Elon Musk’s authoritarian delusions about office work will hurt Tesla

Elon Musk recently demanded that all Tesla staff return to the office full-time or “pretend to work elsewhere.” This high-handed, top-down approach rooted in mistrust and false assumptions goes against best practices and reflects an illusion of control that will almost certainly undermine employee productivity, engagement, innovation, retention and recruitment at You’re here.

One of Musk’s false assumptions is that employees are “pretending” to work from home. However, research using both surveys and behavior tracking shows that working remotely leads to higher productivity. While employees have improved their work from home during the pandemic, academics have demonstrated a further increase in productivity in remote work, from 5% in summer 2020 to 9% in May 2022.

Yet despite this readily available evidence, Musk wrote in another leaked email that those who work remotely “phone” and stressed the importance of being visible. His emphasis on office visibility speaks to a highly traditionalist leadership mindset underpinned by the illusion of control. This cognitive bias describes the tendency of our mind to overestimate the extent to which we control external events.

This is especially prevalent among authoritarian executives who want to dominate their employees. They believe that the presence of employees in the office guarantees productivity.

In fact, research shows that office workers work much less than the full eight-hour day. They actually spend 39% of their time working, according to a recent study by project management software company Workfront. The rest is spent on other activities, from checking social media to finding other jobs.

Musk’s desire for control runs directly counter to what we know is essential for information worker productivity, engagement, and happiness: the desire for autonomy. A study of 307 companies found that greater autonomy translates to more innovation. And the key to self-reliance in the post-pandemic environment is giving workers the flexibility to know where and when they are working.

Musk’s obvious lack of trust in his employees contrasts with the much more flexible work policies of other organizations, and that includes manufacturing and technology companies where Tesla employees might go. Consider the manufacturing company 3M’s approach, which the company explicitly calls “trust-based.” The company allows employees to “create a schedule that helps them work when and where they can most effectively.”

As another example of a potential workplace for Tesla personnel, Applied Materials, a high-tech manufacturer, has developed an “Excellence from Anywhere” modality. Rather than a top-down approach, Applied has a team-led model, where leaders work with team members to determine personalized practices for each team and each employee. Applied is adopting these best practices to facilitate innovation in remote and hybrid working in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining the workforce.

Numerous studies show that 40% to 60% of employees would look for another job if they were forced to come to work against their will. And I’ll gladly eat my hat if we don’t see an increase in quit rates at Tesla following a forced return to the office.

Indeed, we immediately saw a pushback against Musk’s demands for a return to the office of employee representatives in Germany, where Tesla’s first union formed. Those without union representation will vote with their feet.

Musk’s illusion of control and false assumptions will mean serious losses for Tesla and a gain for companies innovating on the future of work.

Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist and author of “Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage”.

Jose C. Birney