Redefining the 'corner-office philosophy': Why GM's renovated offices include pool table, game areas, treadmills
It's a Wednesday morning in early December and General Motors' Cole Engineering building off Van Dyke Road on the Global Technical Center campus in Warren fills with a soft frenzy of salaried employees bustling throughout the long and winding corridors.
That typically wouldn't be too unusual except for one thing: None of them has an assigned desk.
The 5,000 employees there that day are scattered around the building. The employees do have an assigned team area, but they have flexibility and freedom to work wherever they want, say near the Starbucks or in their team area when needed. Some are at high-top tables along the corridors with their laptops open, some stand chatting as they admire funky art on the corridor walls.
Fresh food and a less industrial look
In a way, this newly renovated office environment is the template for what GM will do with all of its workplaces — including most of its factories and warehouses in North America. GM wants to mute the industrial atmosphere to modernize it with upgraded cafeterias and break areas. Even the offices at factories get a makeover.
The idea is to provide factory workers with some of the same amenities white-collar folks get. Gone will be stale chips from the vending machines, replaced by fresh food available for plant workers to scan and purchase across all shifts. GM says the renovations will help in hiring and retention across all its facilities.
“As you move into the manufacturing environment, obviously, some people in that environment have less flexibility than in non-manufacturing, but we are trying to inject that same idea of flow in that environment,” said Candice Messing, GM’s sustainable workplaces program manager who led the redesign of the Tech Center. “We’ve injected sustainable elements in some cases too, such as art and creativity, in those spaces that create a sense of identity at the factories.”
Give the people flexibility
At the Tech Center, the model that salaried workers are experiencing aims to give employees added flexibility as they give up the flexibility of remote work.
There is a life-sized checkerboard and a pool table embedded in the body frame of a late 1960s Chevrolet Camaro SS 396 in a nearby hallway — just two of several game areas meant to be "mental jogs" to stimulate creativity.
"We did it from a neuroscience perspective," Messing said. "Creative breakthroughs actually happen, a lot of them, when you’re mildly content and not thinking about anything and there’s a certain level of ambient noise. That’s just the way the brain works."
The building has designated quiet areas for those who can't be distracted and regular desks in low lighting for those who need to see a computer without glare. Some folks occupy private phone rooms (with treadmills in some) or meeting rooms, either with colleagues or working solo.
The one-time sea of cubical walls is gone, leaving window views of GM's campus that allow all in the office to take in the scenery. That is exactly how GM wants it.
"In past-GM, you acquired space over your career, so it was that corner office philosophy. What we are trying to do now is redistribute that, and take that ownership out of the situation, so everyone has freedom of choice," Messing said. "People are coming to work now for a connection or collaboration. It's giving people the ability to flow between spaces based on who you are, how you feel and the type of work you’re doing."
The redesign is part of a $1.5 billion overhaul of the Tech Center that started in 2014. The Tech Center's renovations are complete and now GM is taking that model to its world headquarters inside the Renaissance Center in Detroit and to the Milford Proving Ground.
Messing declined to disclose the added cost to upgrade the other facilities and factories, but said it is a "significant amount."
Modernizing factories to win new talent
The first factory to get some of those same elements featured at the Cole Engineering building was Factory Zero in Detroit and Hamtramck, which GM finished renovating last fall. Now it's on to Flint Assembly and Fort Wayne Assembly in Indiana.
"Some of our facilities are over 100 years old," said Messing, who is also leading the redesign of GM's other facilities. "We want to bring this into the factories and customer care centers and warehouses so that all employees have the spaces that support them and make people feel valued."
In the factories, GM is focused on renovating restrooms, cafeteria spaces, team rooms and other spaces where employees interact.
"We have design guidelines. We spent the last seven years, and 1,400 lessons learned, as we developed these spaces in the nonmanufacturing places and created standardized approaches for the spaces," Messing said. "It can be upgrading the restroom, old fixtures, the tiles, the floors and sinks ... they are all beautiful and feel less industrial."
GM isn't the first automaker to do a redesign, Ford Motor did it in its offices in 2021 and of course the tech companies in Silicon Valley are famous for their casual open-office lounges and pingpong tables. Messing said GM did look at other "agile work environments" for ideas, but "we didn’t benchmark any company specifically." Instead, GM partnered with Detroit-based SmithGroup, a company that specializes in workplace and urban design. The automaker has also used a variety of vendors for such things as the art and the Camaro pool table. In some cases, employees have contributed their own art.
Beyond the morale boost that a modern environment inspires, GM believes its updated workplace helps attract and retain new talent, which is critical in GM's push towards a zero-emissions vehicle lineup by 2035. GM also must deliver on its promise to bring 30 new electric vehicles to global markets in the next 24 months.
Fresh food at Fort Wayne and Flint
At Fort Wayne Assembly, where GM runs three shifts building its full-size light-duty pickups, the renovation work started Oct. 15 and will be completed by Aug. 1 of next year. The idea is to add enough creature comforts to make the current workforce happy, while also enticing new talent.
“This building is vintage 1986, so everything we’re redoing is quite a bit older than what people are used to in an office, or even a modern factory," said Shaun Pontsler, facilities manager at Fort Wayne Assembly, where he said the cubicles in the office area are an outdated mauve and tan combination. "We’re trying to update it to attract good talent so they can see when they come for an interview what their spaces look like, what are the conference rooms like, what is the technology in those conference rooms, and be competitive in the workspace.”
Beyond the white-collar offices, the hourly workforce will get new floors, showers, urinals, sinks and other items in all 30 restrooms. Also upgraded will be 30 team rooms, four locker rooms, several conference rooms and two cafeterias that will offer 24/7 marketplaces with "grab and scan" options for salads, sandwiches, fresh fruit and more, said Rob Swanson, who is the project manager for the renovations at Fort Wayne.
The lockers, which are currently orange, will be painted "GM Blue," to match the company logo, Swanson said. LED lighting will replace the old fluorescent lights, for a brighter and warmer feel.
“I’m receiving a lot of positive feedback and excitement, especially when it comes to the new cafeteria and the new offerings coming and modernizing the restrooms," Swanson said. "It’s been a long time coming for these renovations.”
At Flint, where GM also runs three shifts building full-size heavy-duty pickups, GM broke ground on updates to several bathrooms the week of Thanksgiving, said Ty Allushuski, a Flint plant spokesperson. In the first half of 2023, Allushuski said a mother's room will be added to the trim area; mother's rooms are now located in other parts of the plant. New speakers and monitors will be added to team rooms, among other upgrades.
Moving from Mahogony Row to front and center
The idea to redesign GM's offices started at the top nearly a decade ago when Messing took her proposal to overhaul GM's facilities to Mark Reuss, then GM's executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain. Reuss, who is now president, and his team were located in the Cole Engineering building's high-rent district dubbed "Mahogany Row" — the most exclusive corner offices of GM.
"You would drive your car into an executive garage, you would come up in your executive elevator, you would come into a space where there was a gauntlet of executive admins." Messing said, referring to the administrative assistants who run the schedules of the top-tier executives. "Even if you're invited to a meeting, and you knew you were supposed to be there, about halfway through that walkway, you felt like maybe you shouldn’t be there. It was a very intimidating environment, to be completely honest."
Reuss occupied the office his father, Lloyd Reuss, had when he was president at GM from 1990-92. "Everyone said, ‘Mark’s never going to move out of his father’s old office,'" Messing said.
So Messing arranged for a field trip to take the entire executive leadership staff to the furniture store Herman Miller in Holland to show them the kind of furniture she had in mind for a more open workspace. Reuss wanted a proposal of what would happen to Mahogany Row because he understood that, "You can’t say, 'This is what we’re doing, moving people into these environments' and then go behind your closed door in Mahogany Row."
Her plan was to keep him and the executives in that famed location, but make all the offices glass, assuring them, "you’ll still be by your vehicles, by your nice executive elevator."
"Mark took one look at it and said, 'It’s not who we are. It’s old GM. Take us to the middle of the building. Take us to where the people are,'" Messing said. "You’re talking, at the time, of a building that had 13,000 people in it. It was about moving them to the dead center of the building and not putting walls around the space. This is as open an environment you can think of — we cut those glass windows, so they can see down in the lobby in an effort to create transparency and openness."
Creating a new culture with freedom
On any given weekday, in the executive area of the Cole building, one might spot CEO Mary Barra conducting a leadership meeting on cushioned sofas, in an open space that more resembles a living room than a boardroom.
When leaders do take the meeting into a conference room, the rooms are designed to be more inclusive. The rooms have high-top tables, smaller tables as well as a large table that puts all attendees on equal footing in their seating arrangement, compared with the traditional long conference table where the top dogs sat near the head and some employees didn't even get a seat at the table, instead sitting in chairs along the walls.
The "town commons" areas — those spots where employees can eat and socialize — have car hoods as tabletops to "remind people who we are," Messing said. Some of the art is meant to be inspiring, such as a piece that consists of 1,633 GM matchbox cars done by Detroit-based design studio PopHouse.
GM won't specifically monitor badges as to who comes to the office on how many days, Messing said. But it can keep count of the attendance at the campus. About 3,000 to 5,000 show up now, but GM expects that figure to triple after Jan. 30.
Barra is championing the renovated offices at the Tech Center to encourage those 25,000 employees assigned to work at the campus that their return to the workplace will be positive. At a media event earlier this month, she said the employees who have returned so far have told her, "I love this" in reference to the new space.
"It's an energy and a vibe. A culture needs to be nourished, and you can't do that if you're not in person," Barra said at the media event on Dec. 8.
But some salaried workers have doubts about the new workspace. One person who will be returning to an office near the Tech Center said the desks there will seat three people to one desk, meaning some on their team might not get a seat at a desk.
Encouraging a 'serendipitous exchange'
Messing said her team is sure everyone will fit because heat sensors in all the rooms indicate how crowded a space becomes. "But if one area is too dense, we can shift people," she said.
The work areas at the Tech Center include large file cabinets that are assigned to workers where they can put their personal items and then choose wherever they prefer to sit to work that day.
"You might not get your first choice of where to sit, but you'll get a place to sit," Messing said.
On top of the file cabinets are writeable surfaces with markers so if two employees start chatting and have an impromptu brainstorming session, they can write or draw out their ideas right there.
"We saw so much value when people are in the office workspace in creating an environment that causes movement because it creates a level of serendipitous exchange," Messing said. "The idea that you see somebody at the water cooler or the commons area and maybe you’re talking about something that happened over the weekend, but that same conversation can evolve into something work based. That often spawns different levels of creativity and ideas because you’re talking to someone that you wouldn’t have necessarily encountered in a more traditional assigned workspace."