Elon Musk’s back-to-office demands: Takeaways on employee experience

Is Musk’s firm note to his employees a display of strong leadership or is it an indication of a strictly vertical style of management?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In a now-familiar type of news-dominating blitz, Elon Musk’s internal policy has leaked, and we are now all learning what the CEO of SpaceX, Twitter, and Tesla thinks about remote work. In case you missed it, he’s against it. In quotes, see the image below (right-click for larger version): 

Here, we will not address whether the policy is relevant or not, as it may be a fair debate of whether the functions and activities of Musk’s teams can be the most productive remotely or on-site, or both. The answer in fact would require a complex discussion involving various leaders, and external experts.

This leads us to the heart of the concern. What observers are seeing here is an interesting display of leadership, where seemingly one dominating voice is dictating a life-changing decision to many people, in support of what seems like a return to Fordist management.

The outstanding elements of communication that we can highlight here include:

  • The use of injunction to communicate policy: “must be in the office,” indicates a strictly vertical style of management.
  • The use of ultimatum rhetoric: “be in the office, or depart Tesla,” may induce confusion about the process, despite a clear message about expectations.
  • The use of a disruptive email title: “From: Elon Musk – To be super clear,” shows that Musk leans heavily on his all-business-ceasing influence, however it may be noted that this is follow-up content rather than policymaking.
  • The time of sending: “10:51pm,” is worthy of note, indicating a certain level of comfort of Musk managing outside of working hours, putting the 40 hours in the office in an interesting perspective.
  • The use of empirical, heliocentric testimonial: “This is why I lived in the factory so much,” shows that Musk trusts his individual experience as a defining model.
  • The use of candid language and tone of voice indicates that Musk’s management is fluid and informal, even though in contradiction with the policies he looks to enforce.

So what can industry leaders take away from this? Here are our recommendations when it comes to policymaking, culture, and internal communications.

The voice of leaders acts as immediate culture-shaping.

What leaders and ultimately founders express is a critical piece of their employer brand. In the case of Musk, there is an intention that shall be fulfilled, that of filtering out team members who are not aligned with the founder’s vision. Some companies, the more heliocentric, centered around an individual may live well with spontaneous communication like in Musk’s example. In other cases, leaders shall tread carefully.

Each company has subcultures, and it may be damaging to ignore their diversity.

In Musk’s approach, factory work and office work are deemed to be unified in policy. This implies a rigidity that may disrupt the efficiency of specific functions themselves. Do support functions require the same working methods as industrial functions? Companies may want to find common ground to maximise collaboration (optimised synchronization and asynchronisation by use of technology for example) and create a sense of inclusion rather than belonging: the injunction to “do like the other team” polarizes people and may lead to friction rather than cohesion.

Finally, allow me to modestly offer a pro-bono rewrite for Elon Musk (see image below, right-click for larger version), understanding that most of his budget may be currently funnelled towards a high-stakes media acquisition. This aims to reshape the email into a charismatic launch of policy, corresponding to the entrepreneur-does-all personality of Musk while motivating employees rather than pressuring them away.

Vu Quan Nguyen Masse is VP of culture & brand, ASEAN, at Vero. 

Campaign Asia

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