Remote work at Elon Musk's Tesla is reportedly ‘no longer acceptable’

'They should pretend to work somewhere else.'
Brad Bergan
Elon Musk (left), and an automotive assembly line (right).1, 2

Looks like Elon Musk is not a fan of remote work.

The CEO of Tesla is firmly opposed to letting his employees work from home, according to initial reports from Bloomberg and Electrek, which shared an email Musk reportedly sent to his Tesla staff that included the subject line: "Remote work is no longer acceptable," demanding employees work for at least 40 hours in the office.

And if they don't, Musk wants them to "depart Tesla" — since he wants the office to be a "main Tesla office," instead of a "remote branch office."

In other words, work in-office, or quit.

Perhaps the most revealing sign of Musk's grasp of remote work can be gleaned from a tweet where he replied to a screenshot of the email. Instead of denying the authenticity of the screencap, Musk said people who want to work outside of the office "should pretend to work somewhere else."

This is baffling on several levels, mainly because it means Musk doesn't understand that, in a fully automated workplace where workers can monitor production via computers, the empirical science on remote work clearly shows that there is zero negative impact on productivity.

Elon Musk: remote work doesn't guarantee 'great' products

In the screencap of the email, Musk said he is open to requests from employees to work remotely — but under very "exceptional" (possibly subjective) circumstances. "If there are particularly exceptional contributors for whom this is impossible, I will review and approve those exceptions directly," said Musk. To Musk, every person working 40 hours per week is "less than we ask of factory workers."

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A follow-up email reported by Electrek detailed Musk's rationale for refusing remote work: spending nearly all of his time in his Tesla factory is why the firm has survived until today. "The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence," Musk wrote. "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."

What (or who) are Tesla's assembly robots for

There is something to say about the way companies with the loudest brands tend to also be the ones with the most controversy surrounding the way employees are treated. Amazon releases a lot of "great" products, and sells pretty much everything, but conditions for workers are so bad that — even as its factories collapse from a literal tornado — they're expected to remain inside, and risk their lives for a barely livable wage.

But more to the point, a recent study published in IOS Press definitively found that employees of information companies saw zero loss in productivity while working remotely. Of course, "information companies" is another way of saying "white collar;" office employees whose major physical health risks rarely exceed carpal tunnel syndrome. But it's important to remember that Musk's Tesla has and continues to invest heavily in building the machines that build the machines — automating as much of the factory as possible.

This is presumably to make the lives of humans easier — as is the essential pitch of any robot's usefulness. If Tesla is invested in automating its production of electric vehicles, then (logically) eventually fewer human workers will need to be physically present to monitor the smooth production of EVs. If you can do it on a computer, you can do it anywhere, full stop. The question raised, then, is this: When humanoid robots execute the full assembly process of Musk's EV production, what excuses are left to force employees into the office, besides grossly outdated "by-the-bootstraps" metaphors of entrepreneurial exceptionalism?

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