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Boeing wants more workers in the office to ramp up production

An Icelandair 737 taxis outside Boeing's Seattle Delivery Center at Boeing Field this month.  (Tribune News Service )
By Paul Roberts Seattle Times

Boeing has ordered some of its remote workforce back to the office to help the company ramp up production and fix supply-chain problems.

But like many employers navigating the pandemic as it winds down, the aerospace giant is getting pushback from workers who resent giving up their “home” offices when other colleagues don’t have to.

Employees in Boeing’s parts-procurement operations who are still working fully or partly remotely learned last week that most will be required to be in the office full time starting in July, Boeing confirmed Saturday.

The company declined to say how many workers are affected by the directive, which was announced internally last Monday by Brian Baird, vice president of supply chain.

The back-to-office move, which comes after two-plus years of remote work for thousands of Boeing workers, is needed to support stepped-up production at a time when Boeing is facing parts-related delays, company officials said.

“As we’ve ramped up, we learned that the need to get back into the office to support the airplane is becoming increasingly important,” Stan Deal, Boeing executive vice president and head of commercial airplanes operations, told employees in an internal company video posted Tuesday and shared with the Seattle Times.

“Minutes and seconds count in response time to help satisfy our customer on issues that are getting in the way of delivery,” Deal said.

Boeing wouldn’t say when or whether other areas in the company will require remote or hybrid workers to spend more time in the office.

In a statement Saturday, Boeing said back-to-office decisions are left to individual business units. But the statement emphasized that Boeing values “face-to-face collaboration” and said the push for more in-person work will continue.

“As we increase production rates, hire thousands of new employees and continue our airplane development work, it’s beneficial to have teams in the office more often to support our customer commitments and collaborate in person, including sharing best practices and responding promptly to emergent needs,” said the statement.

Boeing also didn’t say what fraction of its Puget Sound-area workforce, which was nearly 56,000 as of Jan. 1, currently works remotely or partly remotely.

A little under half of those employees have been working in-person in Boeing manufacturing facilities for most of the pandemic, according to the workers union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which currently counts roughly 26,000 members in its local chapter.

But around half of Boeing’s 14,500 engineers and tech workers are still working remotely most of the time, said Bill Dugovich, spokesperson for their union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

Although Dugovich has heard that some engineers are being called back in, he said there hasn’t yet been a broad back-to-office push.

“There’s been a lot of talk about people coming back into the workplace, but so far, it doesn’t seem to have materialized,” Dugovich said.

Some workers in procurement operations said Monday’s back-to-office directive was an unwelcome surprise.

One indicated that they and many of their colleagues were still working at home two or three days a week and opposed being back in the office full time.

Another predicted the back-to-office policy would lead them and colleagues to consider leaving for other, more flexible companies or even retiring early.

“I would be looking for other jobs elsewhere,” said one employee at the company’s Everett procurement operations who now works mostly from home.

The employee, who asked not to be identified to protect their job, also said Baird’s back-to-office directive clashed with the message of workplace flexibility that other Boeing executives have pushed in recent weeks.

During a companywide “all hands” meeting June 14, CEO Dave Calhoun talked up the “massive benefits” of in-person work, but also stressed that giving employees some workplace flexibility amounted to a “huge benefit – I wish I had that life when I was coming up. I don’t want to take it away from them.”

Calhoun also acknowledged that the pandemic has “taught us all, especially us old-timers, that people can work virtually, they can be remarkably productive … in some ways more productive than coming to the office.”

All told, the company’s virtual work policy seems “very conflicted,” one procurement employee said, adding that they hoped employees’ “negative feedback” might lead the company to walk back the new in-office directive.

Whether such sentiments are widespread is hard to discern.

One longtime Seattle-area Boeing employee who is still allowed to work from home several days a week said losing that flexibility would be hard.

After more than two years, many see even part-time remote work as an important job benefit, “especially around here with the way commutes are,” the worker said.

Boeing seems aware that its remote-work policies could create tensions just as the company is scrambling to beef up its ranks.

In the same June 14 meeting, Calhoun acknowledged a key challenge in competing for talent was whether “some of our competitors [are] more accommodative than others” on virtual work.

“Embracing virtual” work, Calhoun added, is an “opportunity for the Boeing company to do this right.”

Boeing isn’t the only company trying to get its virtual work policy right.

Last week, Microsoft, which has probably studied the back-to-office challenge as carefully as any organization, acknowledged it might not hit its own goal of 50% in-office work until early next year.