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Elon Musk vs Remote Working: Is He Right?

Is remote working making us lazy? Killing productivity? Or are these rationals for a return to the office born from the frustration of trying to learn the new management skills to oversee disparate teams?
Is remote working making us lazy? Killing productivity? Or are these rationals for a return to the office born from the frustration of trying to learn the new management skills to oversee disparate teams?
  • Remote online work has become prevalent in recent years, but some business leaders, including Elon Musk, have expressed strong reservations about it
  • Managers face several challenges in transitioning to a hybrid work model, including inconsistent perceptions about office return, deciding which changes to maintain, managing expectations, and expanded HR involvement, finds research by King’s Business School
  • A survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) indicates mixed perceptions about the value of online degrees and suggests that in-person education is seen as fostering stronger leadership and communication skills

When Zoom changed its remote working policy to make employees come in at least twice a week, the irony was palpable; Zoom, designed for virtual interactions, now nudging its own team to gather in person.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and an evolution of tech which helped platforms like Zoom to take off, online work has become normalised and wildly popular for employees across multiple industries. But some prominent business leaders have recently highlighted their reluctance to let such flexibilities continue… Leaders like Elon Musk.

While we’re all scratching our heads wondering whether ‘X’ marks for treasure or the gravestone of a famous bird, the person behind Twitter’s recent makeover has been characteristically outspoken about what he thinks of working online.

Morally wrong, a productivity buzzkill, and just plain arrogant, are some of the phrases Musk has used regarding employees who wish to, and sometimes demand to, work remotely

Full disclosure, Musk might say I am slacking right now. Remote work, with its allure of completing tasks from this cosy corner of a café, has seamlessly woven itself into my routine.

Despite this, I’m open to the idea that maybe he’s right – perhaps to my own detriment. Maybe there’s a reason some (not all) of the top businesses are requiring their employees to visit the office once a week, at the very least.

Maybe there’s some truth behind Musk’ belief that remote work creates employees that are less productive, hindering progress like the 280-character limit of a Tweet.

Why might managers feel remote work is holding them back?

For one, remote ‘managing’ has proved more challenging for senior business leaders and middle managers than when everything was done in person.

Research led by Dr. Amanda Jones and Professor Kleinman at King’s Business School, King’s College London, set out to explore the challenges faced by managers in large London organisations and across diverse industries. Their findings shed light on key managerial complexities of transitioning to a hybrid work model….

As with everything, not all workers will, nor do, agree on hybrid working. For some, remote work means greater flexibility around their personal schedules, resulting in better working conditions for themselves. For others, working from home even just two days a week is highlighted to create more challenges to their roles.

And for managers, navigating these varying positions was highlighted by employers in London to be a formidable task. The survey underlined how difficult business leaders find managing differing employee expectations in the context of hybrid work on top of supporting, evaluating and developing their staff. 

One manager in the report highlighted that some employees have “been quite resistant to coming back in … They don’t need to have a conversation with nine different people from nine different departments [to]do their job right.” For an employee, the added flexibility or remote work might be more valuable, meaning that when managers are faced with trying to set company-wide policies, it can be difficult to get everyone to adhere.

And so, with this added layer of everyone wanting to work in the way that suits them best, business leaders are struggling to decide which pandemic-related changes they want to keep, and which ones they want to, or need to, end. There was a notable shift in power underlined by London’s managers, with many employees now needing justification and incentive to return to the office beyond simply doing their jobs.

Motivating colleagues or encouraging mandated office days while not alienating anyone has not been easy to draft up, according to the King’s survey. One manager interviewed highlighted; “I will never work for a company in the rest of my life that demands I’m in an office five days a week because it would feel … like working for a company that told me I had to wear a suit, tie, waistcoat, tie pin, and … a tailcoat to work. It feels very formal and restrictive.” What was once an unquestioned norm, being in the office with your employer, is off-putting for many.

An HR headache

As a result, managers have been forced to respond individually, creating a huge increase in their own workloads – particularly HR managers now tasked with overseeing a broader spectrum of responsibilities.

Beyond traditional performance management, HR now plays a pivotal role in ensuring employee welfare and satisfaction in this new way of working. For example; some staff may lack the necessary equipment or simply prefer an in-person work environment. This is an additional responsibility on their part, ensuring all staff can access a standard level of support and care.

This is in addition to talent recruitment, which has become even more difficult post-pandemic. “It’s a well-paid, good benefits position… But we spent six months filling it instead of a month or two maximum”, said one senior manager, emphasising how the new working world is requiring more effort and more compromise on an employer’s behalf.

The ability to accurately judge value in a virtual world is also proving to be a headache for some. A recent survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) highlights that employers are almost split 50/50 on whether graduates of online degree programmes are just as skilled as those who study in person, with just 54% of employers considering them to be equally valuable.

Is Online Education Degrees Apart?

Though the boundary between physical and virtual classrooms continues to blur, a clear split still exists in how employers perceive graduates from these different backgrounds of study. Indeed, the survey by GMAC found that employers across the board are more likely to perceive graduates of in-person programmes as possessing stronger leadership and communication skills compared to those educated online.

The GMAC survey provides insights into regional disparities in employer perceptions too. While employers across Asia tend to view online and in-person degrees as equally valuable, they still place higher value in the leadership, communication, and technical skills of graduates from in-person degrees.

In contrast, the United States exhibits a much more pronounced preference for in-person programmes, with only 27% of employers valuing both types of degrees equally. Once more, in-person graduates are again seen to have stronger personable skills, something which is shown to be a generally globally held consensus.

Does a class discussion on Microsoft Teams leave less of an impact than one face-to-face would? Could a screen convey the passion of a lecture, or does it just diminish it? 

While Elon Musk is vocal against higher education too (and perhaps he’s right – looking at Twitter’s new ‘X’ logo clearly marketing degrees are just not what they used to be) he argues that working from home does not lead to the same innovation and drive for improvement that being in person does. And from what wider employers are saying in the GMAC survey, he’s certainly not alone in thinking that remote work/learning lacks some key experiences that business and professional growth need.

Revisiting (Lost?) Covid Years

Whilst online learning has provide to be a popular and, in recent years vital, means of professional development, there are perhaps some elements of education that cannot be transferred so effectively to a screen.

Whilst students enrolled on the International Masters Programme for Managers (IMPM) back in 2020 were highly impressed with just how well a programme which holds international immersion at its core was able to recapture the spirit of its modules in a digital format, there were experiences that were impossible to provide via online learning.

With the IMPM requiring participants to study in five completely different global locations and cultures; from reflecting on the intricacies of management behaviour and culture at Lancaster University in the UK, to getting to grips with collaborative thinking in Yokohama, Japan (and exploring three other key management mindsets in between) a core element of the programme lies in immersing its participants in the managerial thought and cultural contexts of its host countries. Typically, participants visit local businesses, explore local history and take moments of introspection; using physical surroundings and environments to shape these learning experiences.

Such explorations were, understandably, out of the question during a global lockdown.

Yet, the IMPM pandemic cohort was given an unexpected opportunity. The program decided to extend an invitation to its remote COVID-era participants to re-experience the program in person with no additional charge. Astonishingly, nearly all of them elected to revisit at least one module, to explore what the in-person experience should have been.

As the current cohort undertakes this extraordinary journey, will revisiting the program in person bring an element to their experience that virtual learning simply cannot replicate?

Will learning about the nuances of collaboration in Japanese culture from deep within the most populous municipality of Japan offer additional perspective to viewing it at a distance online? Will the echo of a bustling Brazilian marketplace gain more resonance when experienced in person? I know which one I’d rather be doing!

But the IMPM’s decision to reprise its program in person, and the willingness of the COVID cohort to revisit modules of a course they had already successfully completed (albeit virtually) presents a fascinating case study, underscoring the importance of the physical environment and the unique sensory experiences that can only be fully appreciated when one is physically present.

Will we fall into a virtual void?

Who can help but wonder if we are witnessing a transformation, a revolution, or simply an experiment? Whilst Elon Musk’s scepticism towards remote working certainly resonates with a range of very real concerns, countless studies show that affording flexibility to workers can boost innovation – something Musk has built his entire career on.   

Even Zoom is now telling their workers to get back into the office… Isn’t that a wink to how complex the world of work is, when Zoom is telling its employees to meet in person? It’s like Twitter telling its employees to use Threads instead… as if they needed any more motivation.

Finishing my work from a café, I’m one of the many who fully take advantage of flexible employment. It works well for me, as it does for so many others. There are, of course, jobs that are by nature not possible to do remotely, and people who prefer not to anyway.

It strikes me that there doesn’t need to be a flat yes or no to the question of whether remote work, well, works. Is it even possible to obtain such an answer when the very concept of flexible working is inherently about what works best for you? 

It remains uncharted waters, and the effects are still to be seen. Perhaps Elon Musk will be vindicated in making everyone return to the office at Twitter – I mean X! Have we been saying Twitter all this time?

Though, looking back at the GMAC reports and considering what the next generation want from their careers, it seems he might live to regret it.

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