AILSA CHANG, HOST:
During the pandemic, a new divide has emerged between those who have to show up to work and those who can log in to Zoom. Now, companies are looking ahead to life after the pandemic. And as NPR's Camila Domonoske reports, this split may be here to stay.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Before the pandemic, nearly all American workers commuted. By luxury car or jalopy, by bicycle or bus to a factory or an office or a studio, the vast majority of us had to physically show up for work. Then came the pandemic.
KIERSTEN ROBINSON: So in 24 hours, we went from less than 1,000 employees working remotely to around 80,000.
DOMONOSKE: Kiersten Robinson is the chief people officer at Ford Motor Company. And it turns out, a lot of the work of making cars - like designing, engineering and marketing - can be done from home.
ROBINSON: So how quickly we were able to pivot and adjust to remote work really surprised me. I would never have anticipated that.
DOMONOSKE: Of course, one place where it's impossible to make that pivot is a factory floor.
MARCIE PEDRAZA: Cars have got to be built. You got to do that in person.
DOMONOSKE: Marcie Pedraza is an electrician at a Ford plant in Chicago. And last month, when Ford announced it would make remote work a permanent option, she had one reaction.
PEDRAZA: I remember reading about that, and I thought, oh, must be nice for them.
DOMONOSKE: Pedraza says that, actually, some of her work could be done remotely. She handles a lot of paperwork. And as a single parent, she'd love that flexibility. She's always juggling child care. But her boss said hourly workers weren't eligible.
PEDRAZA: So we don't have those same, I guess...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).
PEDRAZA: ...Wait, hold on - the same luxuries as the salaried do.
DOMONOSKE: Not everyone loves working from home, but having the option really is a luxury. And it can be life-transforming. Henry Ford famously transformed factories with his moving assembly line, and the rise of the automobile reshaped American cities and our commutes. Now, Ford and rival GM are leaning in to this new remote work revolution. But unlike, say, tech companies, they have a huge pool of workers who have to show up in person. Robinson, Ford's head of HR, says the company is trying to think of what they can offer so the work experience is improved for all employees. Maybe new onsite amenities?
ROBINSON: And when you finish your shift, what if, rather than having to do a stop at the grocery store to pick up food for your family, we had food available that you could preorder a meal to take home to your family.
DOMONOSKE: Brett Fox is with the United Auto Worker's union. He has some ideas for everyday improvements at plants.
BRETT FOX: The air conditioning would help out a lot.
DOMONOSKE: Factory floors get hot in the summer. In general, he says, this could be an opening to negotiate over benefits that auto companies have balked at before, ways to make plant work safer or just better.
FOX: I definitely see that being the opportunity for us, you know, going to the companies and saying, hey, you're allowing your salary groups to work from home. Obviously, our members cannot work from home, so we need to do everything we can.
DOMONOSKE: Of course, huge differences between office work and factory work are nothing new. The divide is as old as offices and factories, but it was amplified by the pandemic and not just at auto plants.
ZARA INGILIZIAN: Retail workers, hospitality workers, basically frontline workers - those who are traditionally more vulnerable have really suffered the most.
DOMONOSKE: Zara Ingilizian is the head of consumer industries at the World Economic Forum. And she says there are ways to address this inequity - from making workplaces safer to giving workers more chances for career growth. And she points out there are jobs we all assume have to be done in person where that won't always be the case.
INGILIZIAN: At some point, maybe there's an - you don't need a - the train operator can run the train from their home. I don't know (laughter). Maybe that's possible, but I think it will take some time.
DOMONOSKE: Companies clearly underestimated how many jobs could be done from home, and Ingilizian argues they're still underestimating how many workers could benefit from more flexible working conditions. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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