Failure for Meta’s remote-working ‘metamates’ could threaten to sink the whole ship
The company said in June it would give most of its employees the choice to seek permission to work outside the office. Meta says its goal is to be “the most forward-leaning company for remote work” at its scale and believes it could have tens of thousands of people working remotely in the future.
Online real-estate giant Zillow Group was exceptionally early to embrace a permanent work-from-home option, announcing back in July 2020—just a few months into the pandemic—that 90% of its employees would have the option to continue to work from home at least indefinitely. Under its new “distributed workforce model,” Zillow says it now has employees spread across 49 states.
Zillow is a much smaller company than Meta, with a domestic workforce rather than a global one, but its early remote-work lessons could be helpful for Meta investors. In an interview, Chief People Officer Dan Spaulding said Zillow’s decision to move to a more flexible workforce model had to do with attracting and retaining the best talent. Even prior to the pandemic, he said, asking candidates to uproot their family and move to Seattle, where Zillow is headquartered, “was getting to be a really tough proposition,” adding he “can’t imagine” trying to persuade people to change jobs and move in today’s labor market.
Zillow says it had a greater than 58% increase in applicants in the first half of 2021 compared with the first half of 2019, with diversity among applicants increasing too. In 2021 surveys, the company says nearly half its new hires said they chose Zillow because of its “freedom and flexibility.”
Meta could use some of that boost, especially at the top. Senior executives, including the head of communications,the global advertising chief, the head of its Facebook app, the co-creator of its digital currency, the vice president of virtual reality, the vice president of augmented and virtual reality content, and its chief creative officer, among others, have all left the company over the past 15 months. Meta’s stock—a key element of executive pay—is looking a lot less attractive these days, off by nearly a third year-to-date, erasing some $300 billion in market value.
But Mr. Spaulding called the faster pace enabled by remote work both a pro and a con. He said it has enabled Zillow to move quickly through the wind-down of its iBuying business. Its rapid rollout last year led to hundreds of millions in inventory write-downs in a single quarter. Mr. Spaulding said he didn’t know, though, if iBuying’s blowup could have been avoided with a more centralized workforce.
Meta says it is still too early to share data on how many of its employees have chosen to pursue remote work as an option but did say 2022 will be “a learning year.” A company long known for its mantra, “move fast and break things,” it is now under the gun to make rapid progress as it works to expand upon its social-media roots into the so-called “metaverse,” a highly competitive space that counts Microsoft and Nvidia as competitors.
In an interview for Tim Ferriss’s podcast released last week, Mr. Zuckerberg called out “the rise of distributed work” as perhaps the most significant societal trend he is seeing now. He also discussed core values for his company over the years, such as using the very things you are building toward fast feedback. Moving fast, he said, is the key to learning; but implied in that is the tolerance of “some amount of bugs.”
Sometimes those bugs bite. To evaluate the promise of remote work, Ben Waber, president and co-founder of workplace-analytics company Humanyze, looked at pandemic performance of publicly traded video game companies globally—an industry he says he figured would be an “ideal test case” for success in a fully distributed workforce given its pandemic popularity and its production of almost exclusively digital goods, like Meta’s. In the end, he and Zanele Munyikwa, a Ph.D. student at MIT Sloan School of Management, found public video game companies that moved to remote work during the pandemic reported 4.4 times more delays than they did pre-pandemic, while those that didn’t shift to remote work reported roughly half the delays compared with before the pandemic.
“Now, no one can claim they know what they’re doing,” he said about post-pandemic workplace arrangements at this stage. “For Meta, if they’re being honest, it’s a hypothesis.”
It is a particularly high stakes hypothesis for a company that is now asking investors to invest in its construction of a virtual environment where it expects the world not only to play and communicate but also to work. In that sense, Meta’s bet on remote work is a critical proof-of-concept.
Write to Laura Forman at [email protected]
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