This past week Facebook became one of the largest proponents of remote work. It made headlines for considering allowing people to permanently work from home. In doing so, it joined the likes of Twitter, Square, and Shopify, all of whom are recent, post-pandemic converts. (The idea is not so new to companies like GitLab and Automattic.)
This is the same Zuckerberg who felt compelled to force employees to move closer to Palo Alto. The one who resisted the idea of a San Francisco operation. This guy is suddenly the poster child of “working from home?” Why this abrupt shift in the management philosophy of companies like Facebook?
To answer this question, you need only to abide by the golden rule: follow the money.
Those fancy offices, catered lunches, and all the other luxuries that allow people to pretend that they are still in college and getting paid for it — that all costs money. And those costs were going higher, especially as the real estate market remained tight in the region. For employers trying to keep up with the Joneses, each employee in the San Francisco Bay Area costs an extra $20,000 to $35,000 per year, depending on how big you are as a company.
Now, let’s assume we all go back to work in the near future. In order to do so, companies like Twitter, Square, and Facebook would have to completely re-tool their offices to accommodate all their employees and meet the right health protocols. And that will require more real estate, which also costs money — a lot of it. The other challenge of having physical spaces is the very real threat of COVID-19-related lawsuits. No one will say this out loud, but we have not really internalized the litigation risks of physical space in this post-pandemic era.
What if you get COVID-19 at work? “First of all, this is the United States, so there will be litigation, no matter what,” Goodwin partner Teresa Goebel told the Skift. She was talking about the hotel industry, but the same expectation of personal safety will be applicable to offices as well. In their (informative and must-read) research paper, “A Public Health Framework for COVID-19 Business Liability,” Daniel Hemel, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and Daniel Rodriguez, the Harold Washington Professor of Law at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, outline the legal quagmire that awaits us.
In his interview with Casey Newton, Zuckerberg guesstimated that about half of the workforce would return to the office, so this isn’t a total revolution. After plowing through Mark Zuckerberg’s media blitz yesterday, I came to the conclusion that the main difference between us technology people and those on Wall Street is that we do a better job of marketing our bullshit. The New York banks and financial organization chiefs are being pretty honest about why they are embracing the “work from home” revolution.
“We’ve proven we can operate with no footprint,” said James Gorman, Morgan Stanley’s chief executive officer, in an interview with Bloomberg. “That tells you an enormous amount about where people need to be physical.” JP Morgan, Barclays, and others are rethinking whether they even need big expensive offices. Or as mega-investor Warren Buffet said, “A lot of people have learned that they can work at home.”
“If you are coming and working at your desk, you certainly could do that from home,” David Kenny, the chief executive at Nielsen told the New York Times. “We have leases that are coming due, and it’s absolutely driving those kinds of decisions.’’ The company is thinking about turning its offices into a meeting space where workers gather maybe once or twice a week.
This is a great opportunity for companies to shift the costs of operations to employees. And technology companies are no different, except they have public relations armies to polish up their dollars-first thinking with the veneer of ideological transformation. Working from home is a good and easy get out of jail card for Facebook and the new converts. It not only removes any legal liabilities, but it also shifts the “operational expenses” to the employee.
So, you want to work remotely for Facebook? Great! All you have to do is figure out your own office space (much like how an Uber driver is responsible for the upkeep of their vehicle) — oh, and settle for less money relative to your colleagues living and working closer to the Bay Area.
Yup, It is always about money.
May 23, 2020. San Francisco