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Facebook Inc.'s co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered a frank assessment about the benefits of remote work, especially with respect to recruiting. He also listed the drawbacks, uncertainties and the need for improvements in remote work technology.
But the biggest takeaway from Zuckerberg's livestream employee town hall Thursday is that the pandemic has permanently changed how work will get done -- especially at Facebook.
"I think that it's quite possible that over the next five to 10 years, about 50% of our people could be working remotely," Zuckerberg said.
Zuckerberg sees this as a major cultural change for the firm.
"I just think COVID is going to be with us for a while to come," Zuckerberg said. "That means that we can't and don't have to figure out every single detail about what the long-term is going to look like right now."
Zuckerberg listed some clear benefits of remote work. It "gives access to a lot of new pools of talent," Zuckerberg said. Specifically, people who would never consider moving to a bigger city for a job, he said. "I'm very excited about that."
Another benefit to remote work is retention. "Improved retention is as valuable -- if not more -- than being able to recruit new people," Zuckerberg said.
Mark ZuckerbergCo-founder and CEO, Facebook Inc.
While his remarks were directed at Facebook employees, Zuckerberg's theme was universal. Every firm, it seems, is trying to figure out how to adapt now and after the pandemic ends.
Flexibility is top employee choice
Working in the office remains popular at Facebook. In an internal survey, about 50% of Facebook employees "said that they really just want to get back into the office as soon as possible," Zuckerberg said.
The largest preference, about 60%, wanted flexibility, a mix of being able to work in the office and from home. Employees weren't limited to one choice in the survey.
The employee sentiment about flexibility is in line with Gartner's assessment about the future of work.
"I think the norm of the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, brick and mortar office space will be replaced with a much more flexible environment -- both in location and time," Liz Joyce, a Gartner analyst, said.
"In the near term, the reality of reopening while still maintaining social distancing will drive that flexibility," Joyce said. "Many organizations will have to adjust schedules to allow smaller groups of employees in the office."
That is true for Facebook, which employs about 45,000 people. The social network giant has already told its employees they can expect to work from home through 2020. About 95% of its employees are now working remotely.
Facebook, when it reopens offices at some future point, will limit occupancy to 25% capacity. "A lot of us are going to have to be working remotely for some time to come," Zuckerberg said.
Tools are falling short
Zuckerberg didn't indicate problems with worker productivity but said messaging and video chat tools were falling short of "building bonds" between employees in the company. They were more transactional, he said. But this is also an area that Facebook is working on with its enterprise Workplace collaboration platform.
Zuckerberg raised long-term questions about balancing in-office and remote work, such as: "How do we make offices effective and full of energy if a lot of people who have desks aren't around?"
Zuckerberg continued to point to a need for employees to meet from time to time, as well as building tools for collaboration. He also announced some new office hubs in Denver, Dallas and Atlanta, which seemed intended to create some focal points for people hired and working in those regions.
From a cost perspective, Zuckerberg said a shift to remote work wouldn't necessarily lead to cost savings, a conclusion he based on discussions with other firms that have undergone such a transition. "There are just different costs here," he said, and that includes more tooling to make remote work offices function, including good audio, lighting and internet connection for video.
Not all firms will follow Facebook's approach.
Consider OpenText in Waterloo, Ontario. Like Facebook, the content management firm shifted 95% of its 15,000 employees to remote work in response to the pandemic.
At some point, a majority of OpenText employees will return to their offices, but just not as many as before.
OpenText expects about 2,250 employees, or about 15% of its workforce, will continue to work remotely full-time, or more than double the pre-pandemic number of remote workers. The increase in remote work will allow OpenText to close some smaller offices. The large development centers in Silicon Valley, Europe, India and the Washington, D.C., area will remain.
"OpenText has always had a relaxed work-from-home policy" to support families with young children, people with special needs and those with long commutes, said Muhi Majzoub, executive vice president and chief product officer.
"Many of our employees have told us in previous employee surveys that they actually prefer and feel more productive working from home" instead of dealing with long commutes, Majzoub said.