Our well-informed readers are surely aware of the travails of Twitter following its recent takeover. Technology is not my field, but when Elon Musk mandated a return to office by employees that he later rescinded, I thought there might be helpful lessons for managers from the ensuing debacle in my area of expertise. Clearly, this is a case study in the wrong way to pursue the laudable goal of bringing employees together at the office to be more productive. Compulsory attendance that immediately changes company policy by 180 degrees means that some of the best people will leave and those who are less talented will stay. The reason is simple; top-notch workers have alternatives and those in the lower rungs do not. Some of the lessons to be learned about a better way to get employees back in the office on a more positive note are discussed below. Suffice it to say they’re not rocket science; it’s just office space.
First, don’t fire half your employees before issuing the return to work order. That might create a problem with morale, which would only become worse with a unilateral return to work edict.
Second, don’t tell employees who are already working hard that there was only a place for those who are “extremely hard-core” and are willing to work “long hours at high intensity” for a company that is in turmoil. It’s also a bit rich for the richest man in the world to demand a demeaning de facto loyalty oath from employees whose workplace has been turned upside down and whose owner has no loyalty to them. Successful professionals don’t need to be told they need to work hard which is part of today’s social contract between employer and employee. It doesn’t help that the hashtag #sleepwhere you work is now connected with potential fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried of FTX, who was known to sleep at the office.
Another important item that managers should be sensitive to is that we have just gone through a national trauma over 1 million people have died of Covid which is more than in any American war, many people’s lives were uprooted, and routines were shaken to their core. Nevertheless, many businesses both large and small adapted remarkably well. Accordingly, the view many employees have of their workplace has changed, and they don’t take kindly to ultimatums.
Musk appears to have been managing on the hoof. Other large companies have handled return to the office more successfully by undertaking detailed studies of what works best for the company and engaged in broad consultation and surveys of their employees to thoughtfully and carefully assess their needs. None of the above appear to be present here, but rather a CEO indulging his whim.
Moreover, Musk did not give sufficient weight to the fact that the unemployment rate is still just 3.7%, even with the recent layoffs at other technology companies.
As a result, talented employees have many options, whether they are “hard-core” or not. Some of those employees were emboldened by having their Twitter stock purchased at an inflated price when the company went private. At the end of last week, Musk backed down and said employees deemed by their managers to be making an “excellent contribution” could work remotely and closed the office entirely on Friday. However, as of this writing the reason for this reversal is unknown.
These lessons go beyond Twitter. According to dispatches, employees who complained about the company on social media prior to the mandatory office return were fired. However, I have heard anecdotally of other companies where employees were ordered back to the office full-time without advance consultation or notice, and were completely unafraid to sharply attack their management on Slack posts even though those employees were readily identifiable. They’re just not having it.
The shame of it all is that companies actually do work better with people back in the office. There is no need to bang on endlessly about that but there is much value through the creative in-person exchange of ideas, both formal and informal, as well as the development of a positive company culture and a sense of community. Of course, that is what is lacking at Twitter. Whatever culture had been built at the company has clearly been destroyed in the last couple of weeks (maybe that was the point).
On a broader level, the Twitter return to office fiasco shows how companies can badly miscalculate on this issue. As with most issues, companies that take their time, do their research, check in with all constituencies and come to a reasoned decision with flexibility allowed for appropriate circumstances and valued employees will fare so much better.