Execs weigh in on RTO debate after Elon Musk scorns remote working
Elon Musk may not be a fan of letting his staff work remotely, but his isn’t a stance other business executives are rushing to back.
The world’s richest man last week reportedly demanded employees at Tesla, the electric carmaker he runs, and at SpaceX, the rocket company he leads, return to the office or face being fired.
In an email to SpaceX employees, Musk reportedly told the workers they must spend a “minimum of 40 hours in the office per week” to avoid termination. While in a message to Tesla’s executive staff, titled “Remote work is no longer acceptable”, he wrote, “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.”
Tesla and SpaceX have a combined workforce of more than 110,000 people. So far, there are no apparent reports of employee misgivings over the office policy.
But Musk’s strident stance has been met with scepticism by business executives who spoke to WorkLife.
Tamberlin Golden, executive director for workforce strategy at General Motors believes businesses that ignore how their employees now prefer to work is a major risk. She described the rise of remote work during the pandemic as “one of the most significant shifts in American working and living styles in our history” and added that workers have little to no desire to return to the old ways.
“Ignoring, or worse, dismissing these preferences means becoming a less desirable employer for people who are prioritizing remote or hybrid jobs and it means losing out on talent with unique, rare, or complex skills when they currently have the upper hand in today’s job market,” she added.
The war for talent, following the wave of mass quitting and job switching which began in 2021 (described by economists as the Great Resignation) has meant employers are having to work hard to attract and retain top talent. Ignoring their wishes now, will come at a cost.
”A lot of companies are searching for the best ways to retain not only their current employees but attract new ones as well,” said Anna Richardson, vp of people at Aiven, a cloud data platform.
“Completely scrapping the way the world has worked for the past two years shouldn’t be one of those strategies,” she added. “People have proven they can work, even under the most challenging circumstances, at home and the productivity of the company has not suffered.”
Breaking geographical barriers
Other senior executives warn that banning remote working also cuts off the chance to widen the hiring net beyond whoever is geographically closest to an organization’s office.
“There is so much great talent located outside of an organization’s ‘backyard,’ said Rob Catalano, chief strategy officer at Kazoo + WorkTango, a firm that advises companies on employee engagement, “and by limiting people to that geographical location, businesses significantly reduce their ability to find great talent. It’s also not very inclusive.”
Naturally, there are some employees who are keen to get back to the office because they miss the social interaction with coworkers and/or need a more defined boundary between their home and work life. Catalano believes employers are now obligated to listen to what different employees want in order to ensure they’re happy at work. “Employees aren’t a commodity that can be easily sourced on command,” he added.
General Motors’ Golden likewise highlighted the benefits of breaking down geographic barriers to better promote inclusion.
“When creating a diverse workforce is also a business priority, tech and other companies that offer remote roles can make meaningful progress in diversity and inclusion in their respective industries. First through the removal of a geographic requirement – allowing companies to meet talent where they are and/or connect with talent in rural or international locales – but also by creating a more inclusive work environment that is able to meet the specific needs of different marginalized groups,” she asserted.
Golden believes workplace flexibility, both from a schedule and location standpoint, is equal in importance to compensation for everyone. “For GM, reinforcing this philosophy in our talent attraction and retention efforts, and helping potential candidates understand the opportunities that exist at GM that this flexibility offers them, has been a tremendous game-changer for us,” she added.
Big names back full office returns
Musk isn’t alone in his view on remote working — another titan of corporate America is in favor of getting employees back into offices: Jamie Dimon.
The CEO of America’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase, told a New York conference in May, organized by the Wall Street Journal, that a remote-only environment, “doesn’t work for young people… It doesn’t work for those who want to hustle. It doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation. It doesn’t work for culture.”
Dimon also said that by this October the financial institution’s workplace, “will look just like it did before [the pandemic] and everyone’s going to be happy with it.”
Yet, at the same time, in his annual letter to shareholders, Dimon conceded that remote work “will become more permanent in American business…” He added that he believed 10% of JPMorgan’s roughly 271,000 employees could eventually work from home.
A recurring theme from the executives WorkLife contacted is that employees must be involved in decisions regarding where they work otherwise employers will experience problems recruiting and retaining talent.
“Forcing people to return full-time to the office after two and a half years of largely remote work for knowledge-based businesses is impractical and somewhat disrespectful, frankly,” said Pat Petitti, co-founder and CEO Catalant, a marketplace of freelancers.
“It’s one thing,” he said, “if you work in a setting where in-person attendance is mandatory (like healthcare, hospitality), but for a company where in-person employees would be largely working from a computer, there’s just no logical reason to mandate five-day-week attendance.”
Opposing ends of RTO spectrum
Airbnb announced at the end of April that from now on its U.S. employees can “work anywhere” including the office. CEO Brian Chesky said the past two years were the living-space rental company’s “most productive” ever so he’s making remote work permanent.
Asked to compare the Airbnb approach and Elon Musk’s get-to-the-office-or-get-fired demands, Meredith Graham, chief people officer at the digital management firm Ensono, said most people simply want flexibility and to be allowed choice. “A one-size-fits-all whether in the office or completely remote won’t work for most and those companies will be challenged to hire and retain talent,” she added.
Tracy Tobin, chief people officer at data analytics company Adswerve, believes any company that issues a sweeping ultimatum that favors either a full return to office, or a remote setup, is unreasonable and impractical. “Employees want different things and there will always be a need to make exceptions and adjust for different individuals’ needs,” she said. “There are many people who want to be in the office on a regular basis, while others prefer to work as much as possible from their home.”
What’s clear is that AirBnb and Tesla chiefs now sit on opposing sides of the return-to-office spectrum. “Airbnb’s policy was generally seen as extremely progressive, while Tesla’s is being derided as antiquated,” according to Paul Rubenstein, chief people and culture officer at Visier, employee retention consultancy headquartered in Canada. “They obviously both sit on two ends of a very wide spectrum,” he said.
“We’re currently in a time where employees hold a great deal of power in driving organizational policy,” said Rubenstien, “Organizations are faced with the reality that forcing employees back to the office, without consultation or consideration, creates a negative employee experience, and they run the risk of seeing exits.”
WorkLife contacted Tesla for comment, but it didn’t respond in time for publication.
At odds with Twitter’s WFH policy
Meanwhile, Elon Musk may risk a head-on collision with some of the 7,500 employees at Twitter if he ever closes the deal to buy the company.
Two years ago, Twitter’s then CEO Jack Dorsey announced the organization would allow personnel to work from home permanently even after the pandemic ended — a working philosophy completely at odds with Musk’s.
On June 6, the entrepreneur’s lawyers sent a letter to Twitter threatening to kill the $44 billion purchase agreement. The attorneys claim the online entity hasn’t provided information regarding spam and fake accounts on the platform and that’s putting the transaction in jeopardy.
Due to recent steep declines in technology shares on Wall Street, both Twitter, and Tesla which is the main source of Musk’s wealth, are worth much less today than when he made his initial bid of $54.20 per Twitter share. That means, market watchers say, now he’s overpaying for the company.
A lengthy and messy legal fight could be looming.