GM rehabs Tech Center, halfway to new hire goal

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News
Design release engineers Lu Wang of Lake Orion and Greg Smith of Chesterfield Township work on computers in the Pre-Production Operations North facility.

Warren — Inside General Motors Co.’s new Service Engineering Building — one of the first spaces renovated in a $1 billion transformation at the company’s Tech Center — you don’t find any “cubicle farms.”

Instead you see open spaces, lots of light, workers seated at long tables or at standing-height tables or gathered with a colleague, sitting in lounge chairs. You might see a worker walking on a treadmill while making a phone call in a quiet room, or an employee filling up a mug of free coffee or grabbing a healthy snack.

“Moving the equipment around doesn’t change the culture,” said Ken Kelzer, vice president of global vehicle components and subsystems for the carmaker, and an executive overseeing the Tech Center’s transformation project. “But what it does is, it changes the behavior of how people operate.”

It’s been 13 months since GM announced a $1 billion plan to expand and renovate its global technical center, some of which dates to the 1950s. The company through 2018 plans to overhaul some 6.2 million square feet of building space at the large complex on Van Dyke Avenue that employs about 21,000. The work will and remove walls, signs of GM’s efforts to create a culture of collaboration and efficiency.

GM says it has open office workforce transformation projects underway at its Milford Proving Ground, Pontiac Powertrain campus, its headquarters in the Renaissance Center in Detroit and other locations globally.

“We believe we are at the leading edge of workspace transformation in the auto industry and paved the way for others like Ford to follow our lead,” GM spokesman David Darovitz said in an email.

In April, Ford Motor Co. announced a massive renovation project to transform the Dearborn automaker’s design and product facilities. Work began this spring and will take 10 years to complete. Ford has also said the project is aimed to help recruit top automotive talent, as carmakers are increasingly competing with Silicon Valley firms.

Architect SmithGroup JJR, which has done open office campus work for companies such as eBay Inc., is working on GM’s and Ford’s campus transformations.

Driving much of GM’s upgrades are industry changes, Kelzer explains. GM and other automakers must meet new and more stringent carbon dioxide emissions and federal fuel economy requirements. Those changes are driving more lightweight engines and alternative propulsion systems at a time when the industry is also evolving with development of self-driving cars and services such as car sharing and ride hailing.

The company is renovating offices on the more than 300-acre campus into modern, collective work spaces. It is expanding some locations such as its Alternative Energy Center as the company increases employees and the company focuses on alternative powertrains, autonomous technology, connected vehicles and infotainment, Kelzer said.

GM grows autonomous team, builds test track in Warren

‘Sense of community’

Mechanical systems engineer Melinda Gray works in the Service Engineering Building, a closed building GM converted to house the global facilities group. The team of about 180 workers formerly was housed in an engineering building on three levels, sitting in cubicles. Now, she said, her neighbor can change day to day, and she is meeting different colleagues.

“I do feel a new sense of community that I didn’t truly expect or anticipate,” said Gray, who has worked for GM nearly 16 years.

Her favorite part of the change is “having the accessibility of the different levels of management.” And with the cube walls gone, people are learning more about each other and each other’s jobs, Gray said. “It opens opportunity for individuals to have conversations,” she said.

GM has completed five projects, including the Service Engineering Building and a new autonomous test track, and is working on several more, including a new 750-space parking deck, expansion of the Pre-Production Operations North building for prototype vehicles and renovation at the Research and Development Building. A new building for information technology also is planned.

Bricklayer Darin Aguinaga of Warren is working on the expansion of the pre-production facility at the Tech Center in Warren.

Next month, GM plans to start building a new design center, which is “going to be the flagship piece of the campus,” said Candice Messing, program manager for the Tech Center transformation project.

GM is also on a hiring spree and has added more than 1,400 of the 2,600 new workers it promised as part of the Tech Center transformation announced in May 2015, Kelzer said. Jobs have been added in engineering and information technology.

The renovation and expansion is needed to attract top talent in a competitive auto industry, GM says.

“If you walk through the halls of General Motors now, sitting in the cubes, I’m not sure it’s indicative of the high-tech labs (and) facility that we’re looking for,” Kelzer said.

Before the move, employees were concerned about germs and whether it would be too noisy, Gray said. Gray found it’s pretty quiet, there are sanitizing wipe stations to clean spaces and meeting rooms can be scheduled. Part of the day, Gray says, she uses a quiet focus room, plus private rooms for phone calls.

Estimates say about 70 percent of all office workers at companies across the nation are housed in open environments. While supporters tout the increased ease at collaborating, some studies have found workers in open offices lose focus due to disruptions, which can hurt productivity, and also have a lack of privacy. Others have also found that open concepts lead to increased use of sick time.

Worker input sought

Kelzer said GM is seeking worker input on designs, has been flexible on layouts and is taking employee feedback and fixing things as they go. Many of the work stations are height adjustable, power outlets are at working levels and employees have lockers. In renovated Pre-Production Operations space, seating options include booths with TVs and cube-like collaborative seating areas.

GM is trying to showcase its roots as a car company in its new building design. For example, it created a table with an engine block, and a wall of deconstructed tires is a feature in the Service Engineering Building’s cafe.

So far, 750 employees have moved into new spaces, company officials said. To help with the renovations, the company bought the former Campbell-Ewald building and another building near 13 Mile and Mound to house employees while work goes on in buildings at the Tech Center.

Gray said the change has helped spur ideas she doesn’t think would have been formed in the old space; until the move, she didn’t realize how the old environment wasn’t optimal for collaboration.

“Honestly, when I wake up in the morning I’m excited to come to work,” she said, adding starting the day with a free latte is a good beginning.

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Tech Center project

What: $1 billion renovation and expansion project of facility that houses about 21,000 employees and contractors.

Where: Global Technical Center in Warren, bounded by Chicago to the north, 12 Mile to the south, Van Dyke Avenue to the east and Mound Road to west.

When: Started last year and continues through 2018.

Work: Renovations, construction, expansions and teardowns.

Source: General Motors Co., Detroit News research