With Silicon Valley’s top executives on the run, Meta becomes truly virtual

The Frank Gehry-designed headquarters that Facebook moved into in 2015 was an expansive, cavernous warehouse with concrete floors and an intentionally unfinished feel.

In the middle of the 500-yard, open-plan extension was a nest of offices where Mark Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants could gather. The sheer volume, noise, and feeling of a central group huddled together in a makeshift work environment seemed the perfect physical expression of a company that had always sought to “move fast and break things”.

Seven years later, Zuckberberg, now known as Meta, is under pressure to move as quickly as possible. Apple’s new privacy rules have capitalized on Meta’s profits from targeted advertising, even as Zuckerberg mobilizes his forces to respond to the TikTok threat and lead others technology companies in building a more comprehensive version of the Internet known as the metaverse.

However, there is a big difference. As they face the latest turmoil, the dead The CEO and his senior executives are no longer sitting in their San Francisco Bay office. The pandemic has imposed a new way of working, and news came this week that two meta-personalities – Adam Mosseri of Instagram and global policy guru Nick Clegg – are moving to London all or part of the time. This comes on the heels of similar moves by other top 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 represents a broader attempt by Silicon Valley’s leading technology companies to foster collaboration and sustain creativity and innovation as they grow. Now, companies themselves are defining a new default form of business that is, in many ways, the opposite of polarity.

None of them went further than dead. Zuckerberg began promoting the idea of ​​remote work as a permanent replacement for his employees early in the pandemic. The CEO of Meta himself withdrew to Hawaii after the Covid hit and now splits his time between Kauai Island and Menlo Park.

This year, Meta leaders came up with the idea that this is a “new normal” for working life and that there will be no going back to what was before, according to a person at the company. As a result, some have settled far from the headquarters. It’s not forgotten that Meta has pinned its future on creating new ways for people to live, work and play in virtual reality – so if they can’t run a company like this, who can?

No doubt the chief executives of other companies would look at them with envy. Many were frustrated by having to lure reluctant workers back into the office. By freeing her leadership to move as the mood takes them and leave their colleagues behind in HQ, Meta has turned things upside down.

There are clear risks to having partially distributed leadership, particularly at such a critical time for the company. One is that Zuckerberg himself, without senior helpers to shape his thoughts, could become even more isolated in his thinking. With a special class of stock giving him complete personal control of the company, even though he only owns 13 percent of the shares, he’s already running the closest thing on earth to Big Tech ownership.

There’s also a risk that the top level at Facebook won’t be in the kind of face-to-face interaction required for collaboration and creativity, as Gehry envisioned in the former Facebook headquarters. Early in the pandemic, when he predicted that half of his company’s employees would end up working remotely, Zuckerberg himself admitted What might be lost: “It’s the social connections, it’s the culture, the creativity.” He was ever a technocrat, and he said that new techniques must be invented to deal with this.

However, in reality, Zuckerberg has already been running his company in a pretty remote way for more than two years, so in some ways, this only formalizes the change that has already taken place. If Meta leaders already spend a lot of their time sitting in front of a video monitor in a home office, the only difference now is that this arrangement turns out to be something permanent, and that some of the people involved will be spread out not just across different geographies, but also across time zones.

The inconvenience of video meetings in the early morning and late at night will increase. But for a company with many of its employees, and 90 percent of its users, outside North America, having more of its senior employees elsewhere may not be a bad thing.

Zuckerberg was never someone to shy away from the kind of drastic experiments that leaders of other big companies have been shying away from. The indifference with which he now discusses the transformations his company needs to go through shows how change in Meta has become second nature.

Social media has never been a stable business: it is defined by constant upheaval, as different ways of interacting online are invented and new fads take root. If Zuckerberg can reshape his company again, and do so with an increasingly distributed leadership group, he could go a long way to determining how the next generation of innovative global companies will operate.

richard.waters@ft.com