Elon Musk’s remote-work policy at Tesla exposes one of the company’s biggest problems

Elon Musk’s vision of work is increasingly out of step with the times. …

Elon Musk is calling Tesla executives back to the office—and using factory workers’ demanding schedules to justify his orders.

The Tesla CEO sent out an email on May 31 entitled “Remote work is no longer acceptble (sic)” arguing for the company to succeed, executives needed to be back in Tesla’s main offices. He noted that Tesla factory workers’ schedules were more taxing than those of its white-collar workers.

“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,” the electric-vehicle magnate wrote in the internal email reported by Bloomberg. “This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

Musk claimed in a follow-up email that his own stints working long hours and sleeping in Tesla’s Fremont factory were the reason the automaker had escaped bankruptcy. “The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence,” he wrote. “That is why I lived in the factory so much—so that those on the line could see me working alongside them.”

It’s true that Tesla factory workers have been known to log arduous hours. During Shanghai’s lockdown, Tesla workers reportedly pulled 12-hours shifts, six days a week, sleeping first in factories and later in makeshift dorm rooms. Tesla factory workers in the US have also been told to work 12-hour, six-day-a-week shifts during production ramp-ups.

But as a reason to reject remote work, grueling factory schedules are not a compelling argument. (Tesla’s stock is six times higher today than at the start of the pandemic when the company embraced remote work.) The more relevant question isn’t whether Tesla executives are doing too little, but whether Tesla pushes factory workers to do too much.

The working conditions of Tesla factory workers

Tesla has repeatedly come under criticism for its treatment of workers in its factories.

In May 2020, Musk reopened Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California, defying government stay-at-home orders and, critics say, endangering factory workers’ health. The Tesla plant had about 450 reported covid cases among its roughly 10,000 workers between May and December 2020. Several factory workers also said that they’d been fired for declining to come into work because of health concerns, despite Tesla’s assurances that they were not obligated to do so during the early months of the pandemic.

Musk’s lofty production goals at Tesla were also tied to illness and on-the-job injuries among factory workers, according to a 2017 investigation by The Guardian. While Tesla responded that it had made a number of changes aimed at improving safety conditions, it subsequently failed to report hundreds of injuries at the Fremont plant, according to California’s workplace health and safety regulator.

Elon Musk’s labor blind spot

Musk, who holds about $130 billion in Tesla shares, expects all of Tesla’s employees to care about his company as much as he does. A workaholic who once claimed that “no one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” Musk frequently recalls sleeping on the floor in solidarity with factory workers during Tesla’s “production hell” to launch the Model 3.

But the valorization of extreme hours and hustle culture is going out of fashion. Work-life balance and employee well-being are dominating the conversation—as CEO talking points, at the very least.

Musk’s views are out of step with this environment, in which workers are increasingly willing to make demands. White-collar workers are pushing back against return-to-office mandates. Some companies are giving in (or at least reducing the number of required in-person days). At the same time, Starbucks baristas and Apple retail workers are leading successful union drives. Hourly workers have made significant wage gains in the face of labor shortages.

As the US job market cools off, workers may lose some leverage. But sectors like manufacturing with higher-than-usual quit rates are still having trouble filling open jobs. Moreover, the pandemic has raised awareness of the difficult conditions faced by many blue-collar workers. Companies like Amazon are facing more scrutiny for their shoddy treatment of delivery and warehouse employees, something former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos admits must improve.

Tesla says it’s a company with a bold vision for the future. But the future of work appears to be expanding rights and improving conditions for workers, from the factory floor to the office suite. Musk’s letter to Tesla executives looks decidedly behind the times.

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