Elon Musk sent his staff two blunt emails requiring them to work in the office, not remotely. His tone was bold. His meaning was clear. But his policies aren’t going to get him what he wants — especially if he ends up applying them to his next acquisition, Twitter.
What Musk Wrote
Musk sent his first email to the Executive Staff. Here’s the text:
From: Elon Musk
Sent: Tuesday, May 31, 2022 1:19 PM
Subject: Remote work is no longer acceptble [sic]
Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean minimum) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla. This is less than we ask of factory workers.
If there are particularly exceptional contributors for whom this is impossible, I will review and approve those exceptions directly.
Moreover, the “office” must be a main Tesla office, not a remote branch office unrelated to the job duties, for example being responsible for Fremont factory human relations, but having your office be in another state.
Just to make sure no one was confused, he followed this up with the following general email:
From: Elon Musk
Subject: To be super clear
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.
The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence. That is why I lived in the factory so much — so that those on the line could see me working alongside them. If I had not done that, Tesla would long ago have gone bankrupt.
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.
Tesla has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth. This will not happen by phoning it in.
Is Musk clear?
Recall that in my book, bullshit is “Communication that wastes readers’ time by failing to communicate clearly and accurately.” According to that definition, this is a bullshit-free pair of emails.
I’ll address the question of whether this is a good policy in a moment. But if this is what you want to say, is the way Musk said it the best way to communicate?
Here’s what’s good about these emails:
- They are brief. There is no fluff.
- It is written directly to the reader. (Can you imagine any employee reading this and wondering “Does he mean me?”)
- The sentences are short and direct.
- The sentences almost all in active voice. (Did you spot the one passive? It begins “Everyone at Tesla is required . . . “)
- There is no jargon.
- There is certainly no equivocation, no weasel words. There’s no “nearly everyone” or “mostly” or “generally” or “hopefully” here. If you want to be an exception, you need the CEO’s permission — and I’d sure hate to be the one asking Musk for that.
These emails are certainly not perfect. I’d like to see a little more justification than “The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence.” It is obvious why factory workers need to work in the factory. It is not obvious why office workers need to follow this example.
Still, most corporate directives are weak and equivocal and far from clear. This gets an A for clarity, where nearly everything else I read is a C at best.
Is Musk right?
They hybrid workplace is a reality now. Even the most stubborn of CEOs have embraced it.
Many of the best intellectual workers expect to be able to work anywhere. Musk is basically telling them, “You’re wrong, fuck off.”
Given the tight market for talent right now — along with the legendary harshness of Musk as CEO and his recent odd outbursts — you have to wonder if the most talented engineers, marketers, and managers will want to work at a Tesla where you always have to be in the office. When the stock was rocketing up the charts, equity grants meant you could get rich. But Tesla stock is down 40% from its peak. If you’re counting on stock to make you rich, that prospect is a lot more uncertain than it used to be.
If you are in customer service or marketing or procurement or accounting at Tesla, why must you come to the office every day? To show the factory workers you’re dedicated? To prove something to Elon Musk who has contempt for the “remote pseudo office”? Because Tesla isn’t smart enough to master the hybrid work technologies that everyone else has begun to make highly effective?
Consider Musk’s own question: “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.” When was the last time Tesla shipped a great new product? There is no Cybertruck (announced 2019, promised for 2020). There is no Semi (announced 2017, promised for 2019). There are no humanoid robots (announced 2021). The last model launched was the Model Y, which started shipping in March 2020. So “the last time” Tesla announced a great new product was two years ago — if you think the Model Y is great. So far, all these products are what Jeff Tarter used to call “vaporware.”
If Musk acquires Twitter and applies this everybody-in-the-office philosophy, it will be a bloodbath. He may believe that Tesla cannot be great unless people work together in person. I’d argue that Twitter cannot be great unless it continues to embrace hybrid work.
My experience with Tesla is that the products are truly great and the rest of it varies from ordinary to dreadful. Work is not just products. You can be awesome working from home and awful working from a corporate desk.
Musk’s meaning is clear. But he’s wrong.