General Motors Disrupts the Assembly Line

As General Motors undergoes a technology-based transformation, Dane Parker finds himself at the center of bringing employees and their ideas together—throughout the world

As forward-thinking as General Motors’ new facilities in southeastern Michigan, Brazil, Mexico City, and Singapore are, Dane Parker says he can’t help but believe there’s an obvious link to the past.

“When I look at old pictures of our technology center, I see engineers, designers, and others in the same room, working on plans together, working on models in the same space they were doing engineering calculations,” says Parker, GM’s executive director of global facilities. “With the advent of the personal computer and the phone, we in some ways became tied to a desk or a space. In the drive for efficiency, work got broken up into little pieces that were then divvied out amongst various cubicles. We treated work almost like we treated an assembly line.”

Given that he works for one of the most prominent automotive manufacturers in the world, the analogy isn’t lost on Parker. Still, he says he relished the opportunity to actively encourage collaboration and engagement among employees when he assumed his role with GM in 2015. Previously, Parker worked as vice president of global real estate and facilities for Dell, where he also actively strove to foster more collaboration and interaction among employees through workplace designs.

Although it’s thought of as an automotive business, Parker says GM is a technology-based company, so the skills and knowledge he could bring into his new role were already well-established. However, he asserts that there are some considerations for desk space and collaboration space that need to be considered at GM.

Don’t Fear the Open

Dane Parker on getting over the stigma attached to the open office:

“I think what this trend is unlocking is that natural capacity we have to get together and create better things than we create on our own. You still have the choice to go work by yourself when you need to and find a quiet space when you need to. There’s a misconception when people think of open offices—they have those horror-story images of loud noise and disruptions. Well-designed open offices aren’t that. They provide the choices employees need. I think we have figured this out in many places and we understand it. For some reason, we just haven’t translated it to work in the last 40 years, and we’re just now catching up in our work environment.”

“There’s a large percentage of engineers and designers here, and there are hardware requirements that come with that,” he says. “A lot of times, employees have prototype parts and things scattered all over their desks. We needed to make sure we factored in the right amount of space for them to work on parts and engage together on those kinds of projects, as well as the kind of individual focus work they do as engineers and designers.”

Beyond providing flexible desk space, Parker and his team also worked to implement a more focused approach to employee wellness at GM. The facilities in southeast Michigan, Brazil, Mexico City, and Singapore boast variable-height work stations, standing tables in meeting rooms, walking treadmills, and more accessibility to natural light.

“At many of our other spaces—especially if you were under six feet tall—you never saw out the window,” he says.

There’s also a concerted effort to introduce more identity into the new GM facilities, which Parker says is achieved through ensuring that the workplace is more colorful and open. He says one of the goals was to promote a feeling of safety that transcended personal space as well as security. One way to achieve that was to bring in Detroit-based design firm dPOP to imagine custom wall coverings and 3-D art installations that celebrate the work and culture of GM.

“We want places that make you feel comfortable in sharing your ideas, expressing your opinions, and contributing to the conversation,” he says.

The early responses to these changes have been encouraging, and Parker says that means even more, considering his role is to appeal to a “bimodal” workforce that includes seasoned employees as well as millennials. Sometimes, finding that middle ground isn’t easy when you have two distinct generations of workers trying to embrace change. But he says listening to the thoughts and opinions of those team members early in the process helped guide a transition that engendered
positive feedback.

It’s a testament to this approach that it’s not only playing out well at several facilities in the United States, but at multiple sites around the world. As GM becomes more involved with autonomous vehicles, data connections with its customers through its vehicles, and alternative propulsion systems such as fuel-cell systems and electric vehicles, the changes are forcing the company to reflect differently about its identity in different demographics. There are nuances that help the evolution of this identity. Parker notes that for the Brazil facility, the president relocated from his own office in a corporate high-rise building to work with the company’s teams in the engineering facility, which was a distinct change in company culture. But as with the cosmetic changes around the office, the identity changes are also being embraced.

“We have to be growing in a new way,” Parker says. “Our business of the future has to be developed differently than the past. I think these projects are a critical element of our success on that front.”

It’s also the sort of change that Parker enjoys watching up close. Despite a career steeped in computers and technology, he says he loves visiting GM manufacturing plants and watching sheet metal make its way into a fully formed automobile that rolls off the assembly line. It’s no surprise then that, given the components, Parker is actualizing the same transformation in the office.

“I feel like this job is about enabling the capacity of people—often untapped capacity either as individuals or organizations,” he says. “I love being able to play a role in this transformation, building what I think is part of the foundation for our future success and enabling change in employee engagement and optimizing creativity. That’s just really rewarding.”