I’ve been to Facebook’s Menlo Park campus a number of times, and it’s easy to understand why employees don’t often leave. Inside the massive complex, you get the same feeling as when you’re inside some huge Las Vegas casinos—that there’s just no reason to go outside.
All the basics are covered. Facebook provides big cafeterias with gourmet food, as well as freestanding food joints and coffee shops. The company does employees’ dry cleaning, offers massages, provides sleep pods and nap rooms, and takes care of as much as it can to keep its people thinking about work and not about the minutiae of daily living off-campus. And if you need some “outside” time, you just walk up to the massive green space on the roof.
That’s why it’s hard for me to take seriously Mark Zuckerberg’s statement this week that half of the company’s workforce could be working at home in the next 5 to 10 years. It flies in the face of the open and transparent but present work culture the company’s been honing for years. There’s an ideal at Facebook embodied in the image of a group of young “hackers” gathered around a whiteboard inside a glass-walled conference room late in the evening, hammering out some new feature. How do you do that on Zoom—or in Facebook’s case, Bluejeans?
However, Zuck’s statement has a nice sound to it, and based on my experience with Facebook’s media-, public-, and government-relations game over the years, that may be the main point. Facebook has a knack for making the public statements it knows people want to hear.
Amid widespread criticism for allowing false political ads on the platform, Zuckerberg made a speech at Georgetown in which he cast his company as a champion of the First Amendment. In the wake of the firestorm over the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal and the Russian hijacking of Facebook to influence the 2016 election, Zuckerberg stated that most socializing on his network would move to private, encrypted spaces. But if you look back at Facebook’s past statements and predictions, you’ll find that while not many of them were flatly wrong, most were far from right.
Getting out in front on this work-from-home revolution might just be the message for today, when many of us have come to believe that COVID-19 will change work forever and radically deemphasize the importance of brick-and-mortar offices. (Though not everybody buys it.) It’s a feel-good message that comes just after Facebook picked off Giphy in the midst of a pandemic and during the height of anti-trust angst in Washington. Earlier this month, The Washington Post revealed that Facebook is behind the launch of a new lobbying group called American Edge, which will try to calm anti-tech and anti-trust fever in the capital.
If Zuckerberg follows through on his comments, there are some positives here. Zuckerberg stated that Facebook will immediately start focusing on hiring people who live away from the crowded and overpriced housing markets of the coasts. If Facebook did transition to 50% remote work, it could expand the tech talent pool geographically and make it easier for tech companies small and large to find good people. “It doesn’t seem that good to constrain hiring to people who live around offices,” Zuckerberg eloquently said. It might also extend the economic spillover zones that benefit indirectly from tech industry money to new places farther from the coasts.
Even here, there’s a dark side. Facebook says it will adjust salaries to fit the location of the employee, so an engineer working in Silicon Valley will make more money than an engineer doing the same work in Nevada. But, to be fair, such an adjustment might be appropriate so long as the quality of life the two salaries can buy in different markets is equal.
Zuckerberg’s comments today came during an employee town hall, an event that’s usually not open to the public. In the Facebook announcement, Zuckerberg wrote: “I wanted to share it externally in case our research or approach is helpful to other organizations thinking about what the future of work looks like.”
Facebook, like many other companies, will very likely make a bigger place for remote work within its culture. But forgive my skepticism that Facebook will figure out the smartest and fastest way of doing this, then bestow that profound knowledge on the rest of the business world.