Elon Musk’s 7-Word Rule for Working Remotely Is Better than You Think. Every Leader Should Copy It


On Thursday, Elon Musk finally sat down for a question and answer session with Twitter employees. Considering the overall level of drama surrounding Musk’s deal to buy Twitter–including whether he intends to complete the sale at all–the meeting comes at a particularly tense time for those employees

Then there are Musk’s controversial views on everything from free speech, to spam bots, to–well–everything. You might imagine it was quite an interesting conversation. It turns out, you don’t have to imagine. 

Vox published a leaked transcript of the 60-minute conversation, during which Musk shared thoughts on a range of topics. One of them, in particular, caught my attention.

You might remember that earlier this month, Musk sent an email to his executives requiring them to show up to the office for “a minimum of 40 hours” a week. At the time I wrote that it makes sense leaders should be expected to lead by example.

“The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence,” Musk wrote in the email, which was shared on Twitter. Still, I got a lot of emails along the lines of “remote work is the future, and any company that doesn’t let everyone work from anywhere they want is going to surely fall apart and lose all of its employees,” and “you have no idea what you’re talking about, you’ve obviously never worked remotely.” Which, I guess is entirely true, except for the part where I’ve been working remotely for years.  

Also, Tesla makes cars, which is fundamentally different from an accounting firm or an independent software company, or every other company that doesn’t require building complex products in giant factories.

During the town hall, Musk elaborated: 

There are some roles at Tesla where the work can be done remotely, like, say, software or design. I think that’s still a case where you want to aspire to do things in person, but if somebody is exceptional at their job, then it’s possible for them to be effective, even working remotely.

That makes perfect sense. Let’s call it the Elon Musk Rule. How do we decide if it makes sense to let someone work remotely? It’s only seven words: If somebody is exceptional at their job.

The bar, according to Musk, is whether they are “an excellent contributor.” If so, “they’re allowed to work remotely,” he says.

If your job doesn’t require your physical presence, and you’re really good at your job, it’s worth it to everyone to let you continue working remotely. If not, or, if your role is say, working on an assembly line, you’re probably going to have to keep coming to the office.

Of course, that begs the question of why the people who still have to come to work in the office have a job at all. If they aren’t excellent contributors, I’m not sure why any manager would want to keep them around.

I suspect, however, that the real key is whether the benefit to the company outweighs any possible drawback to not having that person in the office. I think that what Musk is saying is that they have to be one of the very best contributors. 

That’s actually a really useful rule for every leader to consider. If you haven’t already figured out where the balance is between the benefit of letting your employees work remotely, and the cost in terms of collaboration, you’re doing it wrong. 

Let’s be completely honest–working remotely is a luxury. It just is. To have a job that you can do from anywhere you have an internet connection isn’t normal. It’s an incredible benefit. It means you have more flexibility and choice over your work environment and schedule. It means you don’t have to spend time commuting to an office. It means you get to have a desk next to a window looking out into your backyard where your kids are kicking a soccer ball into a net.

At the same time, for a lot of companies, allowing employees to work remotely is a net positive. They are more productive, happier, and more loyal to your company because they have more control over how work fits into their life. There’s also the fact that you broaden your talent pool dramatically when you don’t require people to move to Texas or California, or wherever your office is located. 

The point is that every leader should be considering the tradeoff between the needs of the business, and the desires of their team to have flexibility over their work environment. All of those things are important to consider against what you lose in the ability to build relationships and collaborate. 

For Musk, that’s a high bar to pass. It might be lower for your company, but the point is, you should know exactly where it is.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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