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Thousands of salaried Ford Motor Co. employees may have the option to continue working at home through the end of the year.

The Dearborn automaker said Wednesday it will begin surveying some 30,000 U.S. employees who are working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic to learn their preferences about returning to the workplace. The company says it will use the responses to rethink the way employees whose jobs are not place-dependent can do their work going forward.

"We're going to learn a ton between September and December," Kiersten Robinson, Ford's chief human resources officer, told The Detroit News. "I do anticipate we will have some employees who would like to continue to work from home indefinitely." 

The automaker had previously targeted an early July return to the office for salaried workers, and more recently said those employees would not return until at least September.

Prior to the pandemic, which prompted Detroit's automakers to shut down production near the end of March, only about 1,000 Ford employees around the world worked from home. That number surged to approximately 115,000 when the pandemic hit.

To date, Ford has sent some 100,000 employees back to its facilities around the world, including both manufacturing workers and about 12,000 non-manufacturing employees whose jobs — such as product development and information technology — require them to be on-site. The automaker began a phased restart of its North American operations May 18; executives said last week they hope to be back to full production levels in North America by early July.

The survey will ask remote employees whether they would prefer to return to the workplace; take a blended approach that allows them to alternate between remote work and coming into the office; or work remotely on a permanent basis.

Whether employees who wish to work remotely full-time will be allowed to do so will be determined based on conversations between the employee and their supervisor, Robinson said.

Based on responses to weekly polls of employees who are working remotely, the Blue Oval quickly learned to simplify various aspects of work, she said, including the process employees must go through to be approved for remote work. 

Now, "it's basically four bullet points," Robinson said. "We've been able to completely streamline that whole experience for employees, in terms of the policy — and we hope that will translate into the practice."

If and when salaried employees do come back to Ford facilities, they will return to redesigned workplaces. Robinson said another goal of the survey is to determine how to modify facilities to promote safety, and how to think through issues such as scheduling. Employees can also indicate in the survey whether they need additional technology or resources to support remote work.

The return to work for manufacturing employees has had a few hiccups. Production has been temporarily halted at a handful of plants and assembly lines because employees tested positive for the virus. Some local union leaders have argued the company isn't doing enough to protect workers.

Employees working in Ford facilities are required to follow health and safety protocols that include daily temperature checks and required face-mask use.

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

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