Featured in today's briefing:

  • What we can learn from Ford’s new ways of working.
  • The latest on workplace mask and vaccine mandates.
  • Co-working spaces without the spaces.

The Virus

The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 35% increase from two weeks earlier, with about 37,000 new cases yesterday and rising numbers of infections reported especially in the eastern US. When looking ahead, “variants are always the wild card,” says epidemiologist Ajay Sethi.

The business impact: About 3 million workers who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic have no plans to resume employment, according to new research. There are still 1.2 million fewer Americans employed than pre-pandemic. Inflation jumped more than expected in March, with consumer prices increasing 8.5% from a year earlier (the largest increase since 1981.) But excluding food and energy, price increases are moderating—and oil and gas prices have recently been coming down.

Focus on How a 20th Century Management Pioneer is Overhauling Its Work Practices

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.

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.”

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.

Read a transcript of our conversation, including more on how to educate a workforce to best take advantage of hybrid work and what the principal business benefits are.

What Else You Need to Know

Mask mandates are being maintained or reinstated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the masking requirement on planes and other public transportation to May 3.

  • Philadelphia’s masking mandate for public places goes back into effect tomorrow in response to a surge in Covid cases. It applies to “all indoor public spaces, including schools and childcare settings, businesses, restaurants, and government buildings.”
  • Universities including American, Georgetown, George Washington (GWU), and Johns Hopkins also reinstated indoor mask mandates.  “Using non-pharmaceutical measures like masking should be considered part of what it means to live with the coronavirus,” argued one GWU official.
  • “We could be doing more mask recommendations rather than mandates,” contends Brown epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo. “But above all, we need to make sure we get eligible people vaccinated—and, in particular, boosters for older people.”

Meanwhile, companies are dropping vaccine mandates amid a historic labor shortage—upsetting some former workers and public-health experts. Nearly a third of employers who previously required shots have dropped or plan to drop the requirement, according to a survey.

  • Only about 38% of employers currently require the shots.
  • Vaccination rates are lower among the younger and less educated at a time when employers have a surfeit of entry-level positions.
  • Howard Koh, a former Obama administration health official, told Bloomberg that rolling back mandates “seems to imply that the pandemic threat is somehow over when it’s not.”

Working parents are struggling to support their children’s mental-health, which deteriorated in the pandemic. More than half of working parents reported missing work at least once a month and/or had their workdays interrupted to deal with their child’s mental health, according to a new survey.

  • Research suggests that children's depression and anxiety rates may have doubled since the start of the pandemic.
  • Almost every measure of teen mental health is getting worse.
  • The burden comes on top of a difficult two years of closed schools and insufficient childcare.

Return to workplace speed round:

  • Cities are exploring ways to turn more empty office space into residential housing. Momentum is growing: Roughly 7,400 apartments were created from offices in 2021, more than six times the number a decade earlier.
  • How tech companies are trying to make their employees happier about returning: Google hired pop star Lizzo for a private show; Microsoft offered local music, beer and wine tasting, and craft classes; Qualcomm threw a happy hour with its CEO.
  • Plans for JPMorgan Chase’s New York headquarters include amenities to encourage employees to come in like yoga and cycling rooms, meditation spaces, outdoor areas, and a state-of-the-art food hall. Earlier this month the company said it expects about half of its employees to work in-person full-time.

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

  • Give block scheduling a go. Organizing your day into activity blocks for specific tasks or broad goals—like Block CEO Jack Dorsey does—can promote focused work and set less important tasks for later.
  • Rebuild your support network. Most of our social networks shrank in the pandemic. Now as things are reopening and lives are reorganizing, think about who you can call on at home or work when you need advice or help in a crisis.
  • Don’t wait for the wheel to squeak. Leaders often mistakenly assume that if an employee isn’t complaining, they are happy at work. Make time to check in with your team members and ask questions like “What aspect of your job do you enjoy the least?” and “How have you been feeling about being able to balance work and home?”
  • If you need someone to change something big, first ask them to do something small. The “foot-in-the-door” helps people develop a sense of commitment and confidence that makes them more enthused about the bigger request.
  • Take care with that email sign-off. Use proper grammar and spelling. Avoid folksy terms. Do not try to send off a chilled vibe (eg “Smiles”) or be overly prescriptive (eg “Stay safe” or “Take it easy.”)


Is it a co-working space if there’s no space? For $40 a month, Flow Club lets you work virtually alongside strangers, over videoconference with your mic muted (and with your camera off if you prefer.)

  • Some people find working virtually alongside others keeps them accountable to get work done, and avoid the distraction of dirty laundry or Netflix.

Happy hours are back at the office. Bosses are breaking out booze regularly in a bid to lure workers back to work in-person and make it feel more exciting and fun.

  • Mid-afternoon drinks are suddenly less taboo. Though the health implications of heavier workplace alcohol consumption are concerning.
  • One worker told The Wall Street Journal that he was very struck by the wide selection of libations available at all times at one office. “It was very ‘Mad Men,’” he said.

If I come to the office less often, I can commute longer. That’s the rationale of a growing number of super-commuters who have moved hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from their offices and have one-way commutes of 90 minutes or longer.

  • Traditionally limited to the c-suite, super commuting is now practiced by workers at all levels.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.