How Elon Musk’s anti-remote work comments can actually help HR leaders

Did your CEO once again raise the issue of ramping up your organization’s return-to-office policy recently? 

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If so, it wouldn’t be surprising given the controversial comments made last week by Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk on remote work. In a CNBC interview, Musk characterized Silicon Valley’s remote workers as the “laptop class” who are living in “la-la land.” He also called work-from-home policies “morally wrong” and said that all workers should return to the office.

“This is another prominent CEO saying, ‘I wish we were back in the office.’ I think it does encourage other CEOs to say, ‘Yes, that’s something we should be doing too,’ ” says Matthew Bidwell, a professor of management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in HR education.

CEOs are increasingly calling on their workforce to return to the office post-pandemic, citing the benefits of greater collaboration opportunities and higher productivity, despite concerns from HR leaders of diminished employee wellness, engagement and retention.

While Musk’s comments apparently ignore the risks in mandating everyone return to the office, they nonetheless create a conversation around remote work, which may not be a bad idea, says Tammy Allen, a distinguished professor in the psychology department at the University of South Florida.

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Meanwhile, consider this statistic offered by Josh Bersin, co-founder and CEO of The Josh Bersin Co.: More than 66% of survey participants have told said they will not work for a company that mandates full-time work in the office because they need and like flexibility.

“There is no reason for a CEO to be moralistic about this just because some employees have to work in a plant or a retail location,” Bersin tells HRE. In his video interview, Musk called it immoral for companies to allow workers who use laptops to work from home while requiring factory and service employees to show up at work in person. Musk noted these factory and service workers are the ones providing the goods and services that the “laptop class” enjoys.

Bersin notes that he recently talked with Verizon, which has more than 150,000 employees, some of whom work in retail stores, manufacturing plants, IT or the back office. And many of the IT and back-office employees can get much more work done remotely, while also saving time and money on commuting, he says.

Ironically, Bersin raises questions about Musk’s consideration of the wellbeing of his employees at Twitter, Tesla, SpaceX or any of his other companies.

“His companies are not known as great places to work, and I’ve actually talked with HR people who worked at Tesla who were laid off or told to leave because they disagreed with him,” Bersin says. “I would not take Tesla’s success as a business as an indicator that the company is a positive example of a great workplace. I would wonder how Elon feels about pay equity, DEI and some of the other things that worry HR leaders.”

Navigating hybrid and remote work discussions with your CEO

If your CEO is increasingly leaning toward mandating a return to office or ramping up its frequency, here are some actionable steps to consider, Bidwell says.

First, understand and address the pressures your boss is under. Second, consider rational persuasion, Bidwell advises.

He notes, however, that it is difficult to dissuade your CEO from mandating return-to-work policies if your organization has no retention problems and candidates are lining up to apply.

“This is probably not an argument you’re going to win if you want to retain a lot of hybrid or remote workers,” he says.

Although Bersin says that CEOs have legitimate reasons to ask employees to come into the office, the ability to work remotely should not be viewed as a “privilege,” as Musk suggests. Instead, he says, it should be considered a positive productivity strategy.

“At some point, we will reach equilibrium,” he says. “But today, more than a third of all jobs posted cite hybrid work options, and I think this approach to work is a positive thing for workers, leaders and businesses.”

Dawn Kawamoto, Human Resource Executive
Dawn Kawamoto
Dawn Kawamoto is HR Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist who has covered technology business news for such publications as CNET and has covered the HR and careers industry for such organizations as Dice and Built In prior to joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected] and below on social media.