The car industry is undergoing a period of monumental change, accelerated by the disruption of the pandemic. Surinder Birdi, HR director for manufacturing and employee relations for Ford of Britain, spoke to Personnel Today about the challenges and opportunities this brings.
Recognising diversity and inclusion sits at the heart of Ford of Britain’s DNA. After all, it was its Dagenham plant in 1968 that hosted that landmark equal pay strike by female machinists, an event that would ultimately lead to the Equal Pay Act.
That doesn’t mean the car manufacturer can rest on its laurels, however. It sits in a highly disrupted industry, slowly progressing from petrol powered to electric and hybrid cars, meaning it needs to attract and retain a new generation of eco-conscious employees.
But in Glassdoor’s recently released UK employer rankings, it was the only car manufacturer in the top 50 employers, placing it as the best place to work in the automotive industry.
To gain external recognition of a positive work culture was important to HR director Surinder Birdi. “The comments included things like we were a collaborative environment, that we were people-centred, that it was a great place to work,” he says.
Moving to hybrid work
“This is not like getting feedback in an internal survey, this is from employees and ex-staff who don’t need to give that feedback, so it’s a real point of pride.”
New ways of work
As with most major employers, the pandemic forced Ford to rethink how – and crucially where – work takes place. One of the challenges at the start of the pandemic was how to ensure the safety of place-dependent workers (in factories) on the one hand, and manage the shift to remote working for those who could work from home.
“We’re a trusted brand so it was crucial for us to think of safety first during the pandemic and do things in the right way,” Birdi adds. “But we also had to think about, when people work remotely or now in a more hybrid way, how do we sustain connections with them? We wanted to drive down bureaucracy and free people up to make decisions, but those connections are really important.”
Birdi describes the “family feel” of the company, which made it easier to build a sense of belonging amid the disruption of the Covid crisis. “This is a muscle we already have as it’s part of our company ethos, which makes it easy to tap into,” he adds.
The diversity and inclusion agenda came to the fore during the pandemic, with the focus on ensuring all employees could connect either physically or remotely, and that managers were equipped to understand the pressures of new ways of working.
Leaders at Ford have diversity objectives built into their performance expectations, which increases accountability, according to Birdi. “We’re expected to drive that forward, it’s a personal responsibility, with leaders actively involved and pushing it,” he says.
“This helps us to cascade through the organisation – it’s more than just words on paper.” The company keeps track of employees’ sense of engagement through regular pulse surveys and recently completed a global D&I survey.
We’re expected to drive [D&I] forward, it’s a personal responsibility, with leaders actively involved and pushing it.”
With Ford’s products available globally, the company is used to the concept of employees being able to work from anywhere, so the opportunities afforded by hybrid working are not new, he adds. There are country-specific HR teams that operate on a business-partner style basis and report into a larger European HR function.
“We’ve always understood the power of working globally, especially across European markets,” says Birdi. “The UK is the home of the Transit van but it’s sold globally, so we need to connect with other markets to design a vehicle that works for their needs. We just have more opportunities to collaborate across a bigger space now. Hybrid gives us more tools for successful collaborative working.”
The move towards electrification in the automotive industry is both cause for optimism and a challenge, he explains.
“Sustainability is really important to Ford, and new workers are looking to connect with a company that aligns with their own values. The new skills we need in developing software, hardware and analytics have given us the opportunity to embrace a new future and bring in new people,” he says. “Disruption helps us as it introduces new ways of thinking.”
Keeping on top of the talent pipeline for electrification may not come as easy, however. The Institute of the Motor Industry predicts the UK will need 90,000 technicians to provide a sufficient workforce to meet the government’s plans to ban sales of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030.
“We’re looking at people who are in different industries as there are lots of connected services. We have a strong brand and we’re creating a hybrid environment that will allow employees to take a blended approach to how they work.”
The recent Glassdoor recognition will hopefully oil the wheels when it comes to attracting talent. “It says we’re on the right journey, even if we’re not there yet,” Birdi concludes.