Why Elon Musk and Other Tech Leaders Are Right to Ban Remote Work While Elon Musk is right to question the effectiveness of fully remote teams, his solution to return to the office full-time is misguided. Here's one remote CEO's take on why his concerns are right, but his solution is wrong — and how to make remote work functional.
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The announcement followed a reasonably predictable pattern by Musk, who had previously banned remote work at Tesla and SpaceX. Before that email — which was sent on the evening of November 9th, roughly two weeks after Musk acquired the social media company — Twitter was known as a remote work pioneer in the tech industry. The company had begun transitioning to remote work as early as 2018 under the leadership of its founder and then-CEO Jack Dorsey. It was among the first to announce a permanent work-from-home policy at the pandemic's start.
Twitter is the latest tech company to drop or dial back remote work. In recent months other big-name employers like Apple, Google, Snap and General Motors have reversed their permanent work-from-home policies in favor of one that requires workers to be physically present all or a majority of the time they are working.
Musk's announcement and others like it are typically met with industry insiders warning that the move will hobble their recruiting efforts — which it probably will — and negatively affect employee engagement and productivity. On that charge, however, I would have to disagree.
As the founder of a company that builds remote collaboration solutions, the CEO of an organization that doesn't have an office, and as someone who hasn't worked in an office in years, it might surprise some to hear that I believe Musk is right — just not for the reasons he thinks.
In the sudden transition to remote work at the outset of the pandemic, many organizations sought to cut and paste their existing policies, processes, culture and tools for their new working reality. After all, most tech firms had some experience with Zoom, email, Slack and other asynchronous communication tools before the pandemic. They believed their workplace culture could be easily adapted to a remote setting, at least temporarily.
Amidst the madness of those early pandemic days, there wasn't much appetite to completely overhaul existing workplace structures. In the months and years that followed, only some companies took the necessary steps to become a truly remote-first employer.
That is why many still complain of communication gaps, degrading team cohesion, and a quickly disintegrating workplace culture. A recent study suggests that nine in ten employers want to bring workers back to the office in the New Year. Those employers listed communication as their top concern, followed by creativity, productivity, company culture and employee oversight.
Remote work isn't working for most companies because their underlying structures, norms and tools remain optimized for in-person work. Without implementing a new set of norms and expectations, communication strategies, handoff processes and collaboration tools explicitly designed to facilitate practical remote work, they are better off calling employees back into the offices.
The problem is that despite inflation, high-profile tech layoffs, rising interest rates and fears of a recession, the American workforce is expected to suffer a significant talent shortage for the foreseeable future, according to most economists. That is because the underlying causes — namely, retiring Baby Boomers and a slowdown in immigration to make up the gap — will take years to resolve. In the meantime, companies that make themselves more appealing to domestic talent by offering more flexible work, or can effectively tap into the global workforce, will be at an advantage.
But realizing those benefits isn't possible within a system built for in-person work. Until they adapt their processes, culture and tools for a truly remote-first or even hybrid company, organizations will always experience a certain degree of friction in those commonly cited areas of concern.
So yes, Elon Musk and other tech employers probably are better off bringing their staff back into the office than operating remotely as their companies exist today. In the long run, however, the organizations that will ultimately thrive during what is widely anticipated to be a prolonged period of talent scarcity will be those that are optimized to operate remotely.