I Just Drove By The Chrysler Technical Center, Where I Worked With 11,000 People Before The Pandemic. It’s An Eerie Ghost Town

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“Crap crap crap,” I needed to find parking; I was running late for the 8 A.M. Jeep Wrangler mild hybrid thermal system meeting that I was leading. “There’s a spot! No, wait. There’s a Fiat 500 in it!” Eventually, after a long search, I parked my Jeep Cherokee XJ on the top of the full parking garage, then sprinted by the enormous, chock-full lot on the north side of the world’s second largest office building, the Chrysler Technical Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan. I stood in line at the turnstiles, swiped my card, and tried to avoid bumping into any of the khaki-wearing engineers whose hands wrapped around the extended batteries of their oversize laptops. This was my normal morning at the bustling “CTC” back when I worked there between 2013 and 2015. The energy was palpable; recent college graduates like myself were leading entire teams trying to build some of Chrysler’s greatest products ever. It was a golden era when every desk was filled, the microwave in the hallway had a line of folks waiting to heat up leftovers, and finding open offices for your cooling system meetings was a downright chore. Things aren’t like that anymore — not even close, as I just found when I stopped by my former workplace yesterday. It looked like a ghost town.

I think we all know deep down that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world permanently. Some of us are a bit in denial, hoping that things return to how they once were. Perhaps the idea of such rapid and uncontrolled change scares us — instills in us a realization that the firm bedrock upon which we’d built our entire worldview is — and, really, always was — actually a fragile foundation endlessly teetering in unstable equilibrium.

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These are the thoughts that shot through my head the other day as I drove past my former workplace, the Chrysler Tech Center — a 5.4 million square-foot headquarters meant to house some of the most talented automotive engineers, designers, businesspeople, and technicians on the planet. And entire car company under a single roof. It was hard to shake off the melancholy, even though I know that many people are happier working from home these days; mine wasn’t a particularly logical emotional reaction, but then, feelings rarely are.

I remember feeling similarly when I lived on the east side of Detroit and regularly drove through completely abandoned neighborhoods. Why was that so upsetting? The people in those homes hadn’t died, they’d just moved 25 miles north to the ‘burbs. They’re probably driving their Jeep Grand Cherokees to Whole Foods right now, doing just fine.

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I think, on some level, it’s just nostalgia — humans’ bizarre illusion that things before were much better even when they really weren’t. Driving down the east side’s Schoenherr Road or through run-down Belle Isle, and thinking about how the once-booming neighborhoods and once-bustling park now sat derelict — there was just something sad about that, just as there was something sad about looking at the CTC and its empty parking lot. A fall from grace.

But I don’t think it was pure nostalgia, because I think part of what made me feel sad in both cases was knowing that the reasons for these exoduses involved immeasurable suffering. Racial conflict in one case, and a pandemic that has killed millions of people in the other. An empty building itself isn’t sad — buildings don’t have feelings — but the context that causes change is impossible to divorce from the change itself.

 

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I don’t mean to imply any sort of equivalency between Detroit’s plight and Chrysler’s workers now logging in on their computers remotely, nor do I want to make it seem like this even matters in the context of over 6 million people perishing from the earth, but it’s just something that’s on my mind: The Chrysler Technical Center in Auburn Hills will never be the same. It will almost certainly never be filled with 11,000 engineers, designers, marketers, PR professionals, and technicians. That experience that my friends and I share trying to figure out how to build cars, all together in that one high-energy building, is gone forever. Engineers will swing by Chrysler’s (err, Stellantis’s) facilities whenever they need to interact with hardware (i.e. testing and other physical assessments), or when they need to fill up their M-plate’s gas tank (free gas!), [Editor’s Note: Wait, you got free gas? – JT]  but by and large, the Chrysler Technical Center will remain largely empty. Any attempt to force employees back into the office will almost certainly be met with resistance. People want to see their families more and deal with awful commutes less. I don’t think Chrysler wants to risk losing talent by requiring in-person attendance, so it’s no surprise that rumors have been swirling about Chrysler leasing out parts of the Tech Center as office space.

Anyway, back to my visit to the Tech Center; see this area at the very back of the enormous parking lot? This is where people who don’t drive Chrysler vehicles had to park, and then walk far in the cold Michigan winters. Yes, Chrysler punished you if you didn’t drive their cars; it’s pretty silly. Now instead of cool JDM machines and VW GTIs, there are literally zero cars there:

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Here’s the big parking garage that was almost always full — there’s not a whole lot going on in there:
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This is the main lot on the north side. At 3:30 on a Thursday, this place used to be packed:

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And what do we have here? Looks like at least eight competitive vehicles in the Chrysler-only lot! This would not have stood pre-pandemic; it was a crime that I’m pretty sure was punishable by death — or at the very least, a month of solitary confinement in a 2007 Dodge Caliber. Or an hour in a climatic chamber.

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Look at these prime parking spots right near the entrance — these would be full back in the day, and folks would be walking around this area, some trying to avoid being attacked by Canada Geese (each year, Chrysler’s HR team sent out an email warning employees about the aggressive Canada Geese on the property).

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The south entrance on the other side of the building had a few more cars in the lot, since this is where the engine/vehicle testing happens. Plus, that’s where the thermal simulation team hangs out, and trust me: Those are some hard-working folks. Still, the lot was mostly empty:

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Obviously, what I’m describing here doesn’t just apply to Chrysler. I stopped by Ford’s HQ a few months back, and saw that the company was apparently using the employee parking lot as a staging yard for new vehicles. Just look at this sea of new Fords:

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A huge part of of many our lives — where and how we work — has changed forever. Offices all around the world have become ghost towns, and the big, energetic workplace is, in many cases, gone forever. And while there’s a nostalgic aspect to this that makes me a bit sad, the dominant feelings as I stood there in an empty lot of the second largest office building on earth (second to the Pentagon) — where I’d once worked — were: 1. This world can pivot in an instant, and whatever control I thought I had over that was an illusion and 2. Socially, this is a huge change.

I already talked about the first point involving “control.” I think many of us have struggled with this post-pandemic. The second one is something we have to come to grips with, too: In some ways, the world has become less social. I’ve been working online for the past seven years, and before the pandemic I began thinking about changing that — about returning to a real office. There’s just no substitute for in-person human interaction, and now, during a large part of our day, many of us won’t get that. To me, that daily interaction that I used to have with scores of people at the Chrysler Technical Center had a lot of inherent value. It wasn’t just that I was around people during those eight hours a day, it was that being with them tended to facilitate the growth of friendships outside of work. Even after I left Chrysler, I still hung out with the friends I’d made there, and they regularly introduced me to many new people whom they’d met at the office. Since the pandemic, I don’t see that same level of interaction — folks don’t seem to be hanging out with their coworkers like before. What once represented a great opportunity to build relationships has shriveled.

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I hung this on the walls at the tech center. There were lots of fliers on bulletin boards, though I don’t think many with as strange a request.

None of this is a complaint, and certainly, many folks (especially those with families and sweet houses) are loving this new setup, and I think that’s great. I just wanted to talk about what it was like to travel back to that Tech Center, because standing there in that lot and seeing tumbleweeds blow across the once-thriving workplace was a powerful reminder of just how capricious this world can be.

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109 Responses

  1. As a fellow ex-FCA-er, I remember those days. Apparently you and I worked for Chrysler/FCA at roughly the same time – I was there from 2014 until 2019, though I was at the plant in Toledo.

    What I can tell you is that if you parked a non-FCA vehicle “over the line” enough times, they would tow you. However, how many times that took was seemingly just as arbitrary as the schedule with which security would actually do the ticketing.

  2. I ended up driving cross-country pretty much at the peak of the worst of the recession that started in ’08. Seeing the small towns that were just… empty was sobering and a bit scary.

  3. I guess it’s apt that the facade of a building in this industry would basically be a parking garage.

    Hypothetical (or maybe not) question. Let’s say you were running the technical centre and the opportunity arose to hire some of the best, most talented engineers that could give your company a major competitive advantage. But…

    …they did not or could not drive for some reason. I guess that would have made them unemployable in a place like this. Ah, American myopia.

      1. Funny thing about that, I’m an industrial designer, always believed in Tesla’s mission statement, investor since 2013, would love to work for them, but no way in hell I’m moving to overpriced crowded ass California. Pandemic, working remotely, maybe?? Musk said no remote work. So. I guess nah. lol.

    1. I don’t think that someone that works for one of the Big 3 is going to be someone anti-car enough to willingly choose to not drive. They may not be able to, but that will normally be due to physical disability, and there are services that allow one to be shuttled around for that.

          1. It’s because with older generations a license meant freedom. The world was now wide open for you to do as you pleased. With the current generation it’s a 2 fold reason as to why they don’t care. Primarily, most of their lives are centered around social media. To a point of living primarily on the web vs. in reality. Additionally, thanks to Uber/Lyft and other mobility companies (e-scooters), freedom to move arounds is there without doing any of the work. Those two things combined and why bother driving?

            Not saying I like it or agree with it but that’s at least the rational.

  4. Many “experts” have been predicting a move away from traditional office work since the dawn of computers, but it took an outside catalyst (the pandemic) to precipitate the change and it will be a while before we reach a new stable mode.

    I worked in the insurance business for many years, and when I talk to old friends at the home office they tell me that it’s a virtual ghost town there.

      1. Absolutely. The amount of people paid to essentially wander around, seagull on people actually working, and manipulate bullshit is aggravating. This also counts for other realms, like schools. You wanna fix education budgets? Hire more teachers and fewer admins, and assume that functional adults don’t need hand-holding.

        1. This is so true. Whenever new employees see other co workers they don’t recognize who they are I respond oh that’s middle management. That’s code for they don’t do anything.

  5. Wasn’t CTC originally designed with the intention that if Chrysler ever stopped using it, it could pivot easily to being a shopping mall? Interesting that both potential uses are on equally precarious footing.

      1. In the late odds, the very day Chrysler declared bankruptcy, I was (by chance) filming some interviews at the CTC. The PR team themselves were joking about the shopping mall backup plan, but kind of as a true thing.

        It might be an urban legend but the building does look the part…

        Side note. What shocked me the most was seeing full size minivans driving around… inside the office space!

  6. I miss the office some days too, but man for as long as I have small kids, working from home is utterly fantastic.

    No more rushing to pick them up, no more arguing with my wife about who’s going to be late that morning because they have to drop the kids off at day care, no more missing activities when I’m stuck in traffic, etc.

  7. It will be interesting to look back in a few years after this huge forced social experiment has been underway for awhile. It will have so many consequences that we have yet to understand. While I love the flexibility that I have now working remotely, the value of constant human interaction is hard to measure – socially or business-wise. Now, if you want social interaction, you have to make an effort to reach out, and many are not going to do that if not forced to. Working with others in an office forced me to talk to people more, and even conversations that started out casually often led to productive problem-solving. Also, putting a face to a name IN PERSON, not on Teams, and getting to know people on a more personal level pays dividends in their willingness to prioritize things that you need to get your job done. I also see it dividing the classes even more. I don’t have to commute to work, which opens up more time to work out, see the kids/wife, take care of my house, and results in an even higher quality of life even without taking the higher pay into account when compared to folks that have to actually be at their jobs (in my case, the people on the factory floor in my company). It also creates a situation where white collar people no longer need to interact with blue collar people as much, and that is not good, as they are the ones dealing with the solutions you come up with most of the time and it is already tough to deal with the “Us vs Them” mentality between hourly and management.

    1. Ah yes, the constant argument about social interaction. The keyword there is never uttered. Forced. Forced social interaction at a place you are forced to be at for at least 8 hours a day if you are full time. Forced interaction is trash and the “thought leaders” who actually think that your workplace creates a “community” or a wonderful utopia of “social interaction” are completely broken individuals who need to get help. The others are just gaslighting everyone. Your actual community that you live in has plenty of things going on that allows for plenty of social interaction that you can choose for yourself. None of this completely idiotic forced team building with people you may or may not stand to be around. Arguments can be made for voluntary options to go back to some hellscape office full of gross food smells and harsh lighting with people who are loud and annoying and that’s where it should stay. Voluntary.

      1. I agree with you completely but, trying to find a middle ground, have people come to the office for a reason. If you believe in person meetings or team building are important, designate a day for people to come in, have in person meetings, have impromptu conversations, etc. Don’t just require people to go in every day just for the sake of going in. It’s not a zero sum game, there is a cost to having to constantly be in the office.

        Managers and executives also sometimes forget that many employees actually need to do work sometimes. Not everyone makes their living in meetings all day. Some people actually need to sit and have uninterrupted periods of concentration on what they’re doing in order to produce quality results.

      2. This!

        I’ve always seen the “community” and “family” environment of the workplace as HR bullshit to placate employees into working a longer day without added compensation or worse to brainwash employees into a corporate cult.

  8. Every company goes through a trajectory. They go up and ewventually go down.
    Throughout my career as a Manufacturing Engineer and Technical Writer, every company I have worked for was already on the downhill side, except for this latest (and hopefully) last one. Boeing Aerospace, Garrett Pneumatics, Aerojet, HP, and Grass Valley Group were all on the downhill slide. There were enough old-timers were still around to regale us with tales of the heady high times. It is very interesting and refreshing to be with a company that is on the uphill side of the trajectory.

  9. Dave,
    I understand what you’re saying and I can’t disagree. The single aspect I miss from working in the office is the human interaction. Now, does that outweigh the things I like working from home like making a fresh lunch, being able to go to the gym for 30 min before lunch, have the flexibility to run the kids places they need to be at odd times because camps and sport practices think during the summer, parents don’t work… I digress.

    Human interaction was a large part about going into the office and I do miss that a lot. Going out for beers after work or hanging out with work friends. What I have found is with co-workers that are in the same area as me, get together once a month for beers on a Friday. Friends I used to work with, I’ve gotten in touch with and will help each other out with car fixes or home fixes, or just hang out and chat.

    It is a less social world now and there are tons of people like yourself looking for ways to get in touch with new friends or meet back up with old ones. Without doing anything like this myself, my first thought if I were looking for some new friends would be local facebook groups or if it was a date I was looking for, I’m sure dating sites are still a thing in this day and age. Even if she turns out to be a new friend, she may introduce to you a new group of friends to hang out with.

    It’s a brave new world now and everyone is still trying to figure out new ways of navigating it.

    1. I work from home and got a taste of an office environment on a recent business trip. My initial reaction was that it was great, but I wouldn’t want to give up my conveniences to have it all the time.
      Then I remembered that the last time I was in an office environment it was an “open office” with no assigned seats. I could never find anyone I needed, they couldn’t find me, and I didn’t talk to most of the people I sat next to by randomly finding an open spot somewhere. Open office had already killed all the comradery/collaboration of a real office environment.

    1. This is a major fear driving the “return to work” mantra. Millions of square feet of worthless formerly Class A, B and C office space will devastate REITs, trust funds and all sorts of other tax-advantageous holdings by the “owner class”.

      Plus, how else will Chad be able to snoop on the secretary’s divorce proceedings or exert middle-management vibe with no shoulders to lean over?

    2. Hopefully leading to rezoning and repurposing as residential properties. Or anything other than leaving them to rot. It’d be a hell of a project to convert these massive spaces to apartments, but could be worth it.

    3. I think we are already seeing this. Commercial construction will be next. There are so many big businesses in my area that are contracting their office footprint, yet I still see so much construction of retail and office space, there is no way it is sustainable. In a couple of years, anything other than warehouse space is going to be pretty much worthless if this continues.

  10. Great piece, David. You’re tapping into a sociological phenomenon that most people haven’t realized yet.
    I love the “exile” lot, that’s actually kind of cool. You don’t want your payroll going to the competish!

  11. This might repeat. I thought I posted the comment. So I used to work up the street from Chrysler. I have questions. The Test Track off of Squirrel Road is that still in use today? I saw it used sparingly 5-10 years ago. I know Chelsea is the larger test track so I figured more testing happens there. Second any weird or unique vehicles around? I remember driving around one day and seeing the Consumer Energy Natural Gas Ram 1500s on property.
    I come back for business at least once a year and stay in Auburn Hills I saw a downturn in traffic but didn’t think much of it. I think its because I drive by the old Chrysler Museum and see what a waste it’s become.

    1. I did three weeks of WFH in May 2020 that the company said was for our protection due to cases in my city and the factory. Two years later they talk about how the factory closed due to a lack of raw materials supply.

      So on a professional side, life continued relatively unchanged when compared to my friends’ lives, yet my personal life stalled because it took until two months ago for an under 5 vaccine to be approved.

      The last couple of years have been a wild ride.

  12. No motorcycles in the deck? BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
    Fuck it! They can ride around the turnstile or park in the same space as that Fiat 500 trying to troll you into thinking it’s empty 😛

    At least the people who can;t work remotely will be able to find a parking space now 😀

    Also, most remote workers used to live in expensive areas (NYC, SF, etc) and moved to cheaper areas, but in Michigan, it shouldn’t be a problem since the Detroit area seems to be the cheapest housing market anyway LOL

  13. Lovely story, David. It is kinda sad seeing a building like that just going to waste. That said, I’ve worked from home as an online University professor for 6 years now, and as an extreme introvert, I couldn’t be happier. But I get how sad it is for all the extroverts out there (you’re the majority by a long shot, after all) when office buildings and other communal working spaces get shut down.

    Anyway, this sentence caught my eye: “There’s a spot! No, wait. There’s a Fiat 500 in it!”
    As the frequent driver of our 500e, this is my constant nightmare. No matter where I park, unless it’s in a charging spot, and even sometimes then, I’m invariably between two giganto-mobiles and my car is almost literally invisible. I always worry that someone is going to swoop in on the “empty” spot in their Canyonero and crush my tiny Fiat. I’ve taken to parking as far out as I can to hopefully avoid this fate. So far-so good.

    1. The first time I saw a ForTwo in person, it had been run into by a truck that didn’t realize it was in the parking spot.

      My car isn’t tiny, but I still observe “good guy small car” parking rules. Just better for everyone.

    2. I have to do the same with my Honda Fit, and have grown used to parking with a good 3rd of the parking space open in front of my car at Costco. As a bonus it lets the F250s on either side open their doors pretty easily.

        1. Fit driver here too.

          I get a little frisson of excitement knowing I disappointed some Canyonero driver when I’m in a space they think is available. Almost makes up for their bullying me.

          Also, thank the goddess for backup cameras.

  14. I worked at CTC 96-99. I had to park all the way back in the non-Chrysler lot with my Bronco II, 280Z or Econoline van. That was a hellish hike in winter but luckily I was 4th floor North so close to my cubicle once I got in the back entrance. However a quick satellite view looks like non corporate vehicle parking is even worse now, there are buildings where there used to be parking.

    However one nice thing about CTC that almost everything was under one roof, I was just a quick escalator ride down to the bumper impact lab. The other automakers I’ve worked at have facilities spread across many different buildings or even cities!

  15. First, I am shocked at that level of desertion. If it was such a wonderful place to be, some people would show up.

    Second, I would expect that a large number of engineers and marketing people would need access to physical test rigs, simulators, prototypes, high speed design computers, etc. How is that work getting done?

    Third, it amazes me that companies were able to pivot so quickly to work from home and maintain a reasonable level of productivity.

    Fourth, if people could effectively work from home, why the heck were/are companies building and paying for such monstrous office buildings?

    Fifth, I feel the same pangs of nostalgia/FOMO/sorrow/ennui when I see places I used to live, work, or recreate. It doesn’t make any sense but it is wired into us.

    Sixth, that is one ugly parking lot.

    1. 2: For testing and prototypes, yes, but most of the work done by designers and engineers is digital these days. The techs assembling prototypes and making things IRL are a very small % of employees in product development overall.

      3. Personally, I am more productive. I sleep in later, and feel more rested. I can caffeinate constantly without paying $2 for some crappy mountain dew, and I’m not interrupted by random conversations and door chimes and informal meetings. Another big thing is hours; with WFH I attend all my meetings but my actual work time is more flexible, so I find myself working late into the night, which I never, EVER did pre pandemic. Some nights I’m up til midnight or 2am, just because I feel in the zone. Then I work fewer hours the next day, to help balance everything.

      YMMV

    2. “Fourth, if people could effectively work from home, why the heck were/are companies building and paying for such monstrous office buildings?” Inertia. We’d been doing it that way, and it seemed like we would just continue. Until covid, there wasn’t a big enough push to change.

      “Third, it amazes me that companies were able to pivot so quickly to work from home and maintain a reasonable level of productivity.” I don’t know about you, but in my experience a lot of time is wasted in the office. Maybe Dave wants to tell you all about his weekend. Maybe you are waiting on Sarah to get you the latest numbers. Or maybe you’re posting comments on an automotive website, like me. Most of the work that could pivot to being done from home didn’t need a lot of face-to-face interactions, but we built in extra time for them because we had always done that.

  16. I currently work at CPG, and the feelings are pretty much the same for me.

    Of course, there’s a lot of benefits to working from home that I enjoy. I don’t miss my commute, I don’t miss always having to pack or buy lunch, and so on. But those small day to day interactions with coworkers have been a big loss for me. Even the conversations that are one step above “living the dream” could make my day just that little bit better.

    CPG still has cars in the parking lot because there are so many technicians and mechanics working there, but the front office is a ghost town. This spring we were forced to clean out our desks – unless you spent 3 days a week there, you had to move all your stuff out so they could transition to a shared office space model. I found test data and trip plans from the 1990s, old brochures, and even some AMC binders in the trash. There’s no changes in the cubicle layout, it’s now just completely devoid of any signs that people with a personality would work there. No unsactioned posters of cars, no random broken test parts as desk ornaments, no octane rating above the coffee machine – no coffee machines or fridges at all in fact. It looks like a stock photo of a 90’s office.

  17. That’s still less eerie than a job I had in the mid 80s where I working at an empty IBM building (Shippan Point in Stamford Ct.) The offices, art on the walls and some of the furniture was there but the only people on site were a couple of guards in a large complex.
    More recently my tiny company’s office and infrastructure is shrinking. We went from most of our building to 1/3 of the space after going remote and just moved to a new smaller office with several hotel desks and a few permanent stations. This is apparently cheaper because there’s a glut of space right now. The other striking thing is the collapse of our IT infrastructure from two full size racks and a co-lo site to a single server as our stuff is mostly cloud hosted now.
    On the plus side we now do our socializing over MS Teams so the remote workers feel more connected.
    I’m also curious about unused space, as we have more of it. In my old neighborhood we actually had two examples, an office building converted to a public library and a Tektronix campus turned into schools.

  18. Wow. I remember visiting there… just after your tenure for a supplier event. (I was the poor schmuck responsible for managing the supply chain for MOPAR glass.)

    I was in awe the entire time and distinctly remember going to a seminar by myself before expecting to meet the rest of my team for lunch in the cafeteria that was larger than our entire HQ, only to find out that they were actually over in the other *larger* cafeteria.

  19. I was at a Jerb for quite a long time, till I finally couldnt take anymore of the constant foooey.

    Went back to check out the vartious locations.. everything is gone. People are gone. Property is gone. There were people.. who been in the Company a looong ass time, gone. When I intially left, I felt like I had just hit a brick.. cause everything you knew… was gone. Then ya stand back.. and ya feel empty.

    P.S
    I remember.. when Lee Iacocca was being given a retirement award. he was about 85 or so. Id guess he was sitting in the middle of the CTC with a ton of other Chrysler types. Then they turned around.. and took his company car from him.

    Shit..
    Im just thankful I still take a ton of pictures on my device, only way ya gonna remember stuff. Take pics.

  20. Dave:
    You hit on a lot of issues here.
    Let me start by saying, from from actual conversations, that companies want everyone back in the office. Real face to face collaboration leads to innovation leads to progress.
    As an old, I just don’t get the real isolation that has been replaced with “virtual” interaction. Human intercourse in a real thing. Yes, you don’t necessarily like everyone you interact with, but that hasn’t changed since grade school. You deal with it.
    As a builder, I saw companies build bump outs into hallways just for informal bullshit sessions because human intercourse is always a good thing. You’re collaborating even when you don’t think you are. Even stopping off for a couple after work on Friday is collaboration.
    I haven’t been able to work remotely, nor have my colleagues. We have to actually accomplish things every day. That said, we understand the mindset of the WFH lovers.
    Wouldn’t it be nice to roll out of bed whenever, pull on your boxers (or not), log in and have a couple of coffees. I’d probably do that, too.
    Humans are basically lazy, and upper management understands that. I talk to people in that stratum on a regular basis. While they’re tolerating the status quo for now, they really want their teams back together face to face.
    Virtually is no way to live your life.

    1. Nah. Your viewpoints are outdated. The ability to work anywhere, at any time, and ping anyone, whenever, is fine. I socialize via teams very well and ask about people’s weekends and interests and stuff. I don’t want to go back, and if they force me I’ll just find another job. They will bleed talent if they try that.

  21. I’m thrilled that after a lot of dithering my company opted to let nearly everyone work out their own in person or remote schedule. I still miss the fitness center, and am just drowning in unlistened podcasts, but no 3 hours of commuting or paying for the train or parking or gas or lunch is a massive benefit. Three work itself is the same here or there and nuisance meetings are generally down from pre-pandemic levels still.

    The only thing that’s a real bummer is while we finally have a few new hires, training them over zoom is painful.

  22. Thanks for the reflection, David – it really captures the ambivalence many feel about the state of work in America day. Come for the automotive content, stay for the critical thinking on post-pandemic office culture!

  23. This nostalgia that we feel is borne from the world we grew up on. Remote work confuses and scares us, the same way laptops, smartphones and tablets scared our elders 🙂
    Maybe our generation (or me, at least) still feel uncomfortable at Zoom/Teams/Whatever because we learned to rely on social cues from the office to get things done. Removing that and replacing with virtual meetings robbed us of many work tools that we took for granted.
    If the shift to remote work lasts long enough, maybe future generations will learn to navigate this new normal better, and the ripple effects of this change could be interesting – they will learn how to socialize, interact and get things done on this environment in ways that we can’t.

  24. Honestly I see the empty parking lot as the sign of a good work place. COVID forced places to rip the band aid off for trialing remote work, and at least in my office they found things didn’t miss a beat.

    So now that we look ahead to more normal times, my employer doesn’t see a reason to make us come back in full time. I think the places that did just fine for the last two years, and then arbitrarily force their staff to come back into the office are going to just demoralize people. Go back to commuting and spending less time with your family and eating leftovers from the communal microwave for no reason other than Bob the Middle Manger decided you “need” to. Come on. Plenty of companies see it as an opportunity to stop spending money on office space they realize they don’t need.

    Do you lose some collaborative energy meeting on Teams instead of in a conference room? I think so. Meetings where stakes are high and we’re trying to influence someone? I still think in-person is best. But days where you are just pushing emails around, working on something solo, participating in status meetings…why not do it from home? Professionals know when to do one or the other, hopefully companies can just trust their people to do the right thing.

    1. “Go back to commuting and spending less time with your family and eating leftovers from the communal microwave for no reason other than Bob the Middle Manger decided you “need” to. ”

      Oh there’s more to it than that. Empty buildings don’t generate rents. Properties that don’t generate rent drop in value and don’t employ as many custodians, security guards, etc They use less utilities too. WFH employees use less gas, don’t patronize workplace eateries and so on.

      You can bet the TPTB among the corporate landlords, realtors, city managers, utility companies, restaurateurs, custodial and security services and so on are working hard, using every dirty trick they can think of to commute your butt back into your cubicle regardless of your happiness.

  25. 30 year FCA retiree here with some thoughts.

    I still get the latest 411 on what’s going on 5 years out from retirement. One thing I can tell you is things are dramatically better for management employees due to some personnel changes at the top of the organozation.

    Things like summer hours where no meetings are scheduled for Friday afternoons are a 180 from what it was like 5 short years ago. I would make the argument that work.from home has been an absolute win from a productivity and employee retention stamdpoint.

    Occasionally, I kinda wish I had stayed and waited out the Reid Bigland regime and stayed.If Auburn Hills is a shell of its former self, it absolutely worth it.

  26. Every place is pretty much dealing with this too. Prior to the pandemic, parking at VW in Auburn Hills was also at a premium. Even worse when Dieslgate hit and they had to create a whole new department (they hired my wife). Even though I had a flexible schedule and could come and go as I wanted, I had to show up before 7:00 just to get a parking place. If I drove in at 7:10 then I was pretty much fucked and had to park at the college on Featherstone and take the unreliable shuttles they hired out. Then suddenly, the building was empty. After two years, the department directors were told to evaluate each position and determine which employees could work remote permanently, which would come part-time to the office, and which had to come back full-time. About 80% of the building went remote and now it sites mostly empty. Again, this happened just as they were getting ready to sign a lease on a larger location in Southfield.
    My friends at GM state pretty much the same thing. The Tech Center in Warren is still pretty empty. All of my staff at my new company are also fully-remote. It sounds crazy, but you’re right about employers getting resistance about being forced back into the office. It is sad in a way, but I would rather see collaboration in-person only when it’s truly necessary.

  27. one benefit from a corporate perspective that no one mentioned before is the case of less sex harrassment or discrimination lawsuits. here’s no physical touching and if you are dumb enough to make sexual or racial act/comment via zoom, you deserve to be fired without the business taken on the burden

  28. David,

    You may have stopped by Ford’s HQ a couple of months ago, but the pictures you posted are not of the “Glass House,” but Regent Court, which houses the Sales and Marketing group. Not that any Ford office building houses much nowadays, to the point of your article. But the parking lots are proving handy for partially-finished vehicles. Sorry to nitpick, but WHQ is a bit of a landmark for us Fordies.

  29. I love full-time WFH. It almost drove my wife nutso. Diffr’nt strokes, I guess. She’s back in the office full time. Can’t even take a laptop home if she’s got the sniffles. Weird.

    I feel sorry for the newbs. I learned so much just by listening to the people around me. Now that I’m less than 10 from retirement there’s not so much to learn like that.

  30. I work for Ford in a regional office and went in for the first time in two years to get my laptop upgraded. It was insanely eerie inside seeing how abandoned the building looked. We still have a small crew that has to go in to handle mail and stuff but only on one floor of the building. There’s no plans to ever bring us back in, but fortunately my old and new teams still get together frequently outside of work for lunches and stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love working from home and it’s been a lifesaver with young kids, but I certainly would have loved the 5th floor office I’d have had with a great view in my current job.

  31. It’s definitely a major change, the effects of which we can’t accurately assess yet.

    The trouble is, for every supposed benefit of going in to the office there are a handful of more concrete reasons not to. Requiring people to go in to the office is part of what has lead to the exploding housing market in major metro areas. People needed to be close to where they worked. At the same time, those exploding housing prices have meant people are moving further and further out and commuting longer. Those long commutes mean people are losing 2 or 3 hours a day, massively increasing their stress, emitting tons of greenhouse gasses, requiring bigger and bigger highways, etc. Options for public transport are sometimes limited, unreliable, and still take a long time.

    There’s also all the ancillary costs to commuting. Transit passes, gas prices, garage parking, vehicle maintenance, food, etc. All nibbling away at your household bottom line.

    Then there’s the reason we all stayed home in the first place – disease. Even ignoring a massive lethal pandemic, I have hardly gotten sick at all since I’ve been home. It’s such a massive relief. No more people coming into the office coughing all over everyone, people on public transport emitting germs everywhere. Ugh.

    I think remote work is the future if we insist on continuing to procreate more and more and more. There are just too many people to insist that they all gather in one place every day and too many problems associated with forcing them to do so. My parents could afford to live 20 minutes from down town back in the 70s. My wife and I both have pretty good careers and we’re an hour and a half from downtown at rush hour. You have to be exceptionally wealthy to live in my parents’ town and, by the way, you do not get very much for your money even then.

    Not saying you’re arguing with these points, just putting it out there.

    Of course…Detroit is probably the exception here…Detroit might need a law requiring everyone to go into the office.

  32. As a long-retired GMer, this is a really interesting transition.
    Offices were about prints on the walls, hardware on the tables, and the smell of motor oil and atf from the labs and shops.
    My son-in-law has experienced a similar situation at his employer that does aircraft stuff.
    A whole new world.

  33. Currently work at the Ford Engine Dyno Lab, even this place is a ghost town. On-site staff was down because of the pandemic, and because of the new business plan that Farley and Co. are pushing, there’s less people every week. Honestly is kinda weird that we’re allowed to work remotely considering Farley is bent on making Ford a Tesla clone.

  34. Dear Mr Tracy – if that’s even your real name.

    I am not surprised a so-called “journalist” like yourself hasn’t done his research. The Jeep pictured in the image above (“Young Engineer Looking To Rent Garage Space”) is NOT a Jeep Cherokee XJ, as you imply. The exceptionally rare Jeep XJ was the product of a short-lived collaboration with Jaguar – each company bringing their nations’ traditional strength, combining American build quality with British build quality.

    The Jeep pictured on this flyer is, as you can see from the 5-slot grille (an iconic Jeep styling feature), a much more common Jeep RJ, or Real Jeep, made by the millions during World War 2 to serve the needs of women and the elderly on the home front. It is not valuable enough to retain or service, and you may certainly discard any you have, here with me.

    Hopefully next time you internet “experts” will do your “research” and get to the “bottom” of “things” before passing yourself off as a journalist in public.

    Sincerely,
    *Just *Every *Effing *Person

  35. Canada Geese, my dude. They don’t establish nationality.

    Really large office spaces are going to be an interesting thing to watch going forward to see if the owners try for black box tax rates the way some big box and mall owners have. “Tax us like we’re an unoccupied building or we’ll make it an unoccupied building” is a heck of a gambit.

    Given your age, you’d most likely have seen a drop in work socialization regardless, just because you’re in the settling down years. Happens to everyone, then you sit around at work reminiscing about going out with work friends before you all leave to get your kids. It sucks, particularly if you haven’t hit that mode yet, but it’s natural.

  36. I don’t miss that long walk from Lot 10 (through Deck 60) in the middle of winter – we switched to parking in Lot 11 as it was marginally closer (and you could still cut through the deck if it was raining)…but it was a guaranteed 1/2 mile walk each day simply having to walk so far from the car.

    That said…working from home is 150% better than in-person. Given I grew up in the digital age with instant messaging (AIM!), I have no trouble fostering and growing relationships over Microsoft Teams, and my group, at least (no longer at CTC, but rather “CTC South”) does get together on a not-uncommon occasion.

  37. It really is a different world. I’m a building design engineer (I design the electrical and lighting systems for buildings), and our industry (architects, civil, structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers) is still navigating what the new work-from-home means to our field. Our company has made a nice balance where we can work from home 3 days a week, but everyone works from the office on the other 2 days. We need the collaboration and interaction, especially for the younger engineers.

    Some other firms have forced everyone back. Some are doing hoteling desks to reduce how much space they need to rent. Some have pretty much closed their offices and have everyone work from home.

    The challenge right now is what happens to all the office space out there. Does it downsize? Is it converted to housing? Some offices are actually adding more amenity spaces to encourage people to come in. Things like gyms, kitchens, lounging space, etc. Developers and business owners are still trying to navigate all of that.

    For now, the design and construction industry is very busy, but construction is getting incredibly expensive and lead times for materials are beyond a year on many things, so it doesn’t seem sustainable. There are a ton of challenges out there for the building owners and their tenants.

  38. Well, that’s funny. I dunno if you put the sign up or your co-workers, but I see the “Rick Moranis or David Tracy?” stuck to your cubicle. Now I can’t unsee it.

    There are many benefits to remote work. Not dealing directly with certain coworkers is one of them. And indirectly, this is one of the reasons why – some coworkers have no tact.

    Now if you put it up yourself, that’s different.

    1. That was a guy named Jim Repp. He calls me “dumbass.” He also gets mad when I call him “The Father of the Rubicon.”(It’s true; he and another guy came up with the idea for the Wrangler Rubicon trim. Just accept the honor, Jim!).

  39. I worked on the voice and data network planning for CTC when it was just a brown field. I worked in what today is SRT. Heady times; Chrysler owned both Lamborghini and Gulfstream; and DiamondStar was building some interesting cars.

    The bankers/financiers (Sumitomo Bank, IIRC) wanted a building and site that could be easily repurposed in the event that, um, that Chrysler, um, yeah that … again.

    Oh the irony of the planners wanting the ability to easily adapt it to be a mega shopping mall.

  40. I used to produce a monthly live-to-tape news program for GM techs at the Ren Cen. During the pandemic, after GM allowed “essential” people back into the Ren Cen, it was so eerie to be there. It used to be filled with people walking around, going to meetings, eating or hanging out in the food court or GM World area, and just visiting. I was there about 8 months ago and hardly anyone was there to speak of. I stopped by the offices of the studio crew, no one was there. I like working from home, but informal chats with co-workers or just stopping by when you’re in the building is kind of a thing of the past.

  41. David, I appreciate this article a lot, because you’re not really making any sort of judgement or point, other than observations, analogies, and perspectives. It’s definitely a strange time for sure. My profession is industrial design, and I’ve been working at a major powersports company with about 4,000 people working there per day, pre pandemic.

    In the beginning, we kept trying to socialize with Zoom and whatnot, but it just never felt the same as being in person. I also didn’t necessarily text the same people I was friends with IN the office, so those relationships were put on hold as well.

    My experience through this pandemic has been exceptionally challenging, as my partner is immunocompromised and could possibly die from Covid, which means I’ve also had to limit exposure to actual friends, family, etc. Even with the vaccinations, people still spread covid and refuse to wear masks, so I’m largely on house arrest for 2.5 years now.

    Recently, despite cases being higher than last year, mainstream media and corporate america has decided covid is over, and not a big deal anymore, and that might be true if you don’t have any immunocompromised people in your life. Work made a demand that we adopt to a hybrid strategy, being in 3 days a week. I told my manager that isn’t happening; there’s no precautions being taken anywhere and cases are literally like 2-3x higher than last year with super limited testing, the real numbers probably being easily double what is actually being reported. So for now, I’m still at home, but that’s not true for the rest of the staff.

    Other than the people who live 5 minutes away, there’s been resistance as people have been doing their jobs for 2 years now, fully remote, and not wasting 5-8 hours driving a boring commute every week. I hear complaints from my coworkers who go into work, that they just sit in a cubicle and join Teams meetings all day, just like they did at home, only now they are more tired, the food sucks, and the office is depressing. Pandora’s box has been opened, and the boomers in charger of things want to get back to the way things were before, and I’m really worried if they press it we’re going to start losing a lot of talent.

    I went into the office the other day for some prototype evaluations and caught up with a few people, but zero masks, zero fucks given about spreading it, and yeah…the building seems about 1/3 as packed as it used to be. There’s so many benefits to WFH that aren’t even related to the office itself. So many long walks to the car in winter, vs none at all? That is a massive perk. In the end, adapt or die. Talent will flock to companies that provide good compensation and work from home, reducing the need for a boring, soul sucking commute. If my commute was a twisty backroads in the mountains, I’d want to go into work a lot more often. Cheers.

  42. Just as a reminder, there are *tons* of jobs where the whole work-from-home thing has not, will not, and cannot happen. Anything that requires you to physically do a thing, whether that be slicing up a ham, building a road, or putting in a catheter, requires you to show up in person to do it. I can’t put solar panels on your house remotely, and the guys who work the warehouse can’t load up my truck from their home offices. If you crave a job that gets you out of the house and mixing it up with other meat tubes, they exist. Some of them even pay quite well indeed. Work doesn’t have to be all screens and keyboards.

  43. After whatever it’s been- 2 1/2 years, our company has had about 60% change in personnel, mostly growth and some attrition. I haven’t met in person most of them (and I’m one of the old timers).
    I’m mostly surprised about how tall people are when you finally meet them after seeing them without legs for 2 years.

  44. World’s Second Largest Office Building? The wikipedia page for the renaissance center puts it at 515,800 m2 vs. 490,000 for the Chrysler tech center. True, it has a hotel and a little bit of retail, but I still think of it as an office building. Either way, that building has way more floor space than I would have guessed.

  45. Yep, the places and people (and . . . cars!) who represent personal growth in our lives cast quite a spell . . . It’s usually good to draw meaning from them as long as we don’t idolize. So, good on you for reflecting!

  46. I’ve been sharing a similar experience with my friends and family.
    My company is in a large, two-tower corporate center. A few companies lease out entire floors but most floors lease office spaces of various sizes. My last day in the office was Friday, March 13th 2020. I didn’t return for over a year. When I went back in, the campus was dead.

    Pre-Covid, the garage was filled by 8:00am and I parked four levels up with all the other car folks who didn’t want their sheetmetal dinged. Upon return, I had my choice of spots and was able to park by my lonesome on the second level.

    Pre-Covid, the cafeteria had six food stations which were swamped by noon. They had about 10 employees on staff. Seating was hard to come by. When I came back, it was down to one food station, two employees and no one ate down there.

    Pre-Covid, there was a constantly flow of people in and out of the building and you were guaranteed to share the elevator with at least two people. After Covid, the halls and common areas seem way too spacious.

    Pre-Covid, the floor I worked on housed five different companies. When I returned, my company moved down to floors which left one organization on our original floor.

    Here’s the thing though, over two years later and nothing has changed. Yes, there are a few more cars in the garage but it’s not even close to what it used to be. Walking the empty halls and grabbing food from the cafeteria is depressing. It really hit me when we hired a new person and I gave her a tour of the facilities and reflected on what it used to be like. Of course, I’m taking a nostalgic view of it. I don’t miss waiting for 15 minutes just to order food. I don’t miss waiting for the next elevator. I certainly don’t miss the nearly 3 hour daily commute from the city in the suburbs. We’ll see what happens but I agree, it will never be the same.

  47. When you said 490,000 square-foot headquarters, I was a bit confused about the second-largest claim: there’s plenty of million square foot skyscrapers around. But at 490,000 square meters, it’s about 10x bigger. My stupid pedantic-ness aside, great article.

  48. Personally i think it’s good it’s become more difficult to make friends through work. If you desire social interaction outside of work and family you’ll have to venture out and meet new people elsewhere, hopefully exposing you to more viewpoints and experiences than you would have otherwise. I’m never going back to an office, what your describe as “energetic” to me has always felt depressing, oppressive and draining.

  49. The only reason why I still go into the office is because I literally live 5 minutes away. Also, it’s summer and free A/C sounds pretty good to me. If the drive were any longer, I’d probably never go in. And when it cools off and I can open my windows again, I’ll be staying home much more often.

  50. We are all just monkeys with genetically programmed social interaction needs. The drive for face-to-face contact and genuine emotional interactions with other members of our tribe are physical needs. We evolved that way for survival. Despite whatever anyone tells you about this 21st Century egotistic technological self-flagellation ‘work-from-home’ thing we are all engaged in for economic reasons. Once the Facebook and Twitter people successfully excise our social behaviors from those virtual economic activities though, then the truly schizoid nature of this frighteningly maladaptive existence we have created for ourselves will become glaringly obvious.

    King Crimson was prescient in 1969.

    1. “We are all just monkeys with genetically programmed social interaction needs. The drive for face-to-face contact and genuine emotional interactions with other members of our tribe are physical needs.”

      For some perhaps. There are also the folks who were miserable being forced to work daily in an office (yes “forced” as WFH was never a real option and generally one has to earn to survive). The folks for whom “The Office” and “Office Space” were practically documentaries. People whom given the opportunity would jump at a lucrative career as a lighthouse keeper if such a thing existed (e.g. remove the money factor). The best most of those folks can get, if they are VERY lucky, is to work just long enough to find a spouse that can support them and then gleefully leave the misery of the office forever. Or win the lottery. Or inherent a lifetime of monies. I know few people whom would continue to work their jobs if they had other means.

    1. My friend let me use his garage to install my lift kit. Was supposed to take a week. It took five. His wife was nice about it. Hell, she was even nice about picking me up when the Jeep broke down in the dead of winter in a McDonalds parking lot when she was seven months pregnant. I still feel guilty about that.

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