In January, as reports about the spread of a novel coronavirus emerged from China, Mark Zuckerberg began to prepare for a potential pandemic. He began turning his teams to projects that would be useful during the long stay-at-home orders that would follow around the world — and would also highlight some of the more positive aspects of Facebook’s vast size and reach.
Within weeks, Facebook had turned an existing program for working with disease researchers into a live map showing the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders. It partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to survey users on potential COVID-19 symptoms in an effort to identify new hotspots for public health researchers.
After the videoconferencing company Zoom surged from 10 million daily meeting participants to 300 million, Facebook introduced a competitor named Rooms. Earlier this week, it announced Shops, a significant new push into e-commerce.
All of that pales, though, next to the announcement Zuckerberg made Thursday morning in a live stream to his employees. Beginning today, the company is making most of its open roles in the United States available for remote recruiting and hiring. And later this year, many of Facebook’s 48,000 employees around the world will be able to request a switch to remote work. Within the next decade, Zuckerberg predicts, Facebook — a company that until recently paid new hires a bonus of up to $15,000 to live near its Menlo Park headquarters — could be a largely remote workforce.
“We’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale,” Zuckerberg says. “We need to do this in a way that’s thoughtful and responsible, so we’re going to do this in a measured way. But I think that it’s possible that over the next five to 10 years — maybe closer to 10 than five, but somewhere in that range — I think we could get to about half of the company working remotely permanently.”
The decision marks a monumental shift in the culture of one of the world’s most consequential companies — and not necessarily one that will result in big cost savings. Zuckerberg said that new expenses, including bringing employees to headquarters for occasional “onsites” — the post-COVID equivalent of offsite retreats — will likely make up for any money Facebook saves on reduced costs associated with real estate and employee salaries.
On the eve of the announcement, we talked with Zuckerberg about why he changed his views on remote work, the work-from-home tools still yet to be invented, and his own plans for working from an office in a post-COVID future.
Highlights from our interview are below, edited lightly for clarity and length.
Casey Newton: So how are you going to roll this out?
Mark Zuckerberg: The next step of what we’re doing, starting tomorrow, is we’re unlocking remote hiring. It just kind of makes sense because, right now, everyone is pretty much working remotely, but we’re still just constraining our hiring to people who live around an office which isn’t open. So we’re going to start remote hiring.
Then on the existing employees, we’re going to allow people to request to be a permanent remote worker at some point. And they don’t have to make that decision right now, obviously. We already announced that people can remote work through the end of 2020 if they want. And if COVID is still prevalent, it’s possible that that extends beyond that. But on a long-term basis, we’re going to let people request to work permanently remotely. We’re going to focus on experienced employees rather than new college grads, who I think need to be in the office more, for training.
Historically, you’ve paid people to live close to the office, suggesting that that was really important to you. What did you see over the past couple of months that led to this shift in your thinking?
I think it’s a few things. One is that we’re working on a lot of remote presence technology and products. Everything from the private communication stuff that we’re working on, to Workplace for enterprise communication, to Portal for remote presence, which we’re rolling out a bunch of [new] features around. And then on the long-term stuff, VR and AR is all about giving people remote presence. So if you’re long on VR and AR and video chat, you have to believe in some capacity that you’re helping people be able to do whatever they want from wherever they are. So I think that that suggests a worldview that would lead to allowing people to work more remotely over time.
The immediate driver, though, that’s accelerated this dramatically is COVID, obviously. And I think that the experience of being remote for some period has been more positive than expected — not without issues. But I also just think that there’s this practical element, which is that a lot of people aren’t going to be able to go back to the offices for a while. Even with social distancing, we think that the offices are going to be at about 25 percent density. So, that just means that we’re going to have a lot of people who want to go back to the offices but aren’t going to be able to.
So, given that people are going to be remote working for a while, I just kind of feel like we have to get good at it. And given that long term, this is a direction that I think we’re going to want to go in more anyway, it just seemed like we should move forward.
But we’re doing it in a methodical way. Some people would want us to just say ‘Okay, anyone in the company can can just decide now that they want to work remotely, and go buy a house wherever they want.’ And that’s not really the approach. If you’re experienced, if you’re at a certain level within the company, if you have good performance ratings, if you’re on a team that’s going to support remote work, and if you get approval, then you’ll be able to know now that you’ll be a permanent remote worker. And then we’ll open it up more over time as we learn. But this is too important of a thing to just say everyone can go do this, and then kind of figure it out along the way.
You say up to half of Facebook could become remote workers. How did you arrive at that goal?
I wouldn’t actually say that it’s a target or goal — I think it’s more of a prediction. Here’s how I got there. We ran these surveys and asked people what they want to do. Twenty percent of our existing employees said that they were extremely or very interested in working remotely full time. And another 20 percent on top of that said that they were somewhat interested. So I think what’s basically going to happen is that, because it’s going to take a while to get everyone back into the office, you have like 40 percent of employees already who were fairly willing to work remotely.
Maybe it’s not all 40 percent will choose to stay remote. And also, of those 40 percent, some of those will be on teams that are not eligible to work remote. But then you have to layer in all the remote recruiting that we’re going to go through over the next five years of all these people who are going to live in places where their only choice is to work remote, or move to a different location. So I would imagine that over five to 10 years, we’ll probably have hired another 20 percent of the company or so who basically are in places where their only choice is really to work remotely. And then on top of that, over the long term, I think you can get to 20 to 30 percent of existing employees who both want to work remotely and are eligible to do so. And so you get to around 50.
This week we interviewed Sundar Pichai at Google about long-term remote work. He said he was still thinking about what happens after his team gets through building the things they were already working on before the pandemic started. How do you brainstorm and do creative work in an environment where you’re not always bumping into people in the elevators?
That’s one of the big open questions. The thing that’s been positively surprising to people is that people are more productive working at home than people would have expected. Some people thought that everything was just going to fall apart, and it hasn’t. And a lot of people are actually saying that they’re more productive now.
But I think the bigger question, longer term, is what you’re saying. It’s the social connections, it’s the culture, and it’s creativity. And there are a lot of tools that just need to get built around that. That’s part of the reason why I’m not saying I want everyone to go work remotely immediately. Although our hand is forced a little bit there by COVID and social distancing, so we’ll probably still be more remote in the near term than I think would be ideal.
One of the things that I’ve been worried about as I’ve thought through this is that it seems like working from home is probably pretty good for people who are relatively far along in their careers, who might not need as much coaching, mentoring, and networking. You said that you’re less likely to let new college grads work remotely. Why is that?
The basic version of it is just, they’ve never worked at a company before and need to learn how to work at a company. Most remote companies that I’ve talked to when trying to think through our policies — one of the things that I found interesting is that they tend to not hire new college grads. They basically say, ‘We’re only going to hire people who are a couple years out of college.’ And a huge part of our strategy has been, we hire thousands of new college grads a year, and we’re going to continue doing that.
But I do think that’s just a different challenge in this [situation], and so we are planning on requiring new college grads to come into the office for training — or at least, that’s the long-term idea. Moving during COVID, that will be more challenging. And we have thousands of interns who are descending on the company soon — they will be remote, so that will be an interesting experiment to see how that goes. We always learn a lot from interns.
What are some of the benefits you see in having thousands of Facebook employees working in a more distributed way?
One is access to a wider talent pool. So right now, we’re constraining ourselves to a small number of cities. It hasn’t been too bad of a constraint, but certainly there’s an advantage to opening up more widely. So I think that’ll be good. The advantage is not just on the recruiting side — it’s also on the retention side. A bunch of the people who leave the company, who are good people who we would want to keep — the reason that they leave is because they want to move somewhere that we don’t support. So remote work will help us retain those key folks, which in a lot of ways is better than having to recruit a new person. So on both sides, it will help us access more talent.
The other thing is that I think it will help us advance some of the future technology we’re working on around remote presence, because we’re just going to be using it constantly ourselves. Things like video chat we already use all day long. Workplace we live on. But I think for VR and AR, this could help accelerate those. Right now, VR and AR is a large group within the company, but it’s still somewhat disconnected from the work that most employees are doing on a day-to-day basis. And I think that this could change that sooner. So that’s something that I’m particularly excited about.
Another thing that I should mention, in terms of benefit for the company, is diversity. We’ll just get access to people in different communities, from different backgrounds, who live in different places. So every measure of diversity — backgrounds and ideology — I think we’ll just have access to more folks.
For the world, I think spreading opportunity more equally. Rather than forcing people to come to cities for opportunity, you’ll be able to spread that out more. That will be good. And then I think there’s a big environmental aspect of it. People aren’t commuting, and they’re not flying around as much. There’s some stat that came out today about how emissions are down some massive percent since COVID began. And that won’t exactly continue, but in 2020 it is a lot easier to move bits around than atoms. So I’d much rather have us teleport by using virtual reality or video chat than sit in traffic.
I imagine that this is the longest stretch that you yourself have worked remotely. How have your own thoughts about working from home evolved?
I definitely think this is the longest stretch that I have worked remotely. It’s also been more productive than I thought it was going to be. But it’s also such an anomalous period. It’s a little hard to extrapolate from. One of the things that I’ve heard from people who have worked at other remote companies is that this period, while it is more productive for a lot of people than being in the office, is less productive than they felt like they were when they worked full time remotely before — because you have distractions like kids around, and everyone is super stressed out about COVID. So it’s not a stable environment. That’s been interesting.
But I think one of the big unknowns is what you were talking about earlier, in terms of creativity. To what extent are we all now just drafting off of the culture and direction that we built up over the last 10 years? It might just be very hard to change things going forward. Now, my experience so far has not been that it’s been that hard to change things — we’ve certainly changed direction on a bunch of stuff and accelerated development of a bunch of stuff, and we’ve seen a bunch of that stuff launched at this point. So I’m a little more optimistic about that, in terms of my ability to lead the company on that. But we’ll see over time — there’s a lot of unknowns.
Say there’s a COVID-19 vaccine at some point in the future. At that point, how much do you personally see yourself working in an office versus working remotely?
It’s a good question. I’m not... normal, in terms of the constraints of what I have to do. I have to travel to go see people. Business partners and government officials and different folks come into the office, and it just would not be possible, even if I wanted to, for me to work fully remotely.
But I think given the spirit of this, and wanting to be in touch with employees, and for some of the same reasons around wanting to use some of our more advanced technology that we’re developing — I do think I’ll plan to spend more of my time remotely over time. But I’m figuring out exactly what that would look like for someone in my role.