As Elon Musk orders Tesla staff back to the office, many tech companies are doing the opposite

A sternly worded internal email, apparently sent by Elon Musk ordering people to either return to the office or leave Tesla, is raising eyebrows in a time when employees are increasingly seeking flexible work arrangements. 

AirBnB and Ubisoft Montreal let employees decide where they want to work

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, is seen speaking during an event at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., on Oct. 10, 2019. Musk, no stranger to controversy, recently tweeted that people who think coming into work is antiquated 'should pretend to work somewhere else.' (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

A sternly worded internal email, apparently sent by Elon Musk ordering Tesla employees to either return to the office or leave, is raising a lot of eyebrows at a time when employees are increasingly seeking flexible work arrangements. 

In a screenshot of the email, shared on Twitter, the richest man in the world warns employees at his electric car company that remote work is no longer acceptable.

Musk replied to the leaked email on Twitter and said people who think coming into work is antiquated "should pretend to work somewhere else."

Just two days after that order was issued, Reuters reported that Musk sent an email to executives titled "pause all hiring worldwide." In the email, he said he had a "super bad feeling" about the economy and needs to cut about 10 per cent of jobs at Tesla.

The company and its subsidiaries employ almost 100,000 people.

The hard-line approach on working arrangements from the controversy-prone billionaire, who once tweeted "the coronavirus panic is dumb," strongly contrasts against how some other CEOs — particularly those in the tech and startup world — are handling this latest phase of working in a pandemic. New research also suggests it's something employees value as much as a raise, and that it could even contribute to diversity in the workplace.

Vancouver-based entrepreneur Greg Gunn said he'll give Musk credit for being very clear about what he wants from his employees. 

"It's a power move," Gunn said. "Tesla historically has been a great place to work and it's been a coveted place to work."

But he said Musk is ultimately "endorsing an old way of building businesses." He ultimately finds the order disappointing.

WATCH | Hybrid work schedules becoming more common: 

Hybrid work the norm as office workers head back

1 year ago
Duration 0:55
On the streets of downtown Toronto on Monday morning, a number of workers spoke to CBC on their way into the office. While their circumstances differ, on the whole they were pleased to be back, and expecting a mix of office life and working from home to be their norm from now on.

Gunn co-founded Canadian company Commit in 2019, which has always been fully remote. The professional network, which has no physical headquarters, is an online community where startup engineers get paid to find their next career opportunities.

As someone who is strongly in favour of remote workplaces, Gunn said the approach allows him to recruit the best people for the job, regardless of where they live.

He said it also removes obstacles that can make it difficult for some people to integrate into a physical workspace.

"There's the subtle politics and social capital that you have to gain in an office that, if you're a caretaker or maybe you have some neurodiversity qualities, it creates barriers."

Ontario public service more flexible than Musk

While remote work is impossible or impractical for many fields of work, such as health care and education, various sectors are offering different options for employees in this latest phase of the pandemic. 

Even outside the tech sector, Musk's approach to enforcing full-time office work is stricter than some more traditional workplaces.

The Ontario public service, which includes about 60,000 public servants, so far requires staff who were working remotely to come into the office a minimum of three days a week.

"The OPS remains committed to providing employees with flexibility," Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson Kyle Richardson said in an email to CBC News.

Queen's Park.
Some bureaucrats who work at Queen's Park in Toronto, pictured here on June 18, 2021, have more flexible work options than Tesla employees (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Canadian insurance company Intact Financial has gone even further, recently launching what it calls a "Hybrid World model," which allows teams to discuss and plan when they will work from home and when they will work in office. 

Meanwhile, in the highly competitive tech industry, flexible work arrangements is being used as a way to recruit talent.

Video game company Ubisoft Montreal, for example, is now 100 per cent hybrid work and does not enforce minimum in-office work hours. 

"Our employees have the choice to come as they want or stay at home," public relations manager Antoine Leduc-Labelle said in an email to CBC News.

At video game company Ubisoft Montreal, employees have the choice to work from home or come into the office, as they wish. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

AirBnb has taken a similar approach, announcing that the vast majority of employees will be allowed to live and work anywhere they want, given that the pandemic ended up being "the most productive two-year period" in the company's history.

Brian Chesky, CEO of the online vacation rental platform, said limiting the company's workforce to people who live within a commuting radius would only hurt the talent pool. 

"Today's startups have embraced remote work and flexibility, and I think this will become the predominant way that we all work 10 years from now. This is where the world is going," he said in an email sent to staff in April. 

'This isn't going to work'

Jose Maria Barrero, a co-founder of the WFH (Working From Home) Research Project, said his gut reaction to Musk's approach is "this isn't going to work very well for Tesla."

He's been surveying Americans monthly with other academic researchers since the start of the pandemic to gather information about people's attitudes toward working arrangements.

Barrero said the data generally suggests flexible working arrangements are as valuable as about a 10 per cent pay increase for most people. He said the group's research suggests women, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, tend to have a higher preference for working from home. 

In the tech industry and beyond, many companies are offering a variety of hybrid work arrangements ranging from options with a minimum number of in-office days to fully-flexible options. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

He added the caveat that a single, blanket approach to working arrangements across an entire company might not be best.

Instead, he suggested, it's better if companies look at role-specific work arrangements, based on whether someone works on a factory floor versus developing computer code.

"I think that companies that are asking people back to work [in office] full-time are ignoring this and are basically setting themselves up for the employees to call their bluff," Barrero said. 

Hard to put the genie back in the bottle

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon acknowledged the new standard directly in his latest annual shareholder letter, in which he wrote "it's clear that working from home will become more permanent in American business." 

Dimon said he expects roughly 40 per cent of his employees will continue to work under a hybrid model with varying flexibility. 

Barrero said for many who work desk jobs, things will probably never go back to how they were before the pandemic.

"It's very hard to put the genie back in the bottle," Barrero said. 


Jaela Bernstien


Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and the environment for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at

With files from Reuters

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