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opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

It’s a curious and perhaps counterintuitive thing: To keep Tesla at the forefront of innovation, Elon Musk is reaching back in time for management strategies that are positively ancient – as in Tom Peters ancient.

Remember him? Mr. Peters was the 1980s management guru and bestselling author credited with all sorts of pithy catchphrases for ambitious office keeners eager to add value, lift all boats, hit home runs and pick low-hanging fruit.

Among his mantras: Under promise, over deliver. Fail faster, succeed sooner. And the nugget on which Mr. Musk seems to have seized – management by wandering around – which suggests managers can boost worker morale and productivity if they are engaged in person instead of holed up in their offices.

This week, the Tesla founder apparently dusted off his copy of Mr. Peters’s 1982 management gospel, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, and eliminated the remote-work option at his company – and in the process told senior managers they needed to do more wandering around and less Zooming.

“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,” Mr. Musk said in a note to employees. “This is less than we ask of factory workers.”

“The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence,” he said. “That’s why I lived in the factory so much – so that those on the line could see me working alongside them. If I had not done that, Tesla would long ago have gone bankrupt.”

Furthermore, Mr. Musk said senior managers cannot satisfy the rule by reporting to the most convenient branch offices if those locations don’t align with their job duties. He added he would personally review any requests for exemptions.

Asked on Twitter for his opinion of those people who believe work in an office is antiquated, Mr. Musk replied: “They should pretend to work somewhere else.”

Predictably, Mr. Musk’s old-school position has met with criticism. Many companies are struggling to find the right work-life balance for office workers who became accustomed to working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them adopting hybrid models with a mix of at-home and in-office workdays.

In what commentators have dubbed the Great Resistance, many workers are balking at going back to offices, claiming they are more productive and efficient working at home because the quality of their lives is better. Many say they work longer hours than they did in the office and don’t have to battle long commutes.

Recent research tends to support that position. A Stanford University study showed workers are more productive if allowed to work from home at least some of the time. And a Texas A&M study released last month found no negative correlation between working at home and productivity.

But Mr. Musk is not alone. Companies such as Alphabet’s Google and others have moved to eliminate remote work. And he is not the first tech executive to take such a stand.

Ten years ago, long before the pandemic spawned a work-at-home Zoom culture, Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer made a similar pronouncement. She banned working from home after studying the log-in habits of remote-work employees and finding they weren’t online as often as they should have been.

The result, she concluded, was an erosion of Yahoo’s creative culture and performance that could best be fixed by reinstating face-to-face office work.

Ms. Mayer faced her own Great Resistance when it was revealed she had built a nursery beside her office for her young child, a luxury most working moms affected by her back-to-the-office mandate couldn’t afford.

Mr. Musk’s latest move has surely rattled more cages at Twitter, which he intends to buy for US$45-billion. Employees have already expressed concerns their soon-to-be new owner will make unpopular changes at the company, including working conditions.

On Twitter recently, Mr. Musk suggested Twitter’s San Francisco head office could be turned into a “homeless shelter since no one shows up anyway,” a comment that hints he may be leaning toward a Tesla-like solution.

If Mr. Musk bans remote work at Twitter, it would mark a U-turn from the views of the current CEO, Parag Agrawal, who said recently: “Wherever you feel most productive and creative is where you will work and that includes working from home full-time forever.”

Is Mr. Musk’s latest trip back to the future a risky one in a postpandemic work environment that is all about flexibility not rigidity? Some people close to Tesla say Mr. Musk, a workaholic whose marathon stints in the workplace are legendary, is being somewhat unrealistic in expecting that kind of tireless commitment from others in his pursuit of beating competitors to the next big thing.

“There are of course companies that don’t require this,” Mr. Musk said of his back-to-the-office mandate. “But when was the last time they shipped a great new product? It’s been a while. Tesla has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth. This will not happen by phoning it in.”

Time will tell who’s right – and whether wandering around is more effective than Zooming in. But it’s hard to bet against the man who has become the richest person on the planet because of his ability to execute with excellence on a vision few others have dared to have.

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