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Is Elon Musk Wrong About Remote Work?

A lot has been said in the last couple of days about Elon Musk’s decision to require employees to spend a minimum of 40 hours a week at the office.

Here are some of my thoughts on this:

The distribution curve is real

Before the pandemic we would have called fully remote companies like Gitlab or Zapier insane. While they sit on one end of the curve, the Teslas of this world sit on another. Most other organizations will sit somewhere in the middle and the world is diverse enough that there will be qualified people wanting to work for all types of companies. There may be a bit of a reshuffle now as people pick the model that works for them at this moment in their lives.

As Nick Bloom points out in his Linkedin post from last week:

“Our survey data on 20,000+ Americans suggests about:

1) 60% of employees will return

2) 30% will return but look for another job

3) 10% will quit

Or Tesla could raise pay 10% to compensate for requiring employees into the office full-time”

The real debate is over Trust vs Control (no matter the work “place”)

Responding to a tweet about the email leak, Musk writes: “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”

If you can’t trust your employees and workers to do their job, then maybe where they work from is not your biggest problem. Top-down mandates like this one further exacerbate the trust divide.

Elon could use some help with Internal comms

I generally believe that leaders get to make the decisions that they feel are right for their organization. Not every process needs to be fully democratic, but communicating and managing change always benefits from an empathic approach, unless (as some speculate) this is Elon’s way of reducing the workforce without organizing official layoffs. Let’s just hope for his sake the right people decide to show up to the office next week.

There is a point to be made about fairness

In organizations that employ blue collar workers who have no choice but to have their boots on the ground, there is a question about whether remote work further exacerbates the 2 class system. Some also wonder if the overall productivity of the organization suffers when the collaboration between design, business, and manufacturing is at stake. Many of the clients we’ve worked with in construction or manufacturing bring up the importance of sentient presence in their overall output. On the other hand, the World Economic Forum predicts that in the manufacturing industry, there will be 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028, because people would prefer switching to more remote-friendly jobs. Maybe it’s time for leaders in these industries to reconsider their work models, and think of solutions (compressed work weeks, job sharing, etc.) that would benefit recruitment and retention.

While Elon’s mandate might work for Tesla (let’s not ignore brand power) here’s what the data says:

  • Employees who don’t perceive that their leadership is communicating transparently are 4X more likely to be on the hunt for a new job.

  • Work related anxiety and stress is highest (and work life balance is lowest) for employees that were asked to return to the office.

  • Knowledge workers who are not allowed to set their own work hours are 2.6x as likely to look for a new job, and underrepresented groups are those who value flexibility the most.

You can find more data produced by the amazing Future forum team here.

Every company has a choice to design its version of what flexibility looks like to fit with its industry, work model, culture, and the needs of its employee population, but it’s high time we treat those who work for us like mature adults.

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