One (very rich) man isn’t too enthused about the remote work revolution brought on by COVID. On May 31st, Elon Musk, the wealthiest man on the planet, sent an email to all of his Tesla and SpaceX employees informing them that it was a company-wide policy to spend at least 40 hours a week in the office, a move that signals that the U.S. workforce might not be able to expect widespread remote work yet.
What Does This Mean for Tesla and SpaceX?
Apparently, there has been some friction between Musk and some of his executives on the remote work issue. Before sending the company-wide emails on Tuesday, he sent a similar email to his executives detailing the need for them to be physically in the office, and not just “an” office – it needs to be one close to the people they’re leading.
Musk’s primary concerns seem to be that having a physical presence at the office is a crucial component of leadership at all levels, especially as you move up the ranks. “The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence,” Musk said, describing how much time and energy he personally spent in his factories when he started his companies.
Anyone who isn’t on board with the pre-pandemic way of doing business should start looking for work elsewhere, Musk implied in response to a Twitter user’s question about what employees should do if they think that physically coming to work is “antiquated.” Musk is known for his hardline stances and process-driven mentality, but this may be one of his strongest examples of tough love so far. Clearly, Musk isn’t interested in advancing the trend to move away from the office that’s been seen across broad swaths of American industry, particularly in the tech world.
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Is Musk Right?
If the world’s richest man has some criticisms of the work-from-home trends seen over the past two years, it may put a damper on the workplace’s rapid move to remote work. However, it’s likely that the movement towards a flexible schedule – that includes at least a hybrid work-office arrangement – is here to stay, especially as employees continue to leverage labor shortages during job negotiations. In addition, remote work attracts more applicants as people seek to cut out long, costly commutes while working from the comfort of their homes.
However, the fact remains that many jobs simply can’t be done remotely, and Musk’s comments hint at that underlying unfairness. Many of the line workers who are building Teslas don’t have the luxury of working from home; Tesla workers in the Shanghai, China, factory have essentially been in lockdown for months. Most blue-collar jobs can’t be done from home and if the remote work migration continues, there could be concerns for equity between lower, middle, and upper-class Americans. Additionally, Elon Musk clearly doesn’t give credence to the theory that remote workers are just as productive as office workers, something that’s been hotly debated over the past two years.
Remote work is clearly preferred by employees seeking a better work-life balance and employers have had to make concessions to keep attracting the best talent. Will Tesla’s hardline stance lead to an exodus from the company, or are we witnessing a return to normalcy? And, if Elon successfully purchases Twitter, the complete reversal of company policy is sure to lead to some fireworks. Only time will tell.
The Debate Continues
Elon Musk has thrown a gauntlet in the office vs. remote work debate. Collaboration and teamwork are too challenging to execute effectively in a fully remote environment, so the result for most American companies will probably be a compromise in the form of hybrid work. It’s also true that good leadership often requires a physical presence that virtual meetings can’t replace. It remains to be seen whether other executives will follow Musk’s lead and get their workers back in the office.