Elon Musk's In-Person Work Comments Are the Opposite of What Families Need Right Now

In an email from Elon Musk, the billionaire reportedly told Tesla employees they'd be required to work in-office at least 40 hours a week. Here's what that kind of mandate means for working parents.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 02: Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating "In America: An Anthology of Fashion" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)
Photo: Theo Wargo/WireImage via Getty Images

If there's been a silver lining to the pandemic, it's the way it has forced us to take a good, hard look at the realities of working parenthood. Working from home while parenting simultaneously gave us an eyeful of how many priorities parents juggle every single day—and, through the lens of our Zoom calls, it gave our bosses and fellow employees a look at that as well. It's been far from easy. In the early days of the pandemic, we faced a total lack of compartmentalization between work and family, which left many parents completely burnt out.

But in some ways, we finally had the potential to embrace the reset we've needed for a long time. One thing became clear through the pandemic: Our system is not set up to support families, particularly those in which both parents work outside the home. Parents have been needing more flexibility in the workplace for so long. During the pandemic, we finally got a taste of how game-changing this flexibility could be.

Now, as we work toward a new normal, it's important to keep the lessons we've learned over the past few years in mind as we establish a more sustainable set of expectations for all employees, but especially those who are raising children.

That's why reports of Elon Musk's leaked email detailing his thoughts and policies on remote work for Tesla employees are so disappointing. The email, which is circulating online, reads "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. This is less than we ask of factory workers."

The email goes on to detail that Musk will review requests for exemptions from "particularly exceptional contributors." There's an argument to be made for the validity of this policy: Three years ago, being required to be at the office 40 hours a week was the norm. And through the pandemic, the ability to work remotely and keep your family safe has been a massive privilege— one many people could not access. By allowing white collar workers to work from home while factory employees have to report for duty, one could definitely argue that companies risk creating socioeconomic division within their teams. Some may also argue that if an employee's desire to work remotely outweighs their desire to stay at the company, they can seek employment elsewhere.

But here's the thing: Musk's remarks have the power to affect working parents beyond those who work at Tesla. For too long, we've held on to these ideas about what it takes to make a good employee or a hard worker. Showing up at the office early and staying late was seen as a badge of honor, while workers were penalized or stigmatized for leaving "early" to pick up a child from daycare. But what other option do parents have?

The pandemic gave us a chance to rethink those ideas. We saw firsthand that parents could be just as productive—maybe even more productive—with flexible work arrangements. We saw that eliminating a daily commute gives time-strapped families precious additional time to spend together. We saw that giving people discretion over their schedules (which, for parents, might mean putting in hours before their kids wake up or after they go to bed) allows them to figure out when they do their best work. We saw that parenting responsibilities still exist during work hours, and began to normalize cameos from children during professional Zoom calls. We saw that child care is unaffordable and unreliable for many. We saw that when kids get sick, it's better for everyone if we keep them home instead of sending them to school because we can't miss a day of work. We saw that the system and culture parents have been navigating is just not working—and we caught a glimpse of what a better setup could look like.

With all we've learned, it's time to dismantle outdated ideas about productivity. It's time to make workplace culture actually works for people who shoulder tremendous responsibilities outside of work, too—and comments like Musk's set us back in that respect. Because even though they seemingly only affect Tesla employees, the sentiments expressed in the leaked email uphold that notion that people who work remotely are "pretending to work." And that idea simply doesn't serve parents.

Employees value flexibility and autonomy more than ever, and that's reflected in the numbers: According to LinkedIn's January 2022 survey, 56% of parents globally have either left or would consider leaving a job if their employer did not offer flexibility—and 53% would not accept a job that didn't offer remote or flexible work. As we've previously reported, many parents are willing to give up work perks, take pay cuts, or even leave their jobs entirely if they're denied flexibility. This, along with paid leave and an acknowledgment that parenting is work, too, is essential if workplaces want to hold on to their employees who are parents.

It's clear: Employers need to trust and empower workers to make their jobs work alongside their family responsibilities.That's not to say we need to give every single parent the opportunity to work remotely—a lot of jobs simply can't be done offsite. But we do need to offer parents more grace. Part of that involves banishing the idea that people want to work remotely because they'd rather slack off or cut corners. That type of sentiment shames parents who are simply trying to keep all the pieces together. Beyond just offering remote work, we need to stop making parents feel unproductive or undervalued when they need to step away to pick up a child, or attend a mid-day appointment, or take time off to care for a sick kid.

Right now is a terribly difficult time to be a parent. Many of us have children under 5 who still can't be vaccinated, and we're forced to move through a world that has forgotten COVID protocols—which is just another reason parents might not feel ready to head back to the office. Many of us are struggling to feed our babies thanks to a massive formula shortage—and while breastfeeding is an option for some, it's much easier to do if you're able to work remotely, or at the very least, if you work at a company that provides accommodations for pumping parents. On top of all that, many of us are traumatized and terrified after watching coverage of yet another school shooting. We're stuck in a constant cycle of darkness and dread, and increased flexibility and understanding at work is the one positive we've found in our current state of affairs. Let's not revoke that one thing that has the power to make life just a little bit easier for parents.

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