Boeing's Plan to Make 737 Engineers Return to Office Earns Both Scorn and Praise

July 18, 2022

Jul. 16—Boeing's latest back-to-office move — this time for its backlogged 737 operation — is getting a now-familiar pushback from affected workers, but also some grudging praise from at least one industry expert.

On Wednesday, Jason Clark, vice president for fabrication and supply chain engineering, told 737 program engineers who are fully or partly remote to be ready to return to their Renton offices four days a week, according to employees who attended the online meeting.

The policy will be formally announced in a subsequent email as early as next week, attendees said they were told, and could affect up to a few thousand Seattle-area employees, according to the engineer's union, Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

"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," according to the statement, which Boeing also provided June 25 after reports that procurement workers would also be required to be in-office.

But several engineers who attended the Wednesday meeting said Clark gave scant justification for the end of the current remote-work policy, which they said allows teams to set individual workplace schedules based on project needs.

They said Clark offered no data to show remote workers were less productive or were contributing to production or delivery delays. Clark "even acknowledged that he didn't know of any data that supports that," said a midcareer 737 engineer who attended Wednesday's meeting and who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job.

Instead, the new 737 in-office policy seemed focused on reviving Boeing's office-based work culture and sending a signal to worried customers that the aerospace giant is committed to fixing production and delivery problems, several attendees said.

Clark told engineers that customers who visited Boeing's facilities were put off by the absence of engineers, attendees said.

Clark told attendees some visiting airline executives "weren't happy ... seeing empty engineering sections," said another midcareer engineer who was at Wednesday's meeting.

Several attendees asked Clark whether the benefits of in-office culture and better customer image "outweighed the potential for losing people, and he straight up said 'yes' — just flat 'yes,'" one attendee said.

A Boeing spokesperson was unable to confirm whether Clark made those statements and didn't comment on whether they would have reflected company policy.

Tensions over the future of remote work at Boeing echo those at many other organizations as employers and workers contest the shape of the office job after more than two years of pandemic adaptation.

Many tech firms have slowed their back-to-office plans, in part to avoid the loss of high-skilled employees who prefer remote work to long commutes and office distractions. Even local governments like the city of Seattle are struggling to persuade employees to give up remote work.

In the case of Boeing, however, at least one industry expert thinks the company is right to pull some engineers back to the office.

Richard Aboulafia, a veteran industry analyst and managing director at AeroDynamic Advisory, said while there isn't a single workplace prescription for all companies or job types, at companies like Boeing and in roles like product development or aircraft certification, "it's absolutely essential to have that team in the workplace."

Aboulafia also agreed that for Boeing, which is struggling to regain some customers' confidence, a dispersed engineering team "isn't a great look." Although the pandemic is far from over, "things have been getting better and customers want to see in an [original equipment manufacturer] that's fully engaged," Aboulafia said.

Still, Aboulafia, who has sharply criticized Boeing management, said he sympathizes with company engineers who aren't hearing a compelling argument for an office-based team culture due to "the complete absence of leadership in terms of the company's future."

"If you really had a message from the top, that was, 'We're going to dominate this industry again [and] here's how we're going to do it.' ... It would inspire people to get together and share ideas," Aboulafia said.

Lacking that, he added, "Yeah, I'd kind of want to stay home and be closer to my coffee machine, too."


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