Elon Musk is Wrong About Remote Work

Thor: Why Elon is wrong about remote work

You might have heard that Elon Musk is not allowing any Tesla employees to work remote. In an email on May 31st he announced:

Everyone at Tesla is required to spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week. Moreover, the office must be where your actual colleagues are located, not some remote pseudo office. If you don't show up, we will assume you have resigned

We at Optemization were immediately up in arms in our Slack. As an agency that works with a lot of remote-first organizations, we have seen both the ups and downsides of remote. We have helped hundreds of employees work more efficiently by building systems that work best for their teams. In doing so, we have become quite opinionated on the topic. So, we decided to lift the curtain on our internal debate.

Of course, I responded first:

Thor - he’s nuts. A genius, successful, but nuts. oh and wrong lol

Daniel - I'm curious, do you think SpaceX could have launched their rockets into space if they were remote?

Thor - haha, of course not Dan. But not all teams need to be in office, nor in office 100% of the time, with little to no exceptions. Work takes up too much time in our life, we need to prioritize life over work. Sending an email like this is prioritizing the work, not the people. I appreciate Tesla, and what Elon has accomplished. But comparing his work ethic, when he makes billions off of it, to a general line worker is not relevant.

Daniel - Yeah I’m really conflicted on this because I’m a bit of a fanboy. All his decisions are reasoned and logical and I would assume there has to be data behind this decision. Thor — at the same time, remote work is obviously superior. so at what point do we draw the line?

Thor - Yeah, I get the fanboy side Dan. It can cloud judgment, as it has for me in the past too. I think the point is that the line doesn’t need to be so solid. Different teams, in different roles, and under different circumstances should have a choice. Remote work is a way to level a playing field and limit social, and economical barriers. Why limit a single mother/father, a disabled person, a person with an autoimmune disease, or someone in a 3rd world country from being able to make a change because they cannot be on site. They could be geniuses, experts, or visionaries. Additionally, proximity does not equate to excellence. The infrastructure we have built destroyed our planet, why not use it to fix it. Isn’t that his goal? Well kinda, he is also destroying it, while trying to escape it – when it collapses.

After this reactive Slack thread, we all simmered down and put this chat to the wayside. Well, we tried to. We still had thoughts and opinions around it, so we thought we’d elaborate on our thinking further.

Daniel: Why is Elon is actually right

Elon Musk is perhaps right about remote work — it isn't all as cracked up to be. Remote work is consistently praised for being the best way to work for many employees. We're indeed a remote-first agency. However, I'd suggest the reality is more complicated - and we need to consider the limitations and negative impacts of remote work if we are to improve upon it and make it more effective for general widespread application.

Firstly, the negative effects of remote work are indeed very real. Feelings of social isolation and loneliness are prevalent and have been documented comprehensively online. In order to unpack this, we need to explore what it means to be productive, fulfilled, and connected at your workplace.

Productivity has one too many different definitions

Indeed, the definition of productivity is expanding. Individuals are likely to define productivity as output, and managers as define productivity as outcomes. This represents a difference in perspective: individuals will measure their effectiveness based on how much they have worked whereas managers will be likely to disregard this and instead focus on what outcome was achieved: regardless of output. Clarifying this is essential if we are to have a remote-first environment where incentives are aligned. At the moment, this hasn’t always been the case.

Optimizing for work life balance, culture and morale

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Another factor to take into account is the fact that perspectives on work-life balance have been transforming. Individuals are now more likely to put an emphasis on a healthy work-life balance are more likely to put family and personal life over work than they were before the pandemic. For managers - such as Elon - this represents a change in perspective and the need to manage these incentives carefully. Remote workers have to balance this work-life integration themselves whereas being in an office immediately eliminates this need for work-life balance and management. In this sense, being in an office is easier for managers and individuals. There is no burden on the individual to integrate and manage their work-life balance as it’s already prescribed by the working hours of the office.

From a culture and morale standpoint, being in an office has a long history of serendipitous water cooler conversations, informal chats, and cross-pollination between departments. Not only is this a source of knowledge sharing but it's also essential for morale and trust between team members. Remote work hasn't seemed to crack the code to this yet; despite promising efforts from Gather, Tandem, and Slack bots to promote this.

Another major point is that remote work can have mixed impacts on subjective wellbeing. Remote work can improve job satisfaction, but employees may also feel socially isolated, guilty, and try to overcompensate. Technology can certainly help with this - as we explored in our article on Centered and its ability to co-work with others silently next to one another. Burnout remains rife in remote work. It's not a guarantee that going remote will immediately give you a work-life balance that is just right.

The Leaf Blower problem also seems systemic across remote teams: a phenomena to describe a situation in which a distracting sound on one speaker's side disrupts the flow of conversation whilst not being perceptual by the other team members. The result is a fragmented and clunky dialogue experience which simply is better done in the case of real-life meetings.

Absurd amount of Zoom meetings

Unless managed correctly, there is a tendency for remote-first companies to overprescribe meetings throughout the week. This contributes to video meeting fatigue, loss of deep work, and loss of autonomy within the organization. It’s essential that companies take advantage of asynchronous tools to share and collaborate on knowledge (indeed, this is our expertise). However, from a broad level, it’s not clear that async-first culture is as of yet prevalent. In this respect, it makes sense for companies to use a hybrid model of some office working and some home working until a healthy and sustainable cadence for meetings can be established.

Video meeting fatigue remains salient in the remote workforce: Video meeting tools introduce limitations on the amount of non-verbal information which can be shared in real-time, such as body language, eye contact, and facial expressions. At the same time, workers are faced with the friction of using meeting tools (microphone on and off, hand raising, fluent dialogue) which has the effect of limiting the natural flow that would happen in a real-life meeting.

The picture is not clear that remote work is ubiquitously the best solution for employees and managers. In the case of Elon, it is clear that he believes having team members in the office, and boots on the ground are the best approach towards ensuring that team members are focused and present and not having to juggle the ball between work, life, and everything in between.

Thor: Rebuttal to Office Conventions

I understand and appreciate your point of view. All of these are valid use cases, but the problem with this situation isn’t remote vs colocated vs hybrid, it’s that companies are doing what it thinks is best for the business, not for the employee. The solution is choice, not any of these explicitly.

Every person is different and every person should have their choice, with few exceptions. The exceptions are mainly: you work on a hardware product that cannot be built offsite (rockets), you interact with customers every single day, or you work on very sensitive material that cannot be secured otherwise.

Other than those situations, the worker, the person actually doing the day-to-day job – manager or individual contributor, should have a choice.

Work-life harmony should not be punted when an employee walks into a building, as this is insensitive to the person. Remote work, above all else, is considering people.

Meetings that do not require collaboration simply aren’t needed. If the meeting cannot flow because there are too many squares on your grid to keep up, there are too many people in that meeting.

Water cooler chats or forced social gatherings, make some people uncomfortable.

Family is part of life, even when in an office building. There will be situations when you need to be with them and can still do your work. PTO should not be used in these cases.

Productivity is indicative of the work. A manager is more productive in a meeting, an individual contributor is more productive in a collaboration session or in solitude.

If a company cannot manage a person or a team remotely, they need to learn how to manage.

I am not saying that remote work, 100% of the time is always applicable, but I am saying that having the choice 100% of the time is. Elon is wrong because he is not considering the blood that fuels his billions, people.

Daniel: Wrap Up

For now, I support the idea that remote work cannot be applied generally and indiscriminately to all companies in the marketplace; there are several improvements that need to be made both to manager-individual relationships and technology before remote-first work can become widespread and the de-facto approach to working. Despite this, technological improvements are very promising in this arena and as we establish better practices around asynchronous and collaboration practices remote work will become more applicable to a wider set of companies. At the same time, the Hybrid model is something that is still very new and unexplored; there is plenty of promise here for a more effective way to work.

Thor: Wrap Up

So, the jury is out if Elon is 100% wrong. His statements are bold, but they hold some truth. Regardless, if remote is the best way to work or not, it is hard to deny that people deserve options and the freedom to choose how they work. For some people, remote is the best option, but for others, it is less clear. You do what is best for you and if that means having to quit your job a Tesla or SpaceX, so be it.

About the Authors

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Hi I'm Thor 👋 (Yep, it's my real name, I swear!). Originally from Brooklyn, recently transplanted from South Florida to Portland, Oregon. I am a storyteller and minimalist. In a previous life I was a product manager. Now I’m only working on projects that bring me fulfillment, which revolved around remote work, minimalism, environmentalism, and sustainability.

Fun fact: When I am not behind my monitor I am hiking, biking, or picking up heavy things.

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Hey I’m Daniel! I’m originally from Oxford UK. I joined the Optemization team in late 2021 after finding it on Twitter. For the past 8 months, I has worked as a Notion Consultant on 18 different projects. In particular, I enjoyed building workspaces for Loop and Discord.

Fun fact: When I’m is not building Notion workspaces, I enjoy riding my motorbike around the Cotswolds.

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