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ECONOMY | 07-06-2023 18:27

Flexibility in the office and the factory: five minutes with Volkswagen’s North America CEO

Argentine executive Pablo Di Si, who’s been with the German car maker for nearly a decade in various leadership roles, wants to improve the employee experience at Volkswagen for both white-collar and frontline workers.

Pablo Di Si played football in his native Argentina before coming to the United States at age 17 on a college scholarship. His position: defensive midfielder, or, in his words, “the one who doesn’t allow the ball to go through.” As CEO and president of Volkswagen Group of America, Di Si, 53, has now shifted to playing offence, leading the company’s push to double its share of the electric-vehicle market in the US. He’s also looking to boost women in management roles to 30 percent by 2030 (it’s at 26 percent now), and improve the job experience for factory workers at its non-unionised plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Even as companies increasingly call their workers back to the office, employees want to keep at least some of the flexibility they came to value over the past few years. The balancing act can be particularly tricky for companies like Volkswagen which have a mix of workers who can and cannot do their job remotely — a disparity that led Tesla Inc chief Elon Musk to call working from home “morally wrong.”

Work Shift spoke with Di Si in New York about the importance of vacation time for frontline workers, attracting and retaining talent and how corporate leaders should address hot-button issues.

 

What are you doing to improve flexibility for both your white collar workers and your factory workers?

This is an area that I put a lot of emphasis on because it’s about the culture of the company. Flexibility is a key part of that equation. We’ve established a two-day per week, flexible in-office schedule for white collar workers. There is one anchor day when teams all agree to be onsite — Wednesday — and then people can choose the other day to come in. We're learning as we go. Before this, we were 100 percent remote. It's very hard to be in an automotive company and do it all from Zoom.

 

And for frontline workers?

When we discuss this with employees, one issue we hear is vacation time. It's pretty normal at factories to establish collective vacation, when you shut down the entire factory for two weeks. But then you're stuck with that particular two weeks for your vacation. So, flexibility within the vacation is critical. But that creates problems also because you need to start rotating the shifts. Sometimes depending on the market, you're better off just shutting down the entire site for two weeks. But if the market is growing, as it is today, you don’t.

 

With unemployment at 3.3 percent in Tennessee, how are you attracting workers to your operations?

Last year we opened a third shift in Chattanooga, with 1,400 jobs. You know how many applicants applied? More than 14,000. You do retention bonuses, sign-on bonuses. But we also try to make the job more experiential. We may have food trucks or sports cars out in the lobby — remember we own Bentley and Lamborghini.

 

What about mid-career workers? What are you doing to retain them?

The number one issue that any company has is career planning: People leave if they don't see a future. We typically lose people in middle management because other companies offer them more pay. The way to retain them is to keep them engaged in projects, in conversations about having a clear future. This is not only a corporate policy or a mandate. It needs to come from all of us.

 

As a CEO, do you feel more pressure from employees nowadays to speak out on hot-button issues, like the recent school shooting in Tennessee?

Obviously, we need to respect the people of Tennessee. But that doesn't mean that we need to agree on every single topic. We are going to show very visibly to our communities that we stand with them and we're not going to be bullied around by various conversations in social media. For example, we made very clear to state officials that we're not going to allow guns into our factories.

 

So employees go through metal detectors in your Chattanooga plant?

Yes. We added those in the last year. 

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