Harley-Davidson reassesses its headquarters after CEO embraces remote working

The 119-year-old motorcycle manufacturer shuttered its Milwaukee headquarters in March 2020 and hasn’t fully opened it since

Harley-Davidson says its Milwaukee headquarters will remain 'integral' to the company’s US footprint. AFP
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Companies from Apple to General Motors to Goldman Sachs are grappling with how to coax employees back to the office. Harley-Davidson is taking a different tack: let them stay home.

The 119-year-old motorcycle manufacturer shuttered its Milwaukee, Wisconsin, headquarters in March 2020 and has not fully opened it since.

Chief executive Jochen Zeitz is even planning to repurpose the 500,000-square-foot complex later this year, showing how serious Harley is in its commitment to remote work.

Mr Zeitz, who took over in 2020, is the father of two young children and splits his time between homes in Milwaukee and his ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

He says a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and fatherhood convinced him that the flexibility of virtual meetings was far preferable to “less inclusive” physical office spaces.

“Having the ability to just push a button wherever that person sits, get that person online, or create a meeting — that is not defined by which floor you sit on and who’s in the corner office,” Mr Zeitz said in an interview.

“It democratises the way we work together and allows you to bring the best talent into the company, no matter where they sit.”

That tolerance of nomadic employees is not only about altruism: Mr Zeitz spun off Harley’s e-bike business last month through a reverse merger, declaring LiveWire Group the “first virtual electric motorcycle company”.

With the global car industry going electric, he is in a fierce battle for engineering talent, and he has recruited from places such as Rivian Automotive and Tesla.

LiveWire has a research and development lab in Silicon Valley and engineering and product development in Milwaukee. The bikes are assembled at Harley’s factory in York, Pennsylvania.

Harley says its Milwaukee headquarters will remain “integral” to the company’s US footprint, and Mr Zeitz did not specify how he plans to remake the space.

Mr Zeitz’s philosophy is in stark contrast to that of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, who told employees recently they had to spend 40 hours a week in the office, and failure to show up would be considered a resignation.

Other companies that have tried to take that approach, or even a hybrid option, have faced blowback.

GM sent a letter to employees in late September requiring them to return to the office at least three days a week. The pushback was so strong, it walked back the mandate a few days later.

The Detroit car maker will gradually bring people back starting early in 2023 and allow managers to craft plans for individual employees, said a letter signed by chief executive Mary Barra and other members of the executive team. Plus, any employee hired remotely will not be forced to relocate close to GM facilities.

Even though Mr Zeitz is embracing remote work, he still thinks face-to-face meetings are valuable — as long as there is a clear purpose.

“I don’t want to see the exact same agenda we would have if we were on a screen,” he said.

Earlier this year, the company opened up the product development centre in Milwaukee and brought in 2,000 employees and their families.

That is the kind of gathering Mr Zeitz envisions in a world of remote work. He says he measures employees by their “engagement” — what they deliver — not by counting how many hours they sit in front of a screen.

Updated: October 18, 2022, 4:30 AM