The coronavirus pandemic forced a reexamination of workplace culture both broadly and within automotive retailing, and many dealerships — particularly those honored through the 2022 Best Dealerships To Work For program — are still exploring ways to improve their work environments for the long term.
Stores up and down the Best Dealerships To Work For list have kept in place at least some of the strategies they added or strengthened in the last two and a half years to accommodate the work-life challenges employees were facing. Some dealership leaders stressed to Automotive News the importance of continuing to offer flexible schedules, improved pay and benefits and hybrid or remote work options. Others reported that efforts to create more inclusive environments for women and minorities, including placement in key store operating roles, have boosted their retention rates and their dealership groups’ desirability among would-be hires.
Several dealership leaders say they allow employees to stop work when needed because the pandemic laid bare the importance for staff to be able to participate more fully in family events and life outside work. Some retailers have cemented these shifts by making permanent changes to store hours and to their employment handbooks — for example, dealerships are increasingly offering paid parental leave, though there is still a long way to go before that kind of policy becomes widespread in the industry.
Dealership employment culture is changing, even as workplaces have largely resumed pre-pandemic operations since coronavirus restrictions were lifted. For dealerships on Automotive News’ 2022 Best Dealerships To Work For list, changes include:
Ultimately, the pandemic changed the rules of the dealership workplace culture, said Daniel Bloom, vice president of research at Best Companies Group, which surveys dealership employees and leaders extensively to determine the 100 Best Dealerships To Work For.
“It’s like the new culture’s rising from the ashes, like a phoenix, almost — the ashes of the pandemic,” Bloom told Automotive News.
For Joshua Irvine, general manager of Toyota of Anaheim in California, now is the right time to enhance his dealership’s ability to recruit a new generation into the auto industry.
Younger workers value work-life balance more than anything else, Irvine said, and a four-day workweek can help provide that balance. Toyota of Anaheim in March moved technicians to a four-day schedule and plans to have all staff switched to the shorter workweek by December. The dealership two months ago converted several commission positions to an hourly pay structure and arranged for several employees to fulfill job duties from home. The changes, Irvine said, are aimed at recruiting folks who wouldn’t normally consider working in the auto industry.
“It’s a combination of a good retention tool for us to retain our employees but also [to] go after new employees that we want to add to our future and our business,” Irvine said.
The combination of the pandemic and a shrinking pool of workers as older people retire is allowing the new dealership employment culture to take root, said Fleming Ford, president and founder of Culture Ignited, a coaching and consulting firm that works with auto retailers. Those forces have led to a complete shift in power from employer to employee that is probably not going to go away, Ford said.
“What we didn’t know is the sentiment that was going to come from the pandemic and people questioning fulfillment and what they value,” she said.
A cultural change
New dealership employment culture norms are likely to look much different, Bloom said.
Changes could lead to a larger push for diversity, equity and inclusion at dealerships. The stores honored on the 2022 Best Dealerships To Work For list had significantly higher employee engagement scores on survey questions around diversity and inclusion compared with stores surveyed but not making the top 100. Winning dealerships also had higher scores than winners in other industries for which Best Companies Group creates lists, Bloom said.
Bloom acknowledged that the norm in auto retailing on diversity and inclusion issues is likely nowhere near the numbers reflected for those making the Best Dealerships To Work For list. The list’s preponderance of big dealership groups that pay attention to those issues and already have structural efforts in place probably skews those measurements beyond what’s typical in the industry, he said.
Bloom also noted that more efforts don’t mean there are adequate results yet.
“It’s great to recruit, and it’s great to try and hire, and it’s great to have all these policies, but the next step is changing the culture,” Bloom said. “And what we probably haven’t seen yet is the cultural change.”
Eyes are opening up, but dealerships still need to make improvements, especially in developing a healthier work environment for women and minorities, he said.
In 2021, for instance, 19 percent of dealership employees were women, according to the latest National Automobile Dealers Association Dealership Workforce Study. Dealerships’ employment of women has hovered at that level for many years, and the highest percentages of women occur in back-office roles versus customer-facing or leadership positions.
Still, policy improvements are happening, Bloom said. Best Companies Group reported that 41 percent of non-winning dealerships in 2022 offered full or partially paid parental leave for births or adoptions, up from 28 percent in 2021. For winning dealerships, the number rose to 48 percent from 44 percent.
Dealerships are starting to catch up on offering paid parental leave, but for now, it remains available at less than 50 percent of all of them, Bloom said.
To meet employees’ evolved expectations for workplace cultures, dealers should consider bringing on team members who specialize in people strategies, Ford told Automotive News.
“I don’t think they can afford not to do it,” Ford said.
Without guidance from a chief human resources officer, dealerships could end up with higher costs related to turnover and lost opportunities if they are unable to staff at needed talent levels, Ford said. Similar losses could result from the lack of inclusive practices, such as paid parental leave.
“If we’re not helping [employees’] lives be better, they’re not going to be able to bring everything in their best selves to work,” Ford said.
Dealerships on this year’s Best Dealerships To Work For list testified to the benefits realized from employee-friendly policies.
Tristan Topps, human resources manager for Penske Automotive Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., told Automotive News as part of a survey that the past two years reaffirmed the importance of work-life balance.
The Penske stores she works with have increased vacation time, which also allows for more flexibility in scheduling.
“The response from our team has been extraordinarily positive, and we have seen increased productivity as a result,” Topps wrote in a survey response.
Joe Czarnecki, general manager of Penske BMW stores in New York and Connecticut, said in the survey that he considers whether job positions can have work-from-home days without sacrificing the integrity of the business.
“The pandemic opened our eyes to different ways of running our business while still producing the highest results,” Czarnecki wrote.
Mark Perryman, managing partner of Patriot Subaru of North Attleboro in Massachusetts, said he attributes the majority of the dealership’s retention success the last two years to two things: listening to employees’ needs and putting people before profits.
The 58-employee store has retained all but five staffers in the last four years, Perryman told Automotive News. Patriot Subaru employees don’t seem to want to leave because they know other dealerships won’t treat or pay them the same, he said.
“It costs a whole lot more to have a lot of turnover than it does to pay the people what they’re worth and value their input,” Perryman said.
Giving employees more time to be with family is a common theme among winning dealerships.
The pandemic brought to light the importance of slowing down and taking time at home, Diana Kennedy, general manager of Volvo Cars Marin in San Rafael, Calif., said in the Automotive News survey.
“Our culture at our store is encouraging and tolerant of allowing our employees to [take] time off as needed,” she wrote. “Whether they have the time accrued or not.”
With people having more choices about where to work nearly three years after the pandemic’s start, the costs of ignoring their needs are real.
“Dealerships that are proactively working on their people strategy are going to be competitively just miles ahead of dealers that are kind of ignoring it and going about it like we always did,” Ford said.
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