Voices: Twitter HQ was once a paradise. It’s working with Elon that’s ‘morally wrong’

·5-min read

Elon Musk is not a fan of working from home, though living at work doesn’t seem to bother him: from Tesla to Twitter there are many reports of people having to sleep in the office or factory to meet tight deadlines.

One of the first things he did when he bought Twitter was ban remote working for almost everyone, something that caused immediate upset in a workforce that, during the pandemic, had become used to being widely distributed. His assertion that he believes WFH is “morally wrong” is nothing new.

Twitter 1.0 jumped on work-from-home quickly, as it was something former CEO and founder Jack Dorsey was especially keen on. I was working there at the time, and we’d barely settled into the first lockdown when we were told we could work from home forever if we wanted to.

Musk is right in some ways, about not working from home. Because before (and, indeed, after) the pandemic Twitter, like many tech companies, was a pretty incredible place to work.

There was free breakfast and lunch every day, freshly prepared on-site; small plates and salads, pizza and pudding. There were snacks and coffees around the clock, free help-yourself bars to get a beer after work and a budget to order dinner if you needed to work late.

People would talk about “the Twitter 20” – the 20 Ibs everyone would put on when they joined the company. You could book massages, or get your nails done at a discount, and occasionally there were one off events like salsa dancing, or a book launch.

Every Friday there was “tea time”, with colleagues hosting presentations about their work over drinks and nibbles. It wasn’t a “work hard, play hard” culture either – the offices were pleasant places to be, the culture was inclusive and you felt genuinely looked after.

Musk, wonderful employer that he is, quickly put a stop to all of that. Reports that free food was ending emerged a few weeks into his reign. Corners were cut and belts tightened. He famously put out an edict insisting that his team agreed to an “extremely hardcore” working attitude or take redundancy.

And into this atmosphere, in which the perks were pulled and some product managers were sleeping on couches in their offices to make sure they were “hardcore” enough to meet their targets, what was left of Twitter’s staff were ordered to trudge back into their offices.

What’s Musk’s beef with remote work? There are dozens of studies that show that hybrid working, where employees divide their time between the office and working from home, is great for mental health and has no real negative impact on productivity.

To him it’s an ideological issue – those of us that have jobs that can be done remotely are, to him “the laptop classes living in lala land”, a new bourgeoisie, reveling in our entitlement and lording it over the cleaners, factory workers, truckers and shop clerks who don’t have the option.

“I think that the whole notion of work from home is a bit like the fake Marie Antoinette quote, ’Let them eat cake’,” Musk said in his recent CNBC interview. “It’s not just a productivity thing,” Musk said. “I think it’s morally wrong.”

And that’s nonsense. Working from home is not “morally wrong”. It’s privileged, sure. He’s right in that not everyone has the opportunity. But not everyone has the opportunity to fly in private jets or buy out their favourite social media platform either. Musk is a libertarian capitalist, he can’t object to adapting your lifestyle to your status, surely? He’s a hypocrite.

Musk, who made his fortune by leveraging technology and innovation, has a weird, antiquated view of the concept of work. In his quest for productivity and "extreme" work attitudes, he dismisses the advantages of flexibility that technology allows us.

The world has moved beyond the notion that work only happens within the confines of an office, and Musk’s insistence on "hardcore" work ethic and physical presence dismisses the realities of modern life.

For many, the chance to work remotely isn’t a bourgeois entitlement; it’s a necessity to balance family needs, health concerns and personal wellbeing. He’s not a progressive, he’s a Victorian factory owner demanding his workforce be available round the clock.

It’s also baffling to see someone as allegedly “forward-thinking” as Musk ignore the environmental benefits of remote work. If he is genuinely concerned about the planet’s future as he claims, he should endorse work-from-home initiatives that lead to fewer commutes and less pollution.

His vision of an all-electric, carbon-free world shouldn’t be confined to the products he sells, but should also extend to his practices as a business leader. Rather than accusing remote workers of living in "lala land," he should acknowledge the positive contributions they are making towards sustainability.

Musk’s stubborn adherence to an old-fashioned working paradigm demonstrates a blind spot in his famously futuristic approach to entrepreneurship.

He’s even wrong about remote work being an especially entitled or privileged thing. Working class people have taken on “out work” for generations. As a child in the 1980s loads of the adults I knew took in boxes of hosiery from the local factories to pack and sort. How is that any different from logging in from your kitchen table to do accounts or write code?

Working from home is not a catch-all solution. It’s not for everyone, it’s not for every role, it’s not for every business. Some find it isolating, some generally aren’t as productive, some need closer supervision. I often miss those days of office paradise.

But the world has changed. One of the few bright sides of the pandemic was that many of us realised there was a new path that worked for us.

Musk isn’t kicking back against that because he believes it’s better for people and business to work in the same room – he’s doing it, as with everything, because someone is telling him he shouldn’t.

It’s not a position. It’s a tantrum.

Marc Burrows is a critic, musician, comic and author. ’The London Boys’ is out now