W Power 2024

Elon Musk to workers: Spend 40 hours in the office, or else

Over the past few years, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and many other companies have announced and then delayed return-to-office dates as coronavirus surges have complicated plans, even as remote work became normalised

By Ryan Mac
Published: Jun 2, 2022

Elon Musk to workers: Spend 40 hours in the office, or elseElon Musk poses with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Feb. 5, 2018. In emails to workers at SpaceX and Tesla, Musk said workers were required to spend a minimum of 40 hours a week in the office. (Todd Anderson/The New York Times)

Elon Musk is demanding that his workers return to the office. Musk, the world’s richest man, sent a pair of similar memos Tuesday to push his employees at SpaceX, the rocket company he runs, and Tesla, the electric carmaker he leads, to spend time in the office.

In his email to SpaceX employees, Musk told workers they were required to “spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week.” Those who did not do so would be fired, he wrote in the memo, which was obtained by The New York Times.

“The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence,” Musk said. “That is why I spent so much time in the factory — so that those on the line could see me working alongside them. If I had not done that, SpaceX would long ago have gone bankrupt.”

In his memo to Tesla’s executive staff, which was posted by two pro-Tesla Twitter accounts and which the billionaire appeared to confirm, Musk also wrote that “anyone who wishes to do remote work” must be in the office for a minimum of 40 hours a week. Those who decline should “depart Tesla,” he added.

With his twin notes, Musk waded directly into a fractious debate over the right way for corporations to bring workers back to the office during the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past few years, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and many other companies have announced and then delayed return-to-office dates as coronavirus surges have complicated plans. Remote work has become normalized.

The issue has become more fraught as coronavirus vaccinations have increased and an abatement of the pandemic seemed to be near. Some companies began saying they expected workers to return to the office. Still, plans have continued to fluctuate. Apple last month suspended its requirement that employees return to the office in May for at least three days a week because of a resurgence of COVID cases. Airbnb recently told its employees they never had to return to the office.

Musk, Tesla and SpaceX did not return requests for comment.

Many employees at Tesla and SpaceX had already been back to the office to some extent. In 2020, as “nonessential” workplaces in California closed their doors during the early days of the pandemic, SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters used its exemption as a government contractor to remain open. In a March 2020 email, which was earlier reported by BuzzFeed News, Musk told SpaceX employees that they had a higher risk of being killed in a car crash than dying from coronavirus.

In May 2020, Musk also attacked local officials in the San Francisco Bay Area for not letting him reopen Tesla’s factory in Fremont. Tesla sued Alameda County, where the factory is situated, and reopened it anyway, in defiance of health officials’ instructions.

Tesla, which had more than 99,000 employees at the end of last year, has moved its headquarters to Austin, Texas, from Palo Alto, California, though it still has a significant manufacturing and operational presence in California. SpaceX employs about 12,000 people, Musk said in a recent interview.

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, said Musk’s directives to employees at SpaceX and Tesla were among the strictest of tech companies. Many tech companies have instead considered hybrid models in which employees can work from home for part of the time, he said.

Bloom said he expected SpaceX and Tesla to lose about 10% to 20% of their current workforces and for recruiters to try to poach employees by offering jobs with more flexible work options.

Many Tesla and SpaceX employees who work in cutting-edge tech may believe in Musk, but there are also people “who are in more common activities like IT, finance, HR and payroll,” Bloom said. “They may say: ‘I’m not designing cars. I’m doing the payroll of employees, and I can do that somewhere else.’ ”

Annie Dean, the head of distributed work for Atlassian, an Australian software company, called Musk’s view “outdated.”

“This mindset is regressive and discounts the last two years of collaborative, digital-first work,” said Dean, who was a former head of remote work at Meta, the owner of Facebook, in an email.

In his email to SpaceX employees on Tuesday, Musk suggested that companies that didn’t require workers return to the office would not be able to ship “a great new product.”

“SpaceX has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company in space,” he said. “This will not happen by phoning it in.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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