After two years of COVID-19 lockdowns, the question about return-to-office (RTO) life has fueled a standoff between employees and CEOs like Elon Musk.
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The Great Resignation remains strong as 44% of employees sought new jobs with remote flexibility in March 2022. Their top reasons include higher wages, better work-life balance, no commute, and improved mental health.
However, one CEO is pushing back. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, sent an email to Tesla’s 100,000 employees in late May giving them an ultimatum — get back to their desks or risk getting fired.
From factory workers to top senior executives, Tesla now expects employees to clock at least 40 hours weekly in the office again.
However, Americans have worked remotely for years — even before the pandemic — and while widespread telecommuting became somewhat of a corporate experiment in 2020, surveys show it’s worked.
Return-to-Office Life at Tesla
Life as a Tesla (Elon Musk) employee certainly has its perks, but the company isn’t renowned for delivering work-life balance.
The mandated 40-hour minimum work week shed light on Tesla’s working conditions for office roles, though factory workers have long endured the brunt of Musk’s RTO policies.
When the Chinese government issued a six-week shutdown in Shanghai in April, Tesla’s Gigafactory 3 plant continued operations — with employees living on-site and working 12-hour shifts with one day off per week. Even before the lockdown, the Shanghai factory operated 24 hours, seven days a week, over three shift changes.
Additionally, at the height of COVID-19, Elon Musk ordered factory workers at the plant in Fremont, California, to work 60 hours over six days a week.
Musk’s RTO policies and grueling workplace culture only augment the battle over remote work with the risk of burnout, leadership toxicity, and poor employee health.
The Great Debate: WFH vs. RTO
In response to the Elon Musk email, CEOs of other companies have spoken against his strict RTO policies, claiming that facetime isn’t as important to corporate culture as it used to be. However, Musk’s view on remote work isn’t lost on other CEOs who believe office culture does a better job of fostering creativity and collaboration.
Nevertheless, employees want greater autonomy over their workday and more time for the things that matter. While both arguments make sense, these six factors highlight certain benefits of remote or even hybrid work that CEOs shouldn’t overlook.
Companies doubted how well their employees would embrace remote work. However, people proved they’d adapted just fine, with 77% of workers reporting greater productivity off-site.
According to an Airtasker survey, remote employees work 1.4 more days than office workers every month, equating to 16.8 more days annually. The survey also revealed that remote workers only lost 27 minutes to distractions every workday, whereas office workers reported 37 minutes.
Companies that allow employees to work remotely three to four days a week also claim to have the highest worker engagement.
Many businesses worried their profit margins would decrease with telecommuting — but that wasn’t the case.
Approximately 85% of employees aren’t engaged in their work, which results in increased distractions, job dissatisfaction and reduced revenue for the company. In fact, research shows that there’s an average $600 billion loss in revenue due to workplace distractions every year. However, as employees transitioned to work-from-home, there were fewer interruptions and steady or increased earnings.
Companies have found they can also save money with a remote workforce. For example, several businesses can slash operating expenses associated with commercial office space.
Meanwhile, remote workers have more time to care for their mental and physical health, which helps lower health care costs. At the same time, companies that leverage videoconferencing platforms can cut back on travel expenses.
3. Mental Health
Toxic workplaces, poor leadership and long commutes are associated with increased stress and depression — but after two years of working from home, 74% of employees believe remote work has improved their mental well-being.
Removed from the pressures and challenges associated with office culture, employees can essentially set better boundaries while making more time for exercising, partaking in hobbies, and spending time with their family and friends.
Unfortunately, as more people head back to the office, 49% anticipate a decline in mental health, while 36% of those who’ve returned have already felt the negative impacts.
Telecommuting has also benefited introverts who may have felt overwhelmed by the office. About 74% of introverts prefer a hybrid setup for at least some social interaction, and remote work allows them to be in greater control of their environment and emotions.
4. Enhances Talent Pool
Many businesses are reeling from the mass exodus of employees looking to sustain their remote working conditions. However, CEOs implementing RTO policies are missing a pivotal opportunity to acquire top talent who would otherwise be limited by geography.
According to Global Workplace Analytics, 70% of job-seekers say remote flexibility is a priority in accepting a job offer. As such, companies eager to diversify and increase their workforce should expand their talent pool to reach prospective employees from other regions.
Studies show that businesses benefit from a 2.3 times higher profit per employee by diversifying the workforce, increasing collaboration and innovation.
5. Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance seemed like an anomaly before COVID-19, with long commutes to and from the office and little time for home life and personal interests.
A 2021 report by the U.S. Census Bureau highlights various estimates for American work commutes, including the following:
- The average one-way commute for working Americans was the highest it had ever been at 27.6 minutes.
- About 9.8% of workers commuted over 60 minutes one-way in 2019 — an increase of 1.9% in 2006.
- Nearly 57% of workers start their commutes between 6 a.m. and 8:29 a.m., with the majority leaving no later than 6:29 a.m.
Perhaps even more shocking, about 17.9% of New Yorkers clocked their commutes over one hour one way before the pandemic.
However, driving to work is practically a thing of the past since COVID-19 swept across the globe. Today, 64% of remote employees who spent most or all of their time at the office before the pandemic claim to have far better work-life balance.
Approximately two-thirds of senior managers want employees on-site — but companies who call for full-time RTO risk losing the essential individuals who make up a thriving workforce.
The push for on-site work does raise a few questions. Are employers simply old school in their way of thinking or want to gain control over their employees again? Does working in an office have certain advantages remote work can’t offer?
Many CEOs claim collaboration and creativity are lacking with the reliance on videoconferencing and virtual meetings. Speaking through a computer screen doesn’t compare to face-to-face interactions and impromptu chats in an elevator.
Compromising a hybrid work setup of two or three days a week in the office may be the best solution for employees and managers. In fact, a recent Gallup poll expects the future of work is a hybrid workweek. Approximately 60% of employees prefer mixed work, which will help boost engagement and collaboration before employees reach the same level of burnout felt before the pandemic.
A Workforce Forever Changed
Elon Musk might not like it, but the workforce will never be the same as before — although it may not necessarily be a bad thing. Change brings progress, and companies who modify their workweek to meet the demand for remote flexibility will reap the rewards.
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