A sternly worded internal email, apparently sent by Elon Musk ordering Tesla employees to either return to the office or leave, is raising a lot of eyebrows in a time when employees are increasingly seeking flexible work arrangements.
In a screenshot of the email, shared on Twitter, the richest man in the world warns employees at his electric car company that remote work is no longer acceptable.
Musk replied to the leaked email on Twitter and said people who think coming into work is antiquated “should pretend to work somewhere else.”
Elon has sent this second email out to the Tesla team <a href=”https://t.co/BBGtyZngpu”>pic.twitter.com/BBGtyZngpu</a>
The hard-line approach on working arrangements from the controversy-prone billionaire, who once tweeted “the coronavirus panic is dumb,” strongly contrasts against how some other CEOs — particularly those in the tech and startup world — are handling this latest phase of working in a pandemic. New research also suggests it’s something employees value as much as a raise, and that it could even contribute to diversity in the workplace.
Vancouver-based entrepreneur Greg Gunn said he’ll give Musk credit for being very clear about what he wants from his employees.
“It’s a power move,” Gunn said. “Tesla historically has been a great place to work and it’s been a coveted place to work.”
But he said Musk is ultimately “endorsing an old way of building businesses.” He ultimately finds the order disappointing.
Gunn co-founded Canadian company Commit in 2019, which has always been fully remote. The professional network, which has no physical headquarters, is an online community where startup engineers get paid to find their next career opportunities.
As someone who is strongly in favour of remote workplaces, Gunn said the approach allows him to recruit the best people for the job, regardless of where they live.
He said it also removes obstacles that can make it difficult for some people to integrate into a physical workspace.
“There’s the subtle politics and social capital that you have to gain in an office that, if you’re a caretaker or maybe you have some neurodiversity qualities, it creates barriers.”
Ontario public service more flexible than Musk
While remote work is impossible or impractical for many fields of work, such as health care and education, various sectors are offering different options for employees in this latest phase of the pandemic.
Even outside the tech sector, Musk’s approach to enforcing full-time office work is stricter than some more traditional workplaces.
The Ontario public service, which includes about 60,000 public servants, so far requires staff who were working remotely to come into the office a minimum of three days a week.
“The OPS remains committed to providing employees with flexibility,” Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson Kyle Richardson said in an email to CBC News.
Canadian insurance company Intact Financial has gone even further, recently launching what it calls a “Hybrid World model,” which allows teams to discuss and plan when they will work from home and when they will work in office.
Meanwhile, in the highly competitive tech industry, flexible work arrangements is being used as a way to recruit talent.
Video game company Ubisoft Montreal, for example, is now 100 per cent hybrid work and does not enforce minimum in-office work hours.
“Our employees have the choice to come as they want or stay at home,” public relations manager Antoine Leduc-Labelle said in an email to CBC News.
AirBnb has taken a similar approach, announcing that the vast majority of employees will be allowed to live and work anywhere they want, given that the pandemic ended up being “the most productive two-year period” in the company’s history.
Brian Chesky, CEO of the online vacation rental platform, said limiting the company’s workforce to people who live within a commuting radius would only hurt the talent pool.
“Today’s startups have embraced remote work and flexibility, and I think this will become the predominant way that we all work 10 years from now. This is where the world is going,” he said in an email sent to staff in April.
‘This isn’t going to work’
Jose Maria Barrero, a co-founder of the WFH (Working From Home) Research Project, said his gut reaction to Musk’s approach is “this isn’t going to work very well for Tesla.”
He’s been surveying Americans monthly with other academic researchers since the start of the pandemic to gather information about people’s attitudes toward working arrangements.
Barrero said the data generally suggests flexible working arrangements are as valuable as about a 10 per cent pay increase for most people. He said the group’s research suggests women, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, tend to have a higher preference for working from home.
He added the caveat that a single, blanket approach to working arrangements across an entire company might not be best.
Instead, he suggested, it’s better if companies look at role-specific work arrangements, based on whether someone works on a factory floor versus developing computer code.
“I think that companies that are asking people back to work [in office] full-time are ignoring this and are basically setting themselves up for the employees to call their bluff,” Barrero said.
Hard to put the genie back in the bottle
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon acknowledged the new standard directly in his latest annual shareholder letter, in which he wrote “it’s clear that working from home will become more permanent in American business.”
Dimon said he expects roughly 40 per cent of his employees will continue to work under a hybrid model with varying flexibility.
Barrero said for many who work desk jobs, things will probably never go back to how they were before the pandemic.
“It’s very hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” Barrero said.