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

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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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