As he was making his jobs layoffs announcement last week, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg threw in an interesting nugget. Remote working, he said, is turning out to be less productive for some workers than he had anticipated.
“In-person time helps build relationships and get more done,” he said.
“Our early analysis of performance data suggests that engineers who either joined Meta in person and transferred to remote or remained in person performed better on average than people who joined remotely.”
Engineers early in their career, in particular, perform better when they work in person with teammates at least three days a week, he said.
“This requires further study, but our hypothesis is that it is still easier to build trust in person and that those relationships help us work more effectively.”
Leave aside the irony of a company whose biggest, most ambitious plans at present revolve around a virtual platform – the Metaverse – designed to let people work and connect remotely.
Or that the overarching premise of all of Meta’s services somehow depend on making contact when physically apart.
It’s very damaging to the idea that remote working makes no difference to productivity.
Especially from one of the world’s trendsetters in HR policy. Meta was (and is) one of the most experimental of the tech giants in trialling remote working.
It split with other big tech multinationals, notably Apple, who argued that the best work in building things was almost always done when people were under the same roof for at least some of the time.
It even allowed workers in Ireland to live abroad in some circumstances, a fairly radical thing among tech multinationals here.
Now, Zuckerberg says that Meta’s “analysis” of all of this is that at least some of its workers perform better when working in person with others.
Granted, he didn’t say the company’s policy on remote working would immediately change. But it’s clear now that his thinking on it has shifted
“I encourage all of you to find more opportunities to work with your colleagues in person,” he said, wrapping up that section of his layoffs speech.
There was no balancing or qualifying rejoinder from Zuckerberg about the value of remote working; no ‘we still believe that remote working helps unlock productivity and skills that can help build our company’ or anything like that.
Granted, he didn’t say the company’s policy on remote working would immediately change. But it’s clear now that his thinking on it has shifted.
There may be quite a few downstream consequences to this, both inside and outside Meta.
Internally, everyone has been put on notice that remote working – especially for younger workers – must now be assumed not to produce the same calibre of performance as in-person collaboration.
And while Zuckerberg says that the decision-making processes for determining the 10,000 layoffs will be done on a targeted, do-we-need-this-product-and-service basis, it’s hard to imagine that within those parameters, anyone on a team working remotely won’t be more vulnerable to redundancy.
The writing is clearly on Zuck’s blogpost wall.
Then there are all of the other key decision-making processes within the tech giant. Who gets promoted? Who is appointed to lead on crucial projects? Who gets hired? Will it be someone who works remotely all week? Or someone who physically turns up every day?
For those who promote the societal benefits of remote working, this has to be a disappointing turn of events.
“If you have a culture that prioritises in-person time, then people who work remotely will naturally be at a disadvantage,” says Joanne Mangan of Grow Remote, an Irish organisation that works with companies.
“Not only because they don’t have the same access to information and opportunity, but also because there will be a conscious or unconscious bias towards remote workers at a management level.
“Remote work per se is not the issue, as there are plenty of companies who do remote working really well and have a very engaged and productive workforce.
The problem comes from not building a culture where all employees can perform at their best, regardless of where they do their work.”
When it really counts; when survival itself appears to be the goal, remote working may be a luxury rather than a core function
There are lots of companies and managers, not to mention workers, who would agree with this assessment. Remote working is a huge advantage for quite a lot of people in varied circumstances. It also suits some companies very well.
And yet Zuckerberg’s overt cooling on it is still undeniably instructive and influential.
It implies that when one of the elite tech firms is facing a crunch moment, as Meta is (hammered simultaneously by Apple, TikTok, regulators and lukewarm takeup of the Metaverse); when it really, really counts; when survival itself appears to be the goal, remote working may be a luxury rather than a core function.