Tesla Posts Record Earnings at Start of Turbulent Year
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Tesla Posts Record Earnings at Start of Turbulent Year

Electric-vehicle pioneer faces safety investigations and mounting competition.

By Rebecca Elliot
Tue, Apr 27, 2021 10:37amGrey Clock 5 min

Tesla Inc. posted a record quarterly profit despite supply disruptions, fueled by rising deliveries and increasingly broad-based demand for electric vehicles.

The Silicon Valley car maker has enjoyed booming sales, driven by both its popular Model Y compact sport-utility vehicle and sustained demand in China. The company also has benefited from the wider embrace of plug-in cars as governments across the world push to phase out gasoline-powered vehicles, in some cases through subsidies.

“We’ve seen a real shift in customer perception of electric vehicles, and our demand is the best we’ve ever seen,” Chief Executive Elon Musk said Monday on an investor call.

Tesla on Monday said revenue in the first quarter jumped around 74% from the same period a year earlier to US$10.4 billion. The company generated a US$438 million net profit, up from $16 million a year ago. Wall Street on average expected the company to report sales of about $10.5 billion and net income of around $509 million for the January through March period, according to analysts surveyed by FactSet.

Tesla said it delivered 184,877 vehicles in the first three months of the year, more than double the number during the same period a year earlier. The company, which delivered nearly half a million vehicles in 2020, reaffirmed it expects that figure to rise more than 50% this year.

The company’s strong financial start to the year comes as it faces challenges on other fronts. Federal auto-safety officials are investigating the fatal fiery crash of a Model S sedan earlier this month in Texas. Neither of the victims was found in the driver’s seat, local officials have said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s probe of the wreck is one of more than two dozen investigations of crashes involving Tesla vehicles.

The crash left questions about whether or how the vehicle could have been operating without anyone in the driver’s seat.

A Tesla executive said the company was working with local and federal authorities to investigate what happened.

The car’s steering wheel, he said on the call, was found to be deformed, “leading to the likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.” All the seat belts, post crash, were found to be unbuckled, he said. Tesla wasn’t able to recover data from the car’s memory device.

Tesla conducted a study along with authorities in which the company tried to replicate the likely crash scenario, the executive said. The company said that a driver assistance feature that helps with steering didn’t engage in the test, while another feature, adaptive cruise control, only activated when a driver was buckled in and traveling at above 5 miles per hour.

Mark Herman, the constable whose precinct the crash happened in, declined to comment on Tesla’s statement that someone likely was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash, saying that the incident remained under investigation.

Tesla has also faced parts shortages that led the company to briefly shut down its Fremont, Calif., factory in February. Rivals such as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG have had to idle some production capacity because of a global semiconductor shortage.

“We were able to navigate through global chip-supply shortage issues in part by pivoting extremely quickly to new microcontrollers,” the company said in a note to shareholders, adding that it also was devising new software for chips made by new suppliers.

Mr. Musk said the past quarter “had some of the most difficult supply chain challenges that we’ve ever experienced.” Those go beyond computer chips, he said. China production was held back because key engineers couldn’t travel there because of Covid-19 related quarantine restrictions, he said. Some of the effects are likely to last in the current and following quarter, he said.

Tesla said it had successfully lowered the cost of making cars, helping offset a decline in the average price of its vehicles.

The company’s bottom line also benefited from several factors not directly linked to car sales. Its financial results have been aided by the sale of regulatory credits to rival auto makers that need them to comply with emissions-related rules. Such credits brought in $518 million in the most recent quarter, up from $354 million during the year-earlier period. Tesla has previously said it doesn’t expect such sales to be a material part of its business.

The company also said it saw a positive earnings effect from the sale of bitcoin in the period. Tesla bought $1.5 billion worth of the cryptocurrency in the first quarter and sold 10% of that, Chief Financial Officer Zach Kirkhorn said. The company is now accepting bitcoin as payment for products sold in the U.S.

Mr. Kirkhorn said the company opted to invest in bitcoin when it was looking for a place to store cash it didn’t immediately need as a way to preserve liquidity while also earning a return. “It is our intent to hold what we have long-term and continue to accumulate bitcoin from transactions from our customers as they purchase vehicles,” he said on the investor call.

Tesla’s success in popularizing electric vehicles transformed the company into the world’s most valuable car maker. Its success also spurred legacy car makers and startups alike to develop competing models, some of which are showing early signs of eroding Tesla’s market share.

In the U.S., for example, Tesla vehicles accounted for roughly 70% of the all-electric vehicles sold in the first quarter, according to the research firm Cox Automotive Inc. That is down from about 82% during the same period a year earlier.

Tesla’s stock soared more than eightfold last year. It is up roughly 4.5% in 2021 after advancing 1.2% on Monday ahead of results. The stock retreated more than 2% in after-hours trading.

Global demand for electric vehicles continues to increase, though, and Tesla is adding production capacity to keep pace. The company said it remains on track to begin producing vehicles this year at its new car plants near Austin, Texas, and outside Berlin, its first in Europe. Tesla has expanded capacity at its first overseas plant in Shanghai and began delivering China-made Model Y vehicles this year after kicking off with the Model 3 sedan in 2019.

China has been a growth engine for Tesla, helping to lift the company to its first full-year profit last year. But the company has hit a rough patch in the market recently. Chinese authorities summoned Tesla in February over consumer quality complaints. The government also restricted the use of Tesla vehicles by military personnel as well as employees at key state-owned companies over data-security concerns.

Earlier this month, a single protester with a disputed claim about the safety of Tesla’s vehicles drew widespread attention across the Chinese internet, which is closely controlled by the government.

Tesla has apologized for its treatment of some customers in China and said it would do better. Mr. Musk said last month that Tesla would be shut down if it used its vehicles to spy, which he said was “a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential.”

Tesla also reaffirmed that it expects to deliver its first semitrailer trucks to customers in 2021, two years after initially planned. Mr. Musk said in January that the company didn’t have enough battery cells to go into production with the vehicle.

 

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 26, 2021



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The Loneliness of the American Worker

More meetings and faceless chats. Fewer work friends. How the modern workday is fueling an epidemic of isolation.

By TE-PING CHEN
Wed, May 29, 2024 6 min

More Americans are profoundly lonely, and the way they work—more digitally linked but less personally connected—is deepening that sense of isolation.

Nick Skarda , 29 years old, works two jobs in logistics and office administration in San Diego to keep up with his bills. After a couple of years at the logistics job, he has one friend there. He says hi to co-workers at his office job but doesn’t really know any.

“I feel sort of an emptiness or lack of belonging,” he says. Juggling two jobs leaves Skarda exhausted, with little energy or time to grab drinks with co-workers . “It makes it harder to go in and give it your all if you don’t feel like anyone is there rooting for you,” he adds.

Employers and researchers are just beginning to understand how workplace shifts over the past four years are contributing to what the U.S. surgeon general declared a loneliness health epidemic last year. The alienation affects remote and in-person workers alike. Among 1-800-Flowers.com ’s 5,000 hybrid and fully on-site employees, for instance, the most popular community chat group offered by a company mental-health provider is simply called “Loneliness.”

Consider these phenomena of modern work:

It is a marked shift from even a decade ago, when bonds fostered at work helped compensate for declining participation in church , community groups and other social institutions. As the American workday becomes more faceless and scheduled , the number of U.S. adults who call themselves lonely has climbed to 58% from 46% in 2018, according to a recent Cigna poll of 10,000 Americans.

The faceless workday

The disconnection is driving up staff turnover and worker absences, making it a business issue for more employers, executives and researchers say. Cigna, the health-insurance company, estimates that loneliness is costing companies $154 billion a year in absenteeism alone.

“Work is social, it’s a lot more than a paycheck,” says James McCann , founder and chairman of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Earlier this year, 1-800-Flowers.com moved from three days in the office to four to boost a sense of connectivity among workers. It has also begun tapping workers across teams to serve as designated hosts during lunchtime, encouraging people to sit with colleagues they don’t know in common areas and chat, and suggesting conversation topics.

While today’s workers have more ways to connect than ever, “there are only so many memes and jokes you can send over Slack,” says Maëlle Gavet , chief executive of Techstars, a pre-seed fund that has invested in 4,100 startups. “We tend to have more and more people with back-to-back calendars, more meetings and less connections.”

Gavet says that is especially the case for hybrid workers on in-office days, which they tend to use to dash from one meeting to the next.

Paradoxically, meetings can make people feel lonelier—and even more so if the meetings are virtual, behavioural researchers say. A 2023 survey by employee experience and analytics company Perceptyx found people who described themselves as “very lonely” tended to have heavier meeting loads than less-lonely staffers. More than 40% of those people spent more than half their work hours in meetings.

In Cincinnati, Kelly Roehm says she came to chafe at the meetings—sometimes as many as 12—consuming her day after joining a consulting company in 2021. She would often feel her eyes glazing over as she multitasked on other screens.

“It’s like you’re a zombie, there but not there,” says Roehm, who lived 10 minutes from the office but worked mostly remotely because she says few colleagues typically came in. It is a more common setup as companies distribute teams across more locations: At Microsoft , 27% of the company’s teams all worked in the same location last year, compared with 61% in 2019.

She compares that experience with her time more than a decade ago at a company now owned by AstraZeneca . There, she enjoyed lots of social outlets at work: a Weight Watchers group and a lunchtime crochet club.

“Now if I were to think about asking, ‘Hey, do you want to participate in something like this,’ it would just sound weird,” says Roehm, who left this year to focus on her own career-consulting business. “There wasn’t that emotional attachment that made it difficult to say, it’s time to move on.”

The power of small talk

Office chitchat, sometimes an unwanted distraction, seems to provide more benefits than many people realise, says Jessica Methot , an associate professor at Rutgers University who studies social ties at work.

In a study of 100 employees at different workplaces, Methot and fellow researchers surveyed participants at points throughout the day. They found those who had engaged in small talk reported less stress and more positivity toward co-workers.

Even exchanging pleasantries with a co-worker you barely know can help, says Sarah Wright , an associate professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who studies worker loneliness.

“We used to think loneliness has to be overcome by developing meaningful relationships and having that degree of intimacy,” Wright says. “More and more, though, we’re seeing it’s these day-to-day weak ties and frequency of [interactions] with people that matters.”

Such interactions are substantially harder to replicate in a virtual environment. “The default now is, I have to schedule time with you, even if it’s five minutes, instead of just picking up the phone,” says Katie Tyson , president of Hive Brands, an online food retailer founded in 2020 as a fully remote company.

The frictions add up, she says. Last fall, the company added an office in New York where employees voluntarily gather a couple of times a week to foster more cohesion.

Coming to the office, even on a hybrid basis, tends to yield a roughly 20% to 30% boost in serendipitous connections, according to Syndezo, which analysed survey data and email and messaging traffic from more than two dozen large companies.

Yet there are diminishing returns to time in person, says Philip Arkcoll , founder of Worklytics, which analyses workforce data for Fortune 500 companies. Coming in once a month provides a significant boost in ties; two or three times a month adds a little more, Worklytics data show. Once or twice a week results in a smaller increase, though, and working in-person four or five days a week makes almost no difference.

A business priority

Ernst & Young has asked managers to use the first five minutes of team calls to engage in conversation “as real human beings,” says Frank Giampietro , whose title, chief well-being officer for the Americas, was created in 2021 to help support employees during the pandemic.

The professional-services firm is also training employees to spot and reach out to co-workers struggling with issues such as isolation. To date, more than 1,600 employees have taken the training.

One challenge is that American workers have sacrificed connection for productivity, says Julie Rice , co-founder of fitness chain SoulCycle. These days, with more business contacts preferring video calls, she finds breakfast meetings and coffee dates on her calendar have been replaced with Zoom. Though efficient, such video calls are less likely to yield conversations that can turn into useful professional connections or lasting friendships, she says.

Julie Rice says that her work schedule, once packed with coffees and in-person meetups, is now an avalanche of Zooms. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER GREGORY-RIVERA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Even people I’m meeting with here in New York, we’ll just Zoom,” she says.

Last year, Rice co-founded Peoplehood, a company that runs “gathers” to improve connectivity and relationship skills, and employers are signing up. One, a beauty-services business with hundreds of field employees who never see each other, asked Peoplehood to host a series of gatherings for workers to meet and share job advice. Another, a marketing company with far-flung employees, requested help after surveys showed staff wanted to feel more connected.

“Whatever relationships we had pre-Covid have sort of run out of gas,” Rice says.

Good luck prodding employees to socialise, though. Nearly all the 150-odd staff at the Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters of Shaklee, the nutrition-supplements company, used to attend annual Earth Day gatherings, which involved community service, lunch and breaking early for the day, says Jonathan Ramot , the company’s North American human-resources director. Office happy hours, bowling outings and “mix and mingles” were also robustly attended.

Now that the workforce has gone remote, last year’s Earth Day event attracted 20 staffers, even though most workers live nearby.

“We have a lot of people asking for in-person events, but when we plan them, they don’t show up,” Ramot says. “Then they complain they’re lonely.”

This past April, Shaklee instead held a mandatory get-together with the chief executive, who had relocated to Florida during the pandemic and was in town. About 100 employees gathered at a brewery for food, drinks and conversation—and no speeches from the bosses.

There was a buzz in the air, Ramot says, as staff hugged and delighted in seeing each other, some for the first time. “People were saying, I miss this,” he says.

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