GM delays return-to-office mandate after employee backlash

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks to reporters while she waits for the arrival of President Joe Biden at media day of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, September 14, 2022.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters

DETROIT – General Motors is conducting damage control around its return-to-office plans after a Friday afternoon message to employees spurred backlash and confusion.

The company’s senior leadership team on Friday said corporate workers would be required to return to physical locations at least three days a week, beginning later this year, in what the company called an evolution of its current remote work policies.

On Tuesday, a second message walked back that timing and clarified the company won’t be mandating specific in-office days, instead leaving that decision to individual teams.

“Our plan was always, and still is, collaboratively design the solution that best balances the needs of the enterprise with the needs of each of you,” read the memo, which was signed by CEO Mary Barra and other executives, a copy of which was viewed by CNBC.

The follow-up message says no workers will be required to return to offices sooner than the first quarter of next year.

“While we have maintained a highly collaborative culture over the past two years during a very challenging time, the intangible benefits of in person collaboration are going to be a critical success factor as we move into a period of rapid launches,” the Tuesday message said. “This evolution is about being ready for the next phase of our transformation.”

A GM spokesperson confirmed the authenticity of the message, saying it sought to “provide more clarity to help answer some of the questions and concerns that we’ve been receiving.” She said the timing of the return-to-office has shifted, but “the overall plan has not really changed.”

Both messages are a stark change from the automaker’s flexible “work appropriately” rules that were announced by Barra and lauded by the company in April 2021. GM described it as a flexible, evolving policy that will differ depending on the employee, week and project.

GM on Tuesday apologized for the timing of the original message and its vagueness. Leaders said the earlier communication was sent out after some information about the company’s plan was prematurely shared with some departments.

“We elected to communicate enterprise wide before we had the opportunity to collaborate more broadly on the implementation plan. We believe the benefits of being transparent — even with suboptimal timing and partial details — outweighed the risk of creating mistrust by having you hear the information second hand,” the Tuesday message reads.

GM said it will communicate more information at the end of next month, as the company intends to spend the “next few weeks continuing to listen to your feedback so that we incorporate it into our implementation plans.”

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