Back to business, but not as usual, in the D

It’s no secret that COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the working world in 2020 as companies of all sizes closed their doors or moved online, with many laying off workers as a result.

The impact of those measures was felt across the globe. In the Detroit region, total job numbers decreased 4.6% in 2020, according to the Detroit Regional Chamber’s State of the Region 2021 report, with private-sector jobs down by 10%.

This fall, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Detroit and new variants raise fresh concerns about the virus, though, some workers and employers are feeling as if they’re experiencing deja vu as they struggle to make important decisions about health and safety.

As employers around the nation delay plans to reopen offices this season, Model D checked in with two of the region’s key industries to find out where Detroiters stand in the second year of COVID-19, and how workplaces are adapting.

Larry Angeli, CEO of Detroit-based tech company Sift, has seen success with providing flexibility for his employees during COVID-19 changes to the workplace. Photo: Nick Hagen.

Tech Sector Prioritizing Choices

In a local industry that prides itself on innovation, Detroit’s technology sector is focused on prioritizing flexibility for workers. For many companies, this means continuing to offer remote and hybrid work options amid the ongoing pandemic, allowing employees to make choices based on their individual needs and comfort levels.

“I think what we’ve all learned during this era is that the old way of doing things is no longer working. You need to provide a level of flexibility for your employees or team members that really works for them," says Larry Angeli, CEO of Sift, a Detroit-based tech company that provides a platform for businesses and organizations centered around increasing employee engagement, productivity, and collaboration.

As companies around the globe scrambled to move their business online last year in response to the pandemic, Angeli got a front-row view of how important flexibility is for staff while working with Sift clients while also bringing five of the company’s 15 employees on board during that time.

When hiring remotely, Angeli says many companies face a common challenge of making sure new employees feel welcome. He says offering flexibility, tools, and support for new hires can help ensure every employee’s needs are met.

“We’ve worked really hard on making sure that everyone feels included, no matter whether they’re in the office sometimes, all the time, or none of the time,” Angeli says, noting that Sift now has team members that are in the office full-time, part-time, and never — depending on the responsibilities of each one’s role as well as their personal preferences. 

Although Angeli says every organization is different, he believes productivity shouldn’t be a concern for employers overall when considering offering staff flexible work options.

“What we’ve learned during this pandemic is that people can be just as, if not more, productive given all those other variables, like culture and engagement, are there,” Angeli says.

Arabia Simeon, who joined Sift as a project manager a little over a month ago as part of a two-year fellowship through Venture for America, an organization that partners recent college graduates with startups around the U.S., agrees with Angeli’s stance on the benefits of offering flexibility to workers.

Simeon, who moved to Detroit from New York to work at Sift because it “felt like the right fit,” says the freedom and choices offered by the company were a key part of why she chose to accept the role.

“Coming through the pandemic, the first thing I was thinking about was working at a job where I could have flexibility — and Sift provides that,” Simeon says. “Most of us work from home some portion of the week. Most [Sift employees] work two to three days at home. … Sift itself is about hybrid work, and they really put their money where their mouth is.”

Rather than micromanaging staff, Simeon says management at Sift has chosen to focus on making sure employees are able to complete their work while balancing other personal challenges amid the pandemic. 

Although she’s still young and has no children, Simeon says it’s been “heartwarming” to watch older colleagues have the flexibility to care for their children and families while maintaining their roles at the company.

Despite offering the option for workers to continue working remotely, Simeon and Angeli each point out that most of the company’s local staff has chosen to come into the office at least a couple of days a week to collaborate with colleagues while adhering to COVID-19 public health guidelines.

“Human interaction is still the heart of any business, and it’s the heart of how we are as human beings. So, I think hybrid work is definitely the order of the day,” Angeli says. “I think companies that focus on it and are really thoughtful about it will get it right and have the opportunity to come out of [the pandemic] better, stronger, and with more engaged team members.”

Photo: David Lewinski

Practical Solutions in the Motor City

As one of Detroit’s key industries for over a century, the automotive sector took a hit last year in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. As cases in Detroit and elsewhere soared early on, North American auto manufacturing came to a temporary standstill in the spring of 2020 when automakers closed factories, furloughed workers, and even pivoted to manufacturing face shields, masks and ventilators instead of vehicles amid critical personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages.

“Our members have come together to protect each other and the public [amid the pandemic],” Ray Curry, president of the United Auto Workers union (UAW), told Model D. “We are proud of the members that stepped up to make PPE even before there was a vaccine. To put yourself at risk to save others — that is a proud moment for all of the UAW.”

After auto plants began to reopen last May, safety protocols and preventive measures to stop the spread of the virus took center stage in hopes of curtailing future outbreaks at manufacturing facilities and preventing additional furloughs and layoffs.

“The UAW, early on, began working with all of our employers including the Detroit Three auto companies and auto suppliers, agriculture implement manufacturers, heavy truck manufacturers, as well as technical office and profession employers to institute safety protocols in our plants and workplaces, and continues to do so,” Curry says. “We continue a strong program of encouraging vaccination, following appropriate protocols, and policies that encourage those that are exposed to the virus to take appropriate precautions.”

As the city moves into its second year of the pandemic, though, Curry says local autoworkers are enduring uncomfortable working conditions while continuing to grapple with ongoing worries about contracting COVID-19.

“No one wants to sit at home, so it was difficult for many members during the shutdown [last year],” Curry says. “Now it is the inconvenience of wearing a mask in a hot environment and following protocols to clean stations. It’s an inconvenience and uncomfortable, but a necessary action.”

To mitigate the ongoing health risks that local autoworkers face in the workplace, Curry says the union is advocating for practical health and safety protocols to help keep local autoworkers safer on the job.

“We continue to aggressively encourage vaccination unless you have a health or religious reason not to be vaccinated,” Curry says. “We also strongly encourage self-reporting and fight for policies that encourage and [don’t] penalize self-reporting, quarantine and testing. These are the key things that keep us all safe.”
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Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.