Bridgestone Americas’ Rachel Thomas on Manufacturing, Remote Work, and Culture

Blog / Bridgestone Americas’ Rachel Thomas on Manufacturing, Remote Work, and Culture

“Putting our teams first, as individuals.”

We had the pleasure of meeting Rachel Thomas when she participated in our first State of Culture event at the Nashville Tech Council. She and her team oversee people and culture at Bridgestone Americas. From retail locations, manufacturing workers on the line, in-office, and hybrid teams – Rachel’s focus is always on the people at BA.

Bridgestone’s HQ is located in downtown Nashville. In June of this year, they announced the shedding of over 100,000 square footage of office space as a large segment of their HQ team, now works from home. Like many other companies, Bridgestone Americas had to step up and show their agility and ability to be flexible with their teams, while continuing “business as usual”.

Today, BA has over 50 production facilities with over 55,000 employees.


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I’m your host Cole Evans. And today I’m joined by Rachel Thomas. Rachel is the director of development and culture, the talent engagement, and, uh, of the talent engagement and culture team at Bridgestone Americas. This very small company, probably no one’s ever heard of. Right. Located right here in Nashville, Tennessee.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel at our state of culture event just a few months ago. And we reached out and said, Rachel. It would be really, really cool. If you came and spoke on a panel and talked about culture and all that is, uh, Bridgestone Americas. And she, um, very willingly said, what date? Where do I need to be?

I’m I’m excited about it. So, um, thank you very much for jumping on with us, Rachel, how have you been. I’ve been very good. I appreciate you inviting me here. Yeah, that’s awesome. Uh, so I, I, you know, we had a handful of people on the panel at state of culture. We listened to, um, from, from, uh, creative artist agency to, uh, healthcare.

And we had a lot of different conversations. What really stood out to me is that you were the one that said in the, the very comfortable seat, um, that has manufacturing. Attached to it. And so while we’re all talking about remote work, we’re talking about all of the things that we’re being, uh, challenged with in, in the HR culture, people space today, if you will.

Um, I feel like you have kind of this, this additional layer on top because at certain, at certain levels, um, you know, The machines still have to run. You can’t work those machines from home. And so I just wanna dive right in head first here to our listeners. Um, tell us a little bit about, uh, I know you’ve been at Bridgestone for, uh, approaching five years if I’m not mistaken, but you’ve got a, a large history in manufacturing.

So you know, this space very, very well, obviously, uh, tell our listeners about what it looked like in your world when you’re having conversations. I mean, you have. Uh, an extremely large tower here in the middle of downtown, which we know are office workers, right. People that, uh, have to come in or can probably stay at home.

But then you’ve also got manufacturing that where people absolutely have to go to work. Tell our listeners a little bit about some of the challenges that. Um, that came to your front door. Yeah. So the, the list is pretty lengthy and, um, I’ll, I’ll weave in a little bit, uh, we’ve got manufacturing. We also have our retail stores and things as well too.

So we’ve got this definitely interesting dynamic. We do have our corporate that we’re able to have some more flexibility, but you said it, the machines have to run. And, um, you know, as a business, we have to make tires in order for us to really make money. So, uh, the very first thing, when, you know, our world got turned upside down in, in 2020 was making sure our teammates were safe.

So that was number one, the very first thing. Um, we had a little bit of a pause in most of our facilities that we said, okay, everybody stop what you’re doing. Uh, we need to make sure we keep people safe first. So there was, uh, a lot of change that happened a lot of new protocols that were, um, you know, fired out real quickly and saying, okay, now we have to separate.

We have to mask up. We have to do all these things that we were hearing globally that were gonna keep people safe. Uh, but then we also. Need, there are some spaces where you’re working shoulder to shoulder next to someone in a plant. And, uh, we need to, to figure out different ways to keep those people safe while also trying to maintain a business.

So the challenges, uh, I think were coming at us the fastest we’ve ever seen. Um, but we as an organization really came together quickly to say, Safety first always is actually a tagline we use. Cause that’s truly what we mean, safety first, always. And then what’s next, right? Uh, how do we keep the business running?

And so that was really the next step is okay. We’re keeping our people safe. We’re doing what we need to do in that realm, but now how do we. Think about keeping the business running differently. And so there was a lot of back and forth. Uh, the teams were so agile and, um, I’m sure there was some frustration along the way of learning something new or a new process, and then having to go back and change that again.

Uh, because we realized maybe it was wasn’t working, how we maybe initially planned. Um, but there was a lot of that. We have tens of thousands of people globally, uh, that are in our, like you said, manufacturing, but then in our retail stores and also our Firestone direct stores, those are all around. Um, the us specifically that those stores are still open.

So people who needed to replace the flat tire or just people like you and I that needed to go get their oil changed. We still had to keep those stores running too. Right. And. We’re interacting with customers then. And so how do we keep our teammates in those spaces safe and our customers safe? And again, new protocols, um, lots of learning along the way, but, uh, I would say the biggest thing is making sure that we’re really caring about our people and agile in the way that we implement a new processes.

That’s very interesting. Um, thank you for the insight there. I have a question. Uh, let’s talk about remote work for a second. Right? Huge, huge buzz term. Um, it’s so, uh, interesting. One of the previous conversations I had with Lisa Perez, she runs HBO resources out of Florida, and she and I met at a Sherm event.

Um, she’s been in HR for 30 something years and she said, you know, it’s funny in the late eighties, early nineties for certain industries, we called it telework. And, and we had a big laugh about that because it’s, it’s funny. What, what was, uh, you know, good for certain industries? Uh, you know, just a couple of decades ago today is again at, at, um, uh, staring all of us right in our face, no matter what.

Um, so I’ll, I’ll, I’ll say a little context before I ask you the question. So we’re sitting in our, our brand new offices here, uh, in middle Tennessee, we have, uh, a very large team and growing, um, you know, here at work Ziga, uh, but. Also are, you know, allowing people to do their best work from where they’re the most comfortable.

And what does that mean? It means that we have to structure, um, one-on-ones like this, it means that we have to be very, uh, organized in time management because when we do need people to come in, um, for, you know, more of those long form meetings that really need some face to face and, and some stronger brainstorming that.

We’re very buttoned up on that. And it’s not just, you know, um, fly by the seat of your pants, kind of meeting that. I think a lot of people were very much accustomed to in years past, Hey, let’s get Rachel and Cole and get the other team together and we’re gonna have a quick little meeting about the blah.

And today, the quick little blah is not reality. Right? So with a little context there, tell me a little bit about your team, uh, your direct team and, uh, how you’re managing, uh, remote work and, and, and, you know, goods and bad. . Yeah, so I, I, the word that comes to me first is we’re very intentional. We’re intentional about what type of work we’re doing and when we’re doing it, uh, we are a big team of collaboration.

So we’re, we’re, we’re assigning team of people, but we are. Huge. When it comes to, uh, sharing ideas and collaborating together to come up with the best classes and content. And if we’re really trying to push some things from a cultural aspect or an engagement side, um, we like to really get together and share our ideas.

Sometimes we do that via video and on the, you know, on the phone. But, um, if we feel like we really wanna put some sticky notes on the wall and, and hash some things out. Intentionally schedule time and block some, a date for it in advance. So, um, it’s worked out well. I will tell you that. Um, what I think I love most about the, the Stanbridge stone is taken around hybrid working is the flexibility and making sure our people are taken care of.

Um, I would say my team, I’m always hopeful that they would say the same, but, um, we are a really flexible team. So if you’ve got something going on, whether it’s personal family related, um, and you need to take a minute to go do that. We just go do it. Uh, we also have respect for each other and we trust each other that the work’s gonna get done.

And so we, we, we really just try to be as flexible as possible and trust each other. Again, knowing that the work will, will get done on, in a timely manner and to the expectation of everyone around us. So lots around that. We’re really loving it. I think it it’s had some ups and downs of just trying to figure it out.

We were used to being shoulder to shoulder and that sort of water cooler talk happened a lot in our offices. And now, um, you just kinda come in when you wanna, unless you’ve got an intentional event scheduled. So it’s just a little different where you are, um, you know, have, have to be a little more planful about what you’re trying to do.

And when you’re trying to do it, sorry about my ding in the back. We’re fine. No, that’s, that’s the way. But yet you gotta be a little more intentional about the way things, um, you know, what you wanna do, but putting our teammate first, putting our team first as individuals, making sure that we show how caring we are as a, a group.

We talk about the family feel. I know we discussed this in the, the, the last session we all had together in person. And, uh, we really are a family. We know a lot of what’s going on and the stresses that people have in and outta work. And we really try to create space for. Also, don’t try to force things. So, um, I’m in a space right now with force.

Creativity is, is not a thing. And, um, sometimes you need to give people the space to be creative. You can’t force them to be creative on the spot. So when, when is their creative time? Is it at midnight? Is it at 5:00 AM? Um, so whatever, you know, the creative. Spaces for individuals trying to respect that and, and give that space.

It’s so funny that you say that it’s kind of in the same vein when you have all the meetings and everyone feels very busy, but it’s like in the inevitable final question, which is when do we do this actual work? like, we’re, we’re in a lot of meetings. When is the, you know, here it works, Inca, you know, uh, some of us refer to it as head downtime, you know, and we, we have slack.

And so we can kind of block these times and saying, you know, during this time and this time I’m not available, you know, so don’t expect anything from me. I I’m doing something else. It it’s interesting. Previous conversations we’ve had here on the human factor. We’ve had conversations about, uh, I’ll use a, a statement from Lisa again, where she said, you know, in the, um, in the eighties, she said, when I started, it was known like it was, it was, it was part of the mantra.

Leave your problems at the door, quote unquote. And you know, today’s leading word in, in, in my LinkedIn, uh, thread is. You know what I’m saying? So, oh yeah. It’s so interesting. How, um, how things have changed and what, what I, um, see and, and hear, uh, from the conferences to conversations. Are you still have your large companies?

Um, you know, I’m, I’m, I’m marketing officer here, so I’ll, I’ll align it with marketing. There are still your large companies that do marketing really, really well. But the overwhelming majority of companies are still playing catch up to, you know, seven, 10 years ago, depending honestly, in the market and, and, uh, the team you surround yourself with.

Honestly, I find, uh, I find that HR is the exact same way. There are, you know, the top tier companies, if you will, the large ones that really are set the stage, you know, for, for, for how to do it, quote unquote, um, While, you know, year over year, um, the largest organization of HR managers, which is Sherm, uh, they’re, they’re really consistently talking about, you know, turning the Titanic, this year’s, I, I say turning the Titanic, this year’s, uh, theme is cause the effect.

Right. So what can you do in your world that, um, you know, is changing? How leadership is thinking about it, you touched on the word trust. Um, our listeners, uh, will. Be tired of me saying this by the time, um, it’s over. But, you know, we wrote up when we, before the furniture, uh, was installed here, uh, uh, Dan, our founder set us around and we wrote up three words about, you know, the core words that really, uh, keep us on our toes if you will.

And those three words, uh, were trust. Challenge and win. And it’s interesting because, um, trust is that common word that I hear in conversations like this, that, you know, I’ll say yesterday, but yesterday the leader needed to see Rachel and Cole sitting in their cubes or at their desk. And they needed to see that person sitting there while we still hear, you know, the average person spends, you know, three pushing four hours a day on social media.

That’s kind of hard to wrap your head around, but then you take. And you take lunch and you take water cooler, you take traffic and you take all the things and it really, you know, whatever term you wanna give it, great resignation re you know, recollection, all the things that you wanna give it, it, it was this true up.

I think of people saying, what are. What is, what am I really ? What am I really working for? Right. And, and I, I kind of propose, uh, you know, this, this other thought process that if you truly do trust the people, the hours you’re at, at the end of the day, just business, in my opinion, P and L you’re gonna get more out of the people.

I mean, you are, they’re gonna be more productive. They’re gonna be happier because they have buy in. They don’t have the overarching, you know, the, the, I won’t, I won’t say a stat cuz it’ll be wrong. But what we knew is the overwhelming majority, I think it was 70 plus percent of the people. That voluntarily left the workforce said they did it because they had a bad boss.

Yep. Yeah. And I shared that, uh, in my past experience of, um, you know, there’s, there’s places that I loved the work I did. I really struggled with the difficult boss. Right. And it made me then intern, not like the work I did and there was no trust. So back to the word trust, there was no trust in the relationship.

It also I’ll use your word challenge. So the challenges, they, they almost weren’t worth it. So figuring out, you know, the ways I wanted to navigate that I learned. Pretty quickly in my career. I always wanted to work for someone that I trusted that challenged me and that as a team, I’ll use your other word win that we’re gonna come together and win whatever the objective is.

Right. We’re gonna, we’re gonna do well at it. And so I love those three words that you have. And, um, here, you know, in my current role, I have a really trusting boss and she gives me the space flexibility. Um, she’s really caring. She also is really agile. We need to turn the Titanic today, then we’re gonna figure out a way to do it together.

That’s great. Um, and so there there’s, and, and I’m seeing that more and more, um, the, the old school way, if you will, of the seat feel where you had to see someone to think that they were working right. Um, we’ve had a major shift in that and that’s been, uh, pretty refreshing, I would say. Cause I think a lot of us were already.

Space of like, I’m doing my work, even if I’m at home or, you know, maybe traveling or whatever it is, I can still get my work done, but not everyone could see that. Right. Um, we were forced to see it. And as an organization, we did well, um, over the last two years and people were remote and again, we had the balance of people that had to be.

At their position and, and in manufacturing or retail, they were there selling tires and making tires, but we also had so many, uh, people that were in their home offices. We proved that we could do it. And so it really just took us proving it, um, to shift the minds of leaders all around the company to say, man, we can still get the job done exactly, really anywhere.

And, and that it comes back to the trust part that they didn’t trust them before. But now there’s a new found trust would I would say, uh, in saying, man, I don’t have to see them every day. Sometimes I like to, but I don’t have to see them to know that they’re gonna get the work done. Rachel, you have been such a pleasure.

I have one more question. I’m ending. Yeah. Every episode with the exact same question, uh, because I find, um, all the answers are very unique. So, um, thank you again for spending some time with us and, uh, and our audience. I, my last question is how does Rachel, how do you define workplace culture? um, so workplace culture, if I had to just define it in a word or, or to it’s the people, um, the people are really what make up our culture, uh, in any culture really.

And the part I love about Bridgestone is we are such a diverse culture. We’re continuing to get more diverse. Um, which is just a really, um, fun thing to be a part of. We get to learn and grow together. And to me that the mix of our people is really what makes our culture. So. Well, thank you so much, Rachel.

I’ve had, uh, such a good time. If you want to connect with Rachel, look in our show notes below. We have all the links on how you can connect with Rachel. Uh, again, um, head of culture at Bridgestone America’s safety first team first. And what I really liked here is big team of collaboration. Everyone loves good collaboration.

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So we really appreciate, uh, your time again, Rachel, and thank you for our audience for listening to the human factor.