Meta recently threatened to fire employees who did not obey to a strict return-to-office mandate. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still enthusiastic about the potential of remote work—just not, apparently, with today’s commonly used technology.
In a Thursday episode of the Lex Fridman Podcast, Zuckerberg gave an interview within the metaverse. He and Fridman conversed in a virtual space using Meta Quest Pro VR headsets and photorealistic Codec Avatars, technology that Meta is still developing.
The experience was so eerily realistic that Fridman marveled at it repeatedly, saying things like “this is really the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen” and “it feels like we’re in the same room.”
Over a wide-ranging conversation, Zuckerberg eventually turned to remote work.
“One of the things that I’m curious about is, there are all these debates right now about in remote work, or people being together,” he said. “I think this gets us a lot closer to being able to work physically in different places, but actually have it feel like we’re together. I think the dream is that people will one day be able to just work wherever they want, but we’ll have all the same opportunities because you’ll be able to feel like you’re physically together.”
He contrasted the technology that he and Fridman were using to the technologies that most remote workers use currently to connect with distant colleagues.
“I think we’re not there today with just video conferencing and the basic technologies that we have,” he said.
Zuckerberg is one of many CEOs demanding employees return to the office and having managers enforce the policy by tracking card keys and other techniques. But Meta’s return-of-office push, which calls for three days in the office, has not gone smoothly, with many employees who do show up struggling to book a conference room or secure a desk for the day.
“We have not yet figured out hybrid work,” admitted Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, which like Facebook is owned by Meta, in a Threads post.
But on the Fridman podcast, Zuckerberg gushed about the potential of remote work with the technology they were using. With it, he said, over time “you could get closer” to the feeling of being physically together.
He continued: “That would open up a lot of opportunities, right? Because then people could live physically where they want, while still being able to get the benefits of being physically, or kind of feeling like you’re together with people at work—all the ways that that helps to build more culture and build better relationships and build trust, which I think are real issues if you’re not seeing people in person ever.”
In 2020, Zuckerberg boasted about Meta’s embrace of remote work. He said at the time, “We are going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale, with a thoughtful and responsible plan for how to do this.” He estimated that about half of the company’s employees would be working remotely within the next five to 10 years.
But he later changed his tune.
Paul Graham, a cofounder of startup accelerator Y Combinator, noted in June, “I’ve talked to multiple founders recently who have changed their minds about remote work and are trying to get people back to the office…Why were all these smart people fooled? Partly I think because remote work does work initially, if you start with a system already healthy from in-person work.”
But doubts crept in for many company leaders, who worried about maintaining a strong corporate culture and trying to mentor young employees who might rarely meet anyone face to face, if ever.
OpenAI CEO Sam Altman called the remote work “experiment” a mistake, saying at Stripe conference this summer:
“I think definitely one of the tech industry’s worst mistakes in a long time was that everybody could go full remote forever, and startups didn’t need to be together in person and, you know, there was going to be no loss of creativity. I would say that the experiment on that is over, and the technology is not yet good enough that people can be full remote forever, particularly on startups.”
Zuckerberg seems to feel the same way about today’s technology. But to what degree cutting-edge headsets might allay CEO concerns about remote work remains an open question.