Elon Musk Is Driving Talent in the Wrong Direction

Elon Musk revealed yesterday that he does not believe in remote work. And the internet predictably went wild.

“Remote work is no longer acceptable,” he wrote in a memo to Tesla’s executive team. “Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

Musk then explained in a tweet that employees who disagree with the policy “should pretend to work somewhere else.”

Additionally, Musk elaborated in another email to staff that he expects senior leadership to set an example by being more visible. “That is why I lived in the factory so much — so that those on the line could see me working alongside them. If I had not done that, Tesla would long ago have gone bankrupt,” he said.

Musk Is Not the Problem — We Might Be

That Musk would espouse such beliefs about remote work, in particular calling into question the work ethic of remote workers, is hardly surprising. He has a history of making dismissive and contrarian and controversial comments, from downplaying Covid to nonsensical remarks about quitting his job. So his desire to stir the pot by bunking the trend toward more remote and hybrid work is practically formulaic. 

But the problem with Musk and his latest remarks is not Musk or his latest remarks. It’s the potential that his position will gain traction among HR and recruiting professionals. Indeed, on Inc.com, writer and former HR practitioner Suzanne Lucas wrote a piece titled, “Elon Musk’s 40 Hours in Office Requirement Is Brilliant.” “Will he lose some employees?” she asks. “Of course. Is it the right thing? Yes.” (In her story, Lucas focuses on the importance of executives being physically present. There certainly is some merit in that, but Musk’s mandate seems to apply to all workers.)

Now, it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with having disagreements about workplace ideas and policies. Debate and discussion are important and necessary to push forward talent acquisition and talent management. A plurality of opinions is, indeed, what often makes our field so interesting. (Also, Lucas, for what it’s worth, is an accomplished HR professional and prolific thinker whose views are often thought-provoking in the best possible ways.)

However, there must come a point where we must collectively decide as a field what actually advances it, what truly makes work better. 

Hypocrisy and the Pandemic

It wasn’t long ago that article upon article was highlighting how the pandemic awakened executives to the realization that remote work was not just feasible at their organizations but also good for productivity and engagement. Then there’s the ongoing nauseating number of articles about The Great Resignation (we’ve published some of them on this very site) lamenting about staffing shortages, skills gaps, and hiring struggles. 

So what happened to the desire to be more “human”? What happened to the calls for employees to enjoy greater flexibility and autonomy? What happened to leveraging the ability to hire talent from anywhere?

Well, many companies continue to embrace and forge such a future. Twitter, for example, told its people they would have the ability to work remotely forever. (Except now there’s an asterisk attached to that statement given Musk’s potential takeover of the social-media platform.)

But when a CEO like Musk so vehemently rejects remote work, there’s a danger that the pendulum will swing back to antiquated notions that fly in the face of facts. For instance, Musk’s comment about being more visible implies that face time equals work — when we know it does not. 

No, really. We know it does not. “Most of the evidence shows that productivity has increased while people stayed at home,” Natacha Postel-Vinay, an economic and financial historian at the London School of Economics, explained to Business Insider.

Furthermore, as a CNN article pointed out:

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“A Harvard study of software engineers found that emphasizing face time encouraged managers to arbitrarily label problems as crises and then evaluate workers on whether they put in long hours in response. Inefficiency got worse when workers knew management was evaluating only time, not results — they put in lots of hours, but got little done. Managers who replaced the clock-watching culture with more rational planning increased productivity, reduced stress and shifted efforts toward collectively getting work done.”

That CNN article was from 2013 in response to when then-CEO of Yahoo Marissa Mayer also came out against remote work. As the piece put it, Mayer “bought into the idea that face time means productivity because it seemed like a legitimate way to show she meant business.”

The New Marissa Mayer

Elon Musk is the new Marissa Mayer. Like Mayer, Musk is mistaken, with the potential influence to steer his automotive company — and perhaps the broader world of work — in the wrong direction.

Despite study upon study that supports remote and hybrid work, Musk is doing what we tell hiring managers and recruiters to avoid — he is going with his gut, with unsubstantiated assumptions about work.

But again, ultimately Musk is not the problem. There will always be executives who hold such views. The problem is we tend to elevate such positions because of the stature of the people who espouse them. We’re sometimes beguiled into thinking that because a company is successful, its CEO must be doing something right. And we’d often be right to think that. But something is not everything

Take Steve Jobs. He had many positive attributes and was able to lead Apple into greatness. But he was also a jerk, a quality many people excused because of his talents. Worse, it was a quality that many also believed — and still believe — was essential to his greatness.

We now risk making the same error by giving real weight to Musk’s position on remote work. For instance, one talent professional tweeted that since factory workers have to be physically present in the workplace, everyone else should come in. Otherwise, he argued, culture will suffer.

Where is the evidence for this? It’s not as if factory workers expect to work remotely. As long as an organization evaluates and compensates its people fairly, recognizes and rewards them for their work, and gives them opportunities to advance, the culture will be just fine.

Rejecting Antiquated Beliefs

The good news is that despite some voices out there supporting Musk, so far there seems to be more condemnation than support for Musk’s mandate. As one LinkedIn poll that has so far garnered over 8,000 votes shows, only 11% of respondents say that Musk is absolutely right, while 74% say that Musk will lose people. (Which, in all fairness, is not necessarily an indication that Musk is wrong.)

The larger point is that as a field, we must come to a general consensus on the topic of remote work. No, it’s not always appropriate. But often, it’s just fine, if not preferable. We cannot allow CEOs — especially those who behave like trolls — to reverse what evidence tells us supports better workplaces. Musk can crash Tesla if he chooses. But it’s up to the rest of us to choose the higher road.

Vadim Liberman is editor of ERE.net and TLNT (the devil wears TJ Maxx) — a workplace renegade advancing how we think, work, and live. He has previously worked as a strategy consultant to HR and recruiting tech companies at The Starr Conspiracy, as a talent management professional at Prudential, and as senior editor of The Conference Board Review, a magazine for business leaders. Vadim loves to talk about all things HR, talent acquisition, and Bravo TV shows. Bring it!

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