OpenAI Founder Slams Remote Work as Tech Industry’s “Worst Mistake”


The coronavirus may seem like a distant memory for most, but at least one of its legacies is still very much with us: remote working.

For the tech industry in particular, it’s hard to remember a time when everyone trudged to and from the office every day. Remote work in some form or another is now considered a must-have, particularly among Millennials and Generation Z. No wonder then that 83% of UK HR professionals said remote work is crucial to attracting top talent.

Initially, most companies took a positive view of the shift, citing studies and their own anecdotal tales of greatly boosted productivity. But increasingly, business leaders have been pushing back against the phenomenon. Now, AI entrepreneur Sam Altman has joined their ranks and the OpenAI founder isn’t mincing his words.

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The Experiment Is Over

“I think definitely one of the tech industry’s worst mistakes in a long time was that everybody could go full remote forever, and startups didn’t need to be together in person and, you know, there was going to be no loss of creativity,” Altman was quoted by Fortune as saying, during a recent talk hosted by financial services and software giant Stripe.

“I would say that the experiment on that is over, and the technology is not yet good enough that people can be fully remote forever, particularly in startups.”

This isn’t the first time he’s criticised the remote working phenomenon; earlier in the year he branded it “a big mistake.”

Many of Altman’s fellow tech leaders agree, to varying degrees. In February, the CEO of Amazon made it mandatory for workers to be in the office three days a week. Elon Musk has gone further, abruptly ending remote working arrangements at both Tesla and Twitter. Many other executives have followed suit, including some, like Salesforce CEO Mike Benioff, who were initially positive about working from home.

All of them have cited worker productivity as their main concern. In a leaked internal email last year, Musk bluntly declared that “Tesla has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth. This will not happen by phoning it in.” Retorting to critics on Twitter, Musk said employees that weren’t happy with the change could “pretend to work somewhere else.” 

The CEO of IBM Arvind Krishna took a different perspective in criticising remote work, saying it was employees who suffered as a result by stunting their career prospects.

“In the short term, you probably can be equally productive, but your career does suffer. Moving from there to another role is probably less likely because nobody’s observing them in another context,” Krishna told Bloomberg News. “It will be tougher. Not impossible, but probably a lot tougher.”

Is This The End For Remote Work?

But despite that growing scepticism, it doesn’t seem like we’re all being hauled back to the office any time soon.

For example, while many of the aforementioned criticisms may be valid, numerous studies have painted a very different picture. A 2022 study commissioned by Microsoft which surveyed over 20,000 staff in 11 different countries found that while 80% of managers felt staff were less productive working from home, 87% of staff insisted they were actually more productive. 

That latter view appears to be backed by data from the US Bureau of Statistics, which shows that worker productivity increased sharply in Q1 of 2020, the start of work-from-home mandates in the US. Those higher productivity levels remained fairly steady until suddenly dropping in the first half of 2022, precisely when US workers began returning to the office. 

Years before the coronavirus pandemic, a peer-reviewed study showed that worker performance and satisfaction significantly increased when working from home, while workforce attrition rates plummeted by half. Many subsequent studies found the same thing. 

Business leaders can’t afford to ignore these statistics, and many have pointed to them as a reason to continue allowing employees to work remotely.

Ironically, however, it’s the recession and the need to cut costs that’s forcing even the biggest sceptics of remote working to reconsider. Just ask Elon Musk himself, who just a few months after savaging the work-from-home phenomenon closed Twitter’s offices in Seattle and Singapore and… instructed employees in those places to work from home.

So will OpenAI’s Sam Altman be forced to eat his words? Only time will tell.