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Elon Musk and the future of work

The future of work is a valuable expression, but only from a search engine optimisation perspective. You’ll note that I have used it twice already. The term has developed a life of its own, so we now use it even when addressing the ‘now’ of work. This is just one of the ways in which social media and search engines are skewing what is important to society.

Work matters

Hybrid working is another hot topic. The difference here is that it is being conflated with the future of work and thus leads us to believe that solving hybrid working is how we solve the thorny matter of work.

A few key points:

  • The nature of work is changing because the technology is increasingly outflanking us in the interview process.

  • A focus on process, and the associated focus on job specifications, is foolhardy in an increasingly disrupted world.

  • Humans can outperform technology in areas that address how we respond to disruption, eg. creativity.

  • There will be plenty of work for those that can take the handbrake off their brain whilst at work.

  • School and society have ingrained a tendency in us to gravitate towards comfort and process, so there will be very few genuine free thinkers available for hire.

The fundamental point is that the war for talent (ie those who can outcompete tech) is becoming more acute and this moves the power from the employer to that talent. That is the challenge that employers face, not whether they have a hybrid policy, four-day week schedule or some shiny employee wellness apps. Though some of these will help.

But let’s take our eye off the ball and dwell on the issue du jour, hybrid working.

Servant followership

A UK Government Minister recently shared his feelings about home working by depositing a note on empty civil service desks that stated how much the absent staff were missed. The jokey tone no doubt was intended to remind staff of what twenty first century subjugation feels like. It is also likely a crass move to start the process of thinning out the civil service. But it is also a reminder of why public sector leadership development needs a major overhaul.

It Musk be right

Elon Musk recently issued a return to the office edict to the staff at Tesla. Elon’s edict is much discussed on LinkedIn. Some people feel that he knows his business best and so is best placed to decide what works. Others feel he is a dinosaur who needs to get with the future of work.

This is not so clear cut. There are good reasons for his decision:

  • There are ‘health and safety’ and logistics issues in allowing staff to build cars at home.

  • Serendipitous encounters that lead to innovative sparks are less likely to happen with a remote workforce.

  • Implicit learning, often the best way of learning, is impossible if the apprentice cannot follow the master.

  • Culture, which is perhaps the most human-optimised approach to implicit learning, becomes diluted and thus ineffective.

  • Great people tend to do great work in the presence of other great people.

However, there are downsides:

  • Forcing people to travel twice a day, often at peak times, is a sure way to drain the cognitive potential of staff. This is squandering a key asset and as such is thus a failure in the management of the organisation’s assets.

  • The more time people spend working and travelling the less time they have to recuperate and maintain other key areas of their lives, including family. In turn, mental wellness declines and that will again have a cognition draining effect.

  • It fails to recognise that the power axis is tilting towards the talent and such a move is saying that we don’t really care about the employer brand, Profit, profit and profit are our top three priorities.

But Elon is a smart guy, so he knows what he is doing, right?

He has a background in physics, economics, and he gets technology. So he knows how things work. It is likely that when he applies his knowledge to making Tesla successful he reduces the problem down into process flows and then focuses on how to run these processes as efficiently as possible, much like any factory.

This mindset puts Tesla in the same realm as laminate flooring and modern yoga. They are derivative representations of a thing but not quite the original thing. Laminate flooring can give you that wooden floor effect without the woodworm or the natural benefits of actual wooden flooring. Yoga today, stripped off its spiritual element, is largely another means to maintain physical health.

Nature – Mind your own business

Tesla like many, most, organisations birthed in the industrial era has prioritised the system over the people. This is a fundamental mistake as organisations are fundamentally social constructs. Thus any organisation that is based on efficiency and process is a denatured organisation. And a denatured organisation is one that is inherently cruel to humans because it requires people to behave inhumanly.

So whilst Elon might be spot on from a systems engineering perspective, he is likely making a big mistake organisationally. He will no doubt be able to throw money at his talent problems, but there is an upper limit to that. More importantly there is a global dearth of the creative talent he will need, and such talent is unlikely to pursue organisations that see people as cogs in the machine rather than cognitive athletes.

The future of work? Search me!

So is hybrid the future of work? Again it’s the wrong question unless you are using terms like the future of work simply for search engine rankings!


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