Learning from Musk’s ‘Return-or-Else’ Message

elon musk

While executives, HR pros, and rank-and-file employees hold unique perspectives on COVID-19-related work-from-home (WFH) policies, there is no doubt where Tesla titan Elon Musk stands on the matter. In a leaked email from Musk to Tesla executives last week, it is abundantly clear his return-to-work policy is simple: Return. To. Work.

While sharing the policy, Musk wrote that Tesla staff must be in the office a minimum (emphasis added) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla.

The policy and the means of communicating it shocked many inside and outside Tesla. It sparked debate on the merits of changing remote work arrangements.

Many are voicing criticism of Musk's policy and his method of communicating it–wondering at the time if he was asking for resignations to avoid layoffs. Indeed, a couple of days later the question was resolved. Another leaked email from Musk mentioned staff layoffs of 10 percent.

The next day after that Friday bomb, June 4, a Saturday, he reversed himself.  Tesla headcount will rise, he tweeted.

Silent wishes

In spite of this flip-flipping, some leaders seem silently wishing they could muster the courage to say the same thing as Musk: return to work or else. These leaders are starting to ponder if Musk has broken the ice, and if a return to traditional working arrangements is on the horizon.

Musk's tweets get him in hot water often. His style is direct and politically incorrect. While his perspective on return-to-work may be shared, the fear of more resignations, blowback from staff and other internal challenges have executives (and those charged with communicating new policy) whistling past the graveyard.

There is no doubt policy changes are coming at Tesla and many other businesses. Carefully and thoughtfully communicating them can help avoid losing good employees.

In addition, thoughtful internal communication can boost morale and provide better experiences for staff, customers and clients.


Musk's flurry of email provides many lessons for those charged with communicating policy changes, regardless of the popularity.

  • Set Expectations. An ambiguous policy fails everyone. Musk requires 40 hours per week in the office–minimum. There is no mistaking the expectation or the option to leave. While the words in the email are harsh and direct, the message is clear.


  • Be Kind. Effective communicators always think of the audience’s perspective when assembling messages. Unpopular policies go down easier when the delivery is soft. Sarcasm or belittling those impacted always backfires.


  • Avoid Argument. Communicating what others may perceive as bad news must be done thoughtfully. Implying those working from home are phoning it in was an unnecessary and damaging addition to Musk's first email. If a policy will be taken negatively, try to stay as positive as possible when delivering it.


  • Lead by example. Musk does more than he asks of his employees. It is hard to argue that employees are more effective working from home to someone who literally sleeps in their office. While Musk points out he "lived in the factory," he assumes employees care as much about the business as he does. Showing the team that you care about the company is good, but showing that you care about the team is even better.


  • Keep a Team Mentality. In the email, Musk takes complete credit for keeping Tesla from bankruptcy. While leaders often are assigned credit or blame, Tesla is a team. Recognizing members is a must. Employees who were productive working for Tesla at home may feel communication of the new the policy is an attack on them. Further, those who work onsite may feel slighted and under-appreciated.


  • Communicate Benefits Not Requirements. Musk does a great job unifying employees around the work at Tesla. Creating and manufacturing "the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth," is a tremendous rallying cry–but in the context of suggesting resignations and "remote pseudo office," it falls flat.

Data-driven decisions

Surely there are many examples of WFH arrangements that were tremendously successful. Others were miserable failures. As leaders work to figure out what is best and consider adapting policies, they would be wise to avoid making broad assumptions, or policy changes, based on anecdotal evidence.

If you want employees excited when they come to the office, give them a reason. Demonstrate how they can be more efficient and how in-person contributions are more valuable. If you can’t do that–then maybe you need to rethink the policy before you communicate changes.

Dan Rene is a managing director at kglobal

[Editor's Note: The writer’s views do not necessarily reflect those of PRNEWS. We invite opposing essays from readers.]