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    Musk is in the office

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    Opinion

    The Tesla CEO is no fan of ‘remote working’

    There are lots of things Elon Musk is good at and one of them is the ability to stay on the front pages of news media every day. He announces major corporate initiatives, criticises his peer CEOs, teases the politicians, buys (and does not buy) companies, irritates the Securities and Exchange Commission, annoys the State of California, and the list can go on. He gives reporters enough variety to want to promptly report him.

    His most recent stirring of the pot is his announcement that he wants all Tesla employees to be in office and ‘remote working is no longer acceptable.’ This is an issue that has been roiling corporate America and CEOs have been trying to play nice. Most companies while announcing their policies have hedged their bets — yes, people can work from home, but it is up to their managers to decide, we are supportive of family concerns, our productivity has remained high, we would love it if the employee can show up at the office at some time maybe a couple of times a week, but let them not feel pressured about it, and more mush.

    Here is one CEO who says it like he thinks and gives us armchair analysts lots to analyse. His latest pronouncement about Tesla’s office rule is worth quoting. He said about employees who don’t want to come to the office: ‘They should pretend to work somewhere else.’ He does not mince words about what he thinks about people who work remote, that they are ‘pretending’ to work. Other points that he makes are worth noting: he requires his employees to spend ‘at least 40 hours a week’ in the company’s offices, and he thinks his company cannot create the exciting products that it does by ‘employees phoning in’. And he wants his senior staff to be visible to the rest. (And to add to all this, he announced that he will be laying off 10 per cent of the staff due to concerns about recession.)

    These give us something to reflect about his work culture given the products and technologies his companies are involved in. That they expect people to work more than the standard 40 hours per week (so forget family time) is a given. The company also seems to require senior staff to be hands-on and closely monitor and control the work, and possibly believes the random interactions that take place in the physical space aid not only innovation but also quick decision-making.

    Management style

    Management specialists threw-up their hands when they read his views. Columns have appeared charging him with being stuck in a bygone management style mentality, when people believed that employees should be physically present in the workplace for work to get done. The nature of work has changed and lots of work is broken up in such a way that parts of it can be done elsewhere efficiently and effectively.

    Survey results have appeared that show how productivity went up during the forced work-from-home environment during the pandemic which gave confidence to many organisations that they can continue with the policy even after the physical distancing requirements receded. Moreover, some argue that Musk’s pronouncements suggest a top-down style of management which is known to kill innovation. The Tesla trade union in Germany has responded with a cryptic — these decisions cannot be taken by the company alone — kind of response.

    But Musk is also one-of -a-kind. He runs not only an aerospace company and an electric vehicle company, but also a couple of high tech start-ups, Neuralink and The Boring Company, and now wants to run a social media company.

    How come his companies continue to do well with their CEO shooting his mouth (and frequently his foot) on a regular basis? Perhaps because he has left good people in charge of them and they know when to ignore him.

    The writer is an emeritus professor at Suffolk University, Boston

    Published on June 07, 2022

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