our evolution to a new way of working that optimizes productivity, overall job satisfaction and the look of our workspaces — an exciting evolution to a flexible and agile work environment that enables our team to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as one global Stellantis family,” the automaker said in a statement.

Meanwhile, crosstown rival General Motors Co. is using a “work appropriately” model that allows managers and their employees to decide where it’s best to work: the office or at home. And it’s showing signs of working.

“I was in the office twice this week and enjoyed being there and was energized by the collaboration,” said Christina Girard, a business HR partner at GM, in a statement. “I also appreciated the other days at home, some of which were critical to the needs of my family.”

As far as how often the automaker’s downtown Renaissance Center headquarters and tech campus in Warren are being used, spokeswoman Maria Raynal said the company continues “to monitor occupancy, and the number changes daily.”

After numerous delays, Ford is now planning to bring its salaried employees back to campus in April under a new hybrid work model.

The Dearborn automaker last year announced that it would implement a flexible work policy for some 30,000 salaried employees in North America and thousands more globally. The policy enables employees whose jobs do not require them to be on-site to determine with their supervisor when, how and where they do their work.

In announcing earlier this month that the company will separate its legacy internal combustion engine and burgeoning electric-vehicle and software businesses into separate units within the company, executives suggested flexible work policies are seen as key to attracting and retaining talent.

“We want the best people. I don’t care if they come to work in bunny slippers, but we’ve got to have the best people,” said Doug Field, a former Apple and Tesla exec who will lead product creation for the EV unit.

Continental AG, a Germany-based automotive supplier that has its North American automotive headquarters in Auburn Hills, now is planning to bring employees back to the office under a hybrid model starting April 4.

Robert Lee, CEO of Continental North America, told The Detroit News the company has been working for the last couple of years on a new model — developed based on employee feedback and industry benchmarking — that it will refine as employees return to offices and research and development sites. Currently, a small group is coming in once a week on a voluntary basis to test systems such as software used to reserve desks.

“The basic foundation is this: At this point, we all acknowledge, nobody wants to come into the office 100% of the time,” he said. “The days of everybody sitting in a cubicle 40 hours a week in their own space, that’s long gone. I don’t expect that to be the model, ever. At the same time, it’s clear that most people do want to interact with their colleagues, at least sometimes.”

Broadly, the company expects employees to split their time 50-50 between the office and remote work, but they’ll adjust that based on roles.

Continental also is evaluating an expansion of fully remote work in states where the company operates, Lee said, because of increased demand for such policies. In his view, flexible work policies benefit companies just as much as employees.

“If we are somehow overly prescriptive, we can lose the opportunity,” he said. “But if we allow enough flexibility, I really believe that companies can benefit from this, and of course employees like it.”

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