MAY 29 — Two weeks ago, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, in an interview with CNBC, suggested there were moral considerations involved in the entire notion of working from home (WFH).

Musk labelled Silicon Valley engineers a part of “laptop classes living in la-la land” not least because WFH folks like them usually expected others (especially service workers) to show up at work or be in the office.

I don’t imagine his comments will go down well with many Malaysian employees and students, almost all of whom (as least from my conversations with them) see no reason why they can’t be allowed to stay at home especially if their jobs don’t require client facetime very often.

There is a tangible frustration within a percentage of the Malaysian workforce over the WFH issue; and Musk’s comments will likely just add fuel to fire.

Because let’s face it: Most Malaysian employers expect their workers to clock into office; WFH remains essentially an emergency option at best and a non-starter in many cases.

Very few companies see WFH as a laudable arrangement and even fewer promote it as a selling point on Linked-In.

The last three companies I’ve worked at, including my present one, wasted no time in “calling people back to the office” the moment the government lifted the MCO restrictions.

Amidst calls for WFH as an option, many managers simply deferred to HR which, most of the time, allowed it only in extreme cases (like being Covid-positive).

Musk, at least, employed a moral argument against WFH; he appealed to people’s sense of consistency at work.

If we go to a bank and expect to see someone at the counter — and we’d be pissed if someone wasn’t — shouldn’t we apply those requirements to ourselves?

Do we want our entire economy to be a WFH one? Would we be glad if groceries, cinemas, restaurants, hair salons, cafes, hotels, etc were all devoid of human personnel?

Thus, if these sectors of the economy still require people to go work, how can other sectors demand WFH as a kind of entitlement?

Whatever you think of Musk’s perspective, I think the point he raises about the inevitability of service workers needing to leave their homes to earn a living needs to be heard.

Do I have the right to feel “robbed” of WFH privileges when so many others simply don’t have that option?

Arguments in favour

The other side of the argument, of course, is the sheer practicality and convenience of WFH arrangements if the job suits it.

One could even argue that Musk’s point is moot if, in fact, employers gain a competitive advantage by offering WFH as a perk.

A frequent sticking point among Malaysian white-collar workers is this concern that bosses do not “trust” them. A WFH arrangement more or less puts that idea to bed, leaving the ball in the employees’ court i.e. “prove that your quality doesn’t fall with WFH”.

I personally know quite a few data analysts and content creators who, I’m sure, work even more efficiently when they do it from the comfort of their own bedroom or hall. I can’t say this is the majority of Malaysians but such folks exist for sure.

Yet many Malaysian employers in their late forties and older have spent too many decades working in an office to feel comfortable allowing workers (especially highly paid workers) to remain absent from the office.

Many people associate “time for productivity” with “time in office” and, because they’re the ones paying the salaries, they probably believe this debate is a waste of time.

Nevertheless, WFH may result in lower costs for some companies. Surely we’ve all heard of some start-ups which don’t need to rent office space because their team is 24/7 remote and mobile.

Also, I guess if fewer people show up in office, this could result in lower costs for electricity, broadband and maybe even man-power if employees accept slightly lower wages in exchange for not having to commute every weekday.

Long and short, this debate will rage on whatever Musk says or doesn’t say. In the end, I guess the market will do the talking and that in the end is really how every final outcome will be decided — whether moral or immoral.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.