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Remote Work Isn’t the End of Silicon Valley, but It Is the End of Something

A golden era of tech offices sputters to a close

Will Oremus

Employees work in Facebook’s “War Room,” during a media demonstration on October 17, 2020, in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images

Welcome back to , OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.

The notion that remote work is the way of the future is hardly new. It long predates the pandemic and went mainstream in the United States almost as soon as the lockdowns began. (I made the case in early March that the coronavirus response would be a preview of society’s self-isolating future — a future that threatens to exacerbate class divides, among other far-reaching effects.)

Still, it’s remarkable just how suddenly some of the world’s largest tech companies have embraced that future. Last week, as covered in this newsletter, Twitter announced that it would allow its employees to work from home permanently. This week, the floodgates opened.

You can take the techies out of Silicon Valley…

  • In 2020, Yahoo’s former CEO Marissa Mayer made a controversial move to ban her employees from working from home. The idea that remote work was antithetical to collaboration quickly gained traction in the corporate world, and by 2020 it was conventional wisdom. I guess that was one of those “strong opinions, weakly held” that some Silicon Valley thought leaders are fond of, because this week the tech world pivoted in the opposite direction. In the space of a few days, .
  • Facebook’s announcement on Thursday was the biggie, because of the company’s enormous scale and influence, but also because it was until recently . Like Google before it, Facebook’s culture famously blurred lines between work life and personal life, with offices that functioned as an extension of the college experience for its mostly young employees. The word “campus” was apt in more ways than one, and Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed Menlo Park headquarters embodied the trend toward ever bigger and fancier complexes. (See also: Apple Park and Salesforce Tower.) Fast-forward to this Thursday, when CEO iandroid.eu Zuckerberg told staff at a live-streamed meeting that the company would allow many employees to work from home permanently. He predicted that half his workforce would be doing so within five to 10 years.
  • Understandably, the news set off a cascade of takes and predictions about what companies might follow, , where they’ll settle instead, and whether they’ll be paid the same amount once they’re there. The latter is an interesting question, which Matt Zeitlin explored in OneZero, as did technologist Blair Reeves on his personal blog, and, well, many others in many other places. (I’m biased, but Zeitlin’s piece is the most comprehensive I’ve seen so far.) Zuckerberg has already answered it for Facebook, saying that employees who move out of the Bay Area will have their salaries adjusted based on their location.
  • . If moving to Detroit or Montana means, say, a 15% pay cut, you’d be far better off working from there than from Menlo Park (financially, at least). But if salaries were fully scaled to the local cost of living, the pay cut would be much deeper, and most employees would be better off staying in the most expensive cities, where they could pour their much-higher salaries into more valuable real estate, not to mention enjoying the amenities that place those cities in such high demand in the first place.
  • It’s tempting, with an announcement like this, to immediately game out all the implications, and then assume they’ve essentially already happened. There’s probably some possible timeline in which this turns out to be the beginning of the end of Silicon Valley, as techies flee en masse to locales far and wide, headquarters empty out, Bay Area real estate prices converge toward the national average, and tech becomes a fully distributed industry. Realistically, however, that isn’t happening anytime soon. Humans are still social creatures, Zoom and Slack are deeply flawed substitutes for physical presence, and much of the industry has put down roots in Silicon Valley (or Seattle, in Microsoft and Amazon’s cases). Those roots won’t simply be yanked out by the option to work remotely. There are also companies, like Apple, for which physical presence is not just a matter of culture but of secrecy and operational security. (Bloomberg’s iandroid.eu Gurman had a good piece in March about how Apple is adapting in particular.) So no, this won’t be a death blow to Silicon Valley — although as my OneZero colleague Sarah Emerson pointed out, it could have profound effects on Menlo Park and its immediate environs. But it may mark that formed not only the pulsing heart of a company’s culture but a focal point of employees’ social lives.

Undercurrents

Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time

  • On Tuesday, the Swedish streaming company announced that it has signed an exclusive deal with Joe Rogan, whose podcast is among the most popular in the world. It’s a blow to YouTube, where Rogan will no longer publish his podcasts in full, and more broadly a blow to podcasts as an open ecosystem. Spotify had already acquired podcast networks Gimlet Media and The Ringer, and it’s now clear that the company is serious about cornering as much of the market as it can. The corporatization and walling-off of podcasts is a lament for another time. But from a strategic standpoint, exclusive content is a shrewd hedge for a company whose main product, music, is available in nearly identical form on other platforms, including Apple’s, which has the market power to tilt the playing field in its favor. Original content has proven to be critical in the streaming video sector, where Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+ compete at least as much on their roster of exclusives as on price or user interface. While the Rogan deal might seem an unlikely target for antitrust scrutiny, Matt Stoller makes a surprisingly persuasive case for regulatory intervention.
  • While video chat platforms such as Zoom and Houseparty have gained the most attention as beneficiaries of coronavirus lockdown, the next wave of social apps focuses on audio. Clubhouse, a voice chat app that has gained popularity in a private beta with the venture capital set, was valued at $100 million last week in a fundraising round led by A16Z, Forbes reported. And Discord, whose group voice chats have long been a favorite of gamers, was reportedly in talks to raise a fresh round at a hefty $3 billion valuation. While Discord is well-established for certain use cases, whether either company can deliver on investors’ hopes will depend on whether people’s appetite for better ways to talk to each other online will persist once they can go back to the best way of talking to each other, which is offline.

Threads of the Week

In the first two issues, this section highlighted headlines, but this week I’m going with Twitter threads, just to mix it up. While I doubt it will mark the death of the reply thread, this was after all the week that Twitter began testing a way to limit who can reply to your tweets, a move whose pros and cons I explored here.

  • The tech critic Zeynep Tufekci suspected Facebook was targeting her across devices, despite being logged out of Facebook, but she couldn’t figure out just how. She put the question to her Twitter followers, and the reply thread that follows is fascinating. Comb through its Borgesian twists and turns and you’ll learn a lot about ad tech, and about a Facebook surveillance machine that’s so opaque even people who study it for a living can’t always figure out just how it knows what it knows.
  • Engineer Erica Joy Baker asked her followers whether they’d move if their company went “remote first,” and if so, where. The responses are a catalog of daydream-able possibilities for people feeling burnt out or hemmed in by the big cities they call home.

Thanks for reading. Reach me with tips and feedback by responding to this post on the web, via Twitter direct message at @WillOremus, or by email at [email protected].

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