The Frank Gehry-designed headquarters that Facebook moved into in 2015 was a cavernous, elongated warehouse with concrete floors and a deliberately unfinished feel.
At the center of the 500-meter, open-plan expanse was a nest of desks where Mark Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants could congregate. The massive scale, hustle and bustle and feel of a core group gathered in an improvised work environment seemed like the perfect physical expression of a company that had always sought to “move fast and break things”.
Seven years later, Zuckerberg’s company, now known as Meta, is under pressure to move as fast as ever. Apple’s new privacy rules have taken a big bite out of Meta’s profits from targeted advertising, even as Zuckerberg rallies his troops to fight the threat from TikTok and lead other tech companies to build a more immersive version of the Internet known as the metaverse.
There is, however, one big difference. As they deal with the latest turmoil, Meta’s CEO and top executives are no longer sitting in their San Francisco Bay Area office. The pandemic has forced a new way of working, and this week came the news that two leading figures at Meta – Instagram’s Adam Mosseri and global policy head Nick Clegg – are moving to London full or part time. This follows similar moves by other senior executives this year: one is already in the UK, while others have left for Israel, Spain and New York.
Gehry’s industrial palace for the digital age exemplified a broader attempt by Silicon Valley’s leading technology companies to promote collaboration and sustain creativity and innovation as they grew. Now, the same companies are defining a new form of virtual work that is, in many ways, the polar opposite.
None have gone as far as Meta. Zuckerberg began pushing the idea of remote work as a permanent alternative for his staff early in the pandemic. Meta’s CEO himself retired to Hawaii after Covid hit and now splits his time between the island of Kauai and Menlo Park.
This year, Meta’s leaders have come to terms with the idea that this is a “new normal” for working life and that there will be no going back to what had happened, according to a company person. As a result, some have been based away from headquarters. It’s not lost on anyone that Meta has focused its future on inventing new ways for people to live, work and play in virtual reality, so if they can’t run a company like this, who can?
Top executives at other companies will no doubt look on with envy. Many have been frustrated by having to entice reluctant workers back into the office. By freeing their leadership to move where the mood takes them and leaving their colleagues behind at headquarters, Meta has turned things around.
There are obvious risks to having partially distributed leadership, especially at such a critical time for the company. One is that Zuckerberg himself, without senior lieutenants to shape his ideas, could become more isolated in his thinking. With a special class of shares that gives him full personal control of the company, even though he only owns 13 percent of the capital, he already runs the world’s closest thing to a Big Tech monarchy.
There’s also the risk that the highest level of Facebook isn’t there for the kind of face-to-face interaction needed for collaboration and creativity, as Gehry envisioned at Facebook’s former headquarters. At the start of the pandemic, when it’s projected that half of your company’s staff could end up working remotely, Zuckerberg himself admitted what could be lost: “It’s social connections, culture and creativity.” Ever the technocrat, he said new technologies would have to be invented to deal with this.
However, in reality, Zuckerberg has already been running his company very remotely for over two years, so in some ways this just formalizes a change that’s already happening. If the leaders of Meta already spent much of their time sitting in front of a video screen in a home office, then the only difference now is that this arrangement is being hardened into something permanent and that some of the people interested will be distributed not only in different geographies, but also in time zones.
The inconvenience of video calls in the early hours of the morning and at night will increase. But for a company with most of its staff, and 90% of its users, outside of North America, having more of its key people located elsewhere might not be a bad thing.
Zuckerberg has never been one to shrink from the kind of radical experiments that leaders of other big companies would balk at. The nonchalance with which he now talks about the transformations his company has to go through shows how the change at Meta has become second nature.
Social media has never been a settled business: it’s defined by constant upheaval as different ways to interact online are invented and new fads take hold. If Zuckerberg can remake his company again, and do so with an increasingly distributed leadership group, it could go a long way to defining how the next generation of innovative global companies operate.