Elon Musk Mandate Demonstrates RTO Hybrid Work Failures

Elon Musk’s recent return to office or resign mandate has generated much debate. I spoke with Forbes’ Jena McGregor, senior editor, Careers & Leadership, for her story about how his memo didn’t just demand a return to office, it promoted overwork.

“The issue, say workplace experts: Employees today don’t just want flexibility about where they work. They want flexibility around when” and how.

My point: “‘People want flexibility in place and time. There is a call now to say how can we work better and smarter.’ As burnout and mental health issues increase, memos that imply working more than 40 hours a week is expected could ‘seem tone deaf to the current reality.’”

To me, his mandate was the latest and most extreme example of why current post-pandemic return to office/remote-hybrid work models are failing. I’m not surprised. I’ve been warning this would happen since the start of the year.

Musk ignored the risks of leading with a number of days/hours in the office mandate when demanding how people will work next.

Tesla will now be stuck in the one-size-fits-all, quit OR 100% onsite binary choice and miss the flexible possibilities in between that would actually optimize how, when and where people worked based on the realities of their jobs.

Tesla will fail to optimize the work and relationship activity taking place during those days/hours employees are required to be onsite.

For example, Musk’s memo noted, “it’s important for senior employees to show their presence” and he said it’s why he “lived in the factory so much.” If that is how senior employees need to operate, then lead with that responsibility and explain why it matters, then determine when and how that presence happens best in addition to their other priorities.

Tesla will now end up managing by exception, using a highly-subjective process that undermines any sense of consistency and fairness: “If there are particularly exceptional contributors for whom this is impossible, I will review and approve those exceptions directly,” Musk wrote.

Further undermining Musk’s credibility, was that he also cited rationale that wasn’t necessarily fact-based “There are of course companies that don’t require this, but when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while.”

Well, I’m not sure that’s true considering many companies posted some of their best-operating results during the past two years.

So, looking ahead here’s how I think this will play out for Tesla:

Immediately recruiters in the electric vehicle, tech, and sustainable energy sectors will contact Tesla employees offering salary, benefits, AND flexibility. Some Tesla employees may stay. But I believe many will quit.

The first question future Tesla job candidates will ask those same recruiters, “Do I have to work at the office full-time?” And I suspect if the answer is still yes, many future job candidates will take a pass.

Ultimately, this will force Tesla to figure out a flexible operating model that achieves its business goals driven by the realities of people’s jobs, and lives. And yes, that likely will include some combination of remote and intentional in-person presence. But it will happen with a new workforce that Tesla will probably have to also pay more money to hire and develop.

That’s what happens when organizations and executives focus first or solely on where we work, instead of leading with “what do we need to do.”