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Did Elon Musk just kill hybrid work?

The latest abrupt move by Twitter's new owner is an about-face for one of the leading companies to embrace remote work.

Elon Musk doesn’t want to be alone in the office anymore. On Thursday Nov 17, he seemed to reinstate remote work with manager approval, and then closed Twitter’s office buildings and disabled employee badge access until Monday.

UPDATE 11/17: Musk appeared to scale back his demand that all employees return to the office for at least 40 hours a week. “Regarding remote work,” he wrote, “all that is required for approval is that your manager takes responsibility for ensuring that you are making an excellent contribution,” he said before adding that any manager who “falsely claims” someone is doing excellent work would be fired. Twitter later announced via email that it would close their office buildings and disable employee badge access until Monday.

In his latest no-nonsense, 2a commandment to Twitter employees, Elon Musk has not only rescinded remote work for everybody, he’s also requiring that employees give a simple yes or no to “hardcore” work. (That’s a technical term). A “no” to his latest apoplectic burst of buyer’s remorse gets you severance. What will this mean in real life, where early morning outbursts intersect with labor law, human resources, and a tight labor market? That’s all speculation for the press at large. For our industry, it more specifically raises the eyebrow of “is hybrid work over?”

As reported by the Washington Post, “Elon Musk issued an ultimatum to Twitter employees Wednesday morning: Commit to a new ‘hardcore’ Twitter or leave the company with severance pay.

Employees were told they had to a sign a pledge to stay on with the company. ‘If you are sure that you want to be part of the new Twitter, please click yes on the link below,’ read the email to all staff, which linked to an online form.

Anyone who did not sign the pledge by 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday was told they would receive three months of severance pay, the message said.”

Is this the trendmaker turning the Titanic for everyone? Not necessarily. While Musk has been an unequivocal pioneer, with Twitter he’s just desperate. Other companies may not have the same panic situation going on. However the feeling–if not the reality–of headwinds is definitely more widespread than just Twitter. We’re hearing of layoffs, hiring freezes, and productivity plateaus, and there is always an avaialble crop of statistics to tell the story that workers are “less engaged.” All this comes on the back of record productivity and profits throughput Covid. Those kinds of records are usually cyclical.

So will companies throw in the towel on remote and hybrid work, and bring everyone back to the office where they will have no further use for conferencing and collaboration tools? Let’s ask some questions:

-Did people use audioconferencing, videoconferencing, presentation and collaboration tools, and streaming before the pandemic?
Answer: yes they did and those tools were not as good as they are now and there weren’t as many options.

-Do companies like reducing their real estate footprint and the attendant costs?
Answer: also yes

-Have companies realized that a good conferencing and collaboration system it can help reduce unecessary and less-productive travel?
Answer: again yes. We managed in Covid without travel, and that isn’t a longterm ideal. But we also spent money and time on travel when we didn’t have to before pandemic. Balance is valueable in real dollars.

-Are companies distributed geographically due to workforce or customers?
Answer: yes they are and companies will continue to need national and global collaboration from their teams, and they will want to continue to serve national and global customers efficiently.

For me the question isn’t really whether hybrid work will continue, it’s really just about the type and scale. Is hybrid work one of those technical inflection points, like PCs, cell phones, or IM, that becomes a material and ubiquitous change in to work? Is it on again/off again trend like open office plans and hot desks? Or it it somewhere in between?

Having been remote for decades, and seen the evolution of remote and hybrid tools, I believe that we have now made technical advancements that make hybrid work a real value proposition for many companies and not just a workaround. The unknown for me is what happens if cost cutting becomes urgent and widespread. Will there be knee jerk cuts to technology and capital expenditure, or will people take a more sophisticaed equation into account, where real estate costs, talent, travel, and customer opportunity factor. It all depends on who is doing the math, how “hardcore” they want to be, and what hardcore signifies to them.

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