In normal times, Nellie Brown goes around to people’s workstations, adjusts their furniture and changes their lives.
That’s what ergonomic experts — in her case, a certified industrial hygienist — do. They help people place their bodies on furniture properly, so their work doesn’t injure them and take them out of the work force.
Controlling that optimal fit has gotten harder over the past year as millions of Americans started working from home, where they may not have an office, spare bedroom or other quiet space to work at their computer.
I think Ford Motor Co. is doing the right thing in proceeding with a hybrid model that has people come in to an office when it’s necessary or beneficial and work from home or elsewhere when that makes the most sense.
But it is going to be challenging, and ergonomics is just part of it.
There are economic matters, for instance. Who pays for that proper-fitting home office chair? Who pays for the additional bandwidth or hardware that might be needed?
Giving thoughtful consideration to each person’s job — when it needs to be in person, how to measure progress, keeping communications flowing — simply demands more attention and effort than the one-size-fits-all approach long entrenched in the industry.
“You do have to have skills in how to manage people remotely,” said Brown, who also is director of workplace health and safety programs at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
It’s all about the trade-off: what you gain vs. what you give up.
Workers gain the flexibility of not having to commute every day, but they give up some flexibility when email monitoring expectations creep beyond traditional hours.
A lot of employers were concerned about a drop-off in productivity, Brown said, because they wouldn’t be able to visually monitor activity, but for a number of reasons, that hasn’t been a problem. That realization has freed companies such as Ford and Toyota to rethink where work gets done.
Brown said she’s hopeful that greater workplace flexibility, in the roles where it’s feasible, can create opportunities for workers with disabilities and preserve them for parents — usually moms — who make sacrifices in their careers when family demands arise at home.
“It may very well give employers a much larger potential work force of very good employees that they might not have been able to consider before,” she said.
Brown noted that one reason people are more productive at home is that they have less socialization and general chitchat with each other. But at the same time, creative ideas can come from those casual exchanges, so they add value that isn’t immediately apparent.
Dana White, chief communications officer at Hyundai Motor North America, said she is missing those interactions. While vice presidents are back at work in the company’s Fountain Valley, Calif., headquarters, few others are. White, who joined the company last April, still hasn’t met some of her staff members in person, she said.
“The challenge is not having that human connection,” White said. “I hope we can get back to that soon.”
Companies in the auto industry aren’t the only ones planning to allow more remote work even after the pandemic. And it worries me a little what that will mean for vehicle demand.
If a quarter of the American work force commutes half as much they did pre-pandemic, that has to reduce the baseline demand.
Right now, we’re in a pricing bubble because supply has been constrained by a litany of challenges, plus we’ve been through a year of drastically limited air travel and entertainment spending that has freed up more money for vehicles.
Privately owned vehicles have also become a higher priority, as the safest, most comfortable way to get out of town during the pandemic. Some of that will last going forward, but I wouldn’t count on much. A lot of people are eager to fly again, as well as spend money on concerts and sporting events and in other ways that haven’t been available for many months.
How society and the industry change long term is far from clear.
Time will tell whether the industry learns to operate with fewer vehicles on dealers’ lots, while also reckoning cost-effective ways to make the supply of parts more robust.
I’m somewhat hopeful that people are learning to be more mindful about the spread of disease among humans. We’ve all filled out enough surveys to know that if you have symptoms, you should stay home and work from there if you can. Gastrointestinal issues can also be contagious in a workplace, Brown said, because so few people wash their hands sufficiently — that’s another area for learning and behavioral improvement.
Along with proper posture.