Why Elon Musk is Wrong About Remote Work
June 10, 2022
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by Stephen Kanyi

Musk is not a fan of remote work.

This he has said or tweeted on numerous occasions. Most of it has been while criticising companies other than those he owns. He, for instance, ridiculed Twitter’s famous remote work policy which in his view limits the productivity of the social media giant, especially in lieu of his desire to acquire Twitter. He also tweeted last month: “All the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard.”

Recently, however, this criticism has been focused more inwards, towards his own employees, specifically Tesla. In an email leaked on Twitter, which he has responded to, Elon Musk is shown to have sent a companywide email basically calling an end to the remote work policy some executives had implemented in their respective United States factories.

In the second email, Musk goes all out against remote work basically claiming that remote work makes employees lazy and unproductive. This, as pointed out earlier is his key rebuttal against remote work, a criticism which he also laid against several companies who had adopted remote work as a policy.

Elon Musk lashing out at his own employees for adopting remote work should not be a surprise. Given his previous comments about the policy, it was just a matter of time until he cleaned his own house.

The key question is; is he right? I mean he is, after all, heading multiple tech companies, all successful I might add, sure he knows what he is talking about.

But does he? Contrary to what many people think, being a billionaire does not mean that you are right about everything under the sun. Rich and famous people get things wrong, a lot. Maybe more than you think.

Here are a couple of (hilarious) examples:

  • In the 1920s, then President of Michigan Savings Bank Horace Rackham said that automobiles were just a fad, a novelty. Horses, he predicted, were here to stay.
  • Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe predicted in 1995 that the internet ‘would soon go supernova and then collapse’ the following year. To his credit though he later admitted he was wrong and ‘ate’ his words quite literally when he blended his column and ate the goop with a spoon at the 1999 WWW conference.
  • My personal favourite is Larry Ellison completely denouncing cloud computing in the 70s. Calling it gibberish and insane but later pivoting hard towards it. Today Oracle is one of the largest global cloud service providers

So, you see, even rich people make bad predictions. They are still human after all and so is Elon (I think). I wager he is very wrong about remote work, for a number of reasons.

Here are my key rebuttals to his criticisms against remote work.

  • Spend a minimum of 40 hours in the Office per week to get work done

In his email, Elon tells his workers that they can operate remotely only after completing a ‘minimum’ of 40 hours per week. Might as well have told them outrightly that there is no chance for remote work.

As a matter of fact, the very idea of the famous 40-hour workweek is a matter of debate in itself. Who said that a worker must complete 40 hours of work every week?

Well, Henry Ford did, or at least he is the one who popularized the idea. Through his research, he discovered that working more than 40 hours per week only resulted in marginal increases in productivity.

It later became U.S law in 1940 and has been popularized around the world as the standard. The question is; does this still apply today?

The nature of work is ever-evolving and with the technology, we have today it is possible to get more work done in fewer hours. In fact, for many people today, the goal is to reduce the time spent working to a minimum. Companies all around the world are also trying to achieve this so as to save money in terms of office space, commuting and energy costs. The goal today is a 4-day workweek. High profile companies such as Bolt, Kickstarter and Panasonic have already successfully implemented 4-day workweeks without any loss in productivity.

The truth that many executives are slowly getting around to is that even at the office employees are not always that productive. A survey conducted by AtTask found that workers spend only 45% of their office time doing actual work with a further 40% wasted on meetings, administrative tasks, and “interruptions”. The rest of it is spent answering emails.

In fact, data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that countries with the highest average number of working hours were some of the least productive. Whereas Luxembourg, the most productive country, had an average work week of just 29 hours

Must be Where Your Actual Colleagues Are, Not a Pseudo Office

This is a case just not against Tesla employees working at home but the whole remote work concept. According to Elon, workers operating remotely do very little work or none at all. This is why he calls it a ‘pseudo-office.’

He couldn’t be further from the truth. Speaking to Insider Natacha Postel-Vinay, an economic and financial historian at the London School of Economics, said “Most of the evidence shows that productivity has increased while people stayed at home.”

“People spent less time commuting so could use some of that time to work, and they also got to spend more time with their family and sleeping, which meant they were happier and ended up more productive,” she added.

Moreover, as pointed out earlier, even at the office employees are not always productive. However, he does point out one other fact about work, that about visibility. It does help to see your colleagues right next to you working. But that can also mean a greater chance for interruptions and non-work-related chitchat. In fact, Elon himself has witnessed such in his own workplace when he reportedly found some workers idling by the water cooler and threatened to fire them.

  • The More Senior You Are the More Visible Must be Your Presence

Visibility is an issue that plagues most managers and employees even at the office. Just because you are in the same building doesn’t mean you pay attention to each other. In fact, there have been multiple reported cases of workers passing away at their workstations but going unnoticed for days.

Still, visibility is important, in fact, it is essential for a productive workforce. It just doesn’t always have to be in-person. Remote visibility can work too, from experience chats and video calls can be just as effective as in-person communication.

Overall, the most important thing is for managers to communicate to their employees, the mode doesn’t matter. All an employee need is some feedback and some support now and then.

  • Companies that go remote do not ship great products

This is obviously not true as there are a number of great companies operating remotely. As a matter of fact, Twitter, Elon’s latest obsession is famously remote but no one can argue about its efficiency as a company, except maybe Elon Musk. It still remains to be one of the largest social media platforms in the world.

Even Apple, perhaps one of the most innovative companies in the world has some employees working from home.

A few other worthy mentions include Salesforce, GitLab, HubSpot, Twilio, K12 and our very own Youpal.

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