In 2020, Facebook would be roiled by a global pandemic, internal protests over racial injustice, a deeply polarizing election, and the ongoing threat of multiple state and federal investigations into antitrust and privacy. But on the morning of July 16th, Mark Zuckerberg found his workforce asking for something else: their missing office snacks.
A major sell to candidates is our office perks include free food, read the question, which had ranked near the top of questions asked that week in an internal poll. And now, with work from home, we’ve lost a huge financial part of our package. What is the plan on this?
There was not a plan. After the pandemic led the company to shutter its offices, Facebook had given its employees $1,000 bonuses and said it would give them all top marks on their first-half performance evaluations, no matter how they had actually performed. It also seized a rare opportunity to reverse declining public opinion about the company, rapidly spinning up ways to help with COVID-19 relief efforts: a $100 million grant program for small businesses and an initiative to help researchers track the spread of symptoms, among other efforts.
But three months in, Facebook had not yet explained how it might re-create for homebound workers the sight of refrigerated cases stocked with free Hint water, and cans of La Croix or baskets overflowing with energy bars and fruit.
“I’m not sure if I’m missing something from this question,” Zuckerberg responded, in polite disbelief, “but I certainly haven’t seen any data that suggests that free food is anywhere near the list of primary reasons that people come to work at this company. I hope it’s not. I hope if you’re watching this, and I’d imagine that you’re here for some combination of reasons around the mission of the company, the impact that we can have in the world, trying to make sure that that’s as positive as possible. ... Those are typically the things that come up, not free food.”
To the outside world, depending on your point of view, Facebook is a hugely popular social network, a dangerous incubator of right-wing conspiracy theories and hoaxes, or a censorious liberal arm of the Democratic Party. But as that July meeting revealed, in some ways, Facebook is a tech company like any other. Its more than 50,000 employees care about fighting misinformation and protecting against election interference, sure. But also — what’s going on with the snacks?
At another company, the CEO might have ignored such a question from his workforce or declined to take it at all. But almost since the founding of Facebook, Zuckerberg has invited employees to submit questions each week and live-streamed answers to the 10 or so that get the most votes as part of a weekly all-hands meeting. The practice was borrowed from Google, where co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin instituted the tradition at the Friday afternoon town hall meetings known as TGIF.
Between May and August, The Verge obtained 16 audio recordings and dozens of internal posts and screenshots from meetings and groups at Facebook from employees. The recordings include the company’s weekly Q&As, “FYI Live” sessions in which top executives discussed a civil rights audit and preview the summer’s congressional antitrust hearing, and talks by top executives highlighting the work their teams are doing.
“As we approach one of the most consequential elections in recent history, our commitment to free expression means people on all sides of the political spectrum have strong views about our content decisions — including employees,” Liz Bourgeouis, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We’re proud of the open culture that we’ve built where our teams can express themselves openly and hear from Mark at Q&A each week.”
From Zuckerberg’s weekly addresses to Sheryl Sandberg’s annual Q&A session with interns, the recordings capture a company trying to wrap its mind around itself. Shaken by internal criticism, challenged by the largest advertiser boycott in company history, and threatened by elected officials around the world, Facebook left the summer with its image bruised, a fact Zuckerberg acknowledged in a July 31st Q&A.
“We are certainly exiting the first half of the year with our brand in a tougher place than when we started the crisis,” he said.
At companies that, due to total founder control over their boards, are essentially monarchies, a weekly Q&A can give the workplace a democratic sheen. Zuckerberg grants workers a regular opportunity to raise concerns with him directly and, in return, gets a chance to sell employees on the idea that, despite the heavy criticism they receive externally, their work is making a positive impact on the world. Increasingly, he also has to remind them that the views of the company’s liberal-leaning workforce can be out of step with the more conservative population that Facebook serves.
With tens of thousands of employees and more than 3 billion constituents worldwide, Zuckerberg now finds himself pulled in all directions. Inside the company, his weekly Q&As now regularly spill over with outrage and dissent. Throughout the summer, Zuckerberg faced increasingly pointed questions about the company’s friendly relationship with President Donald Trump; the influence of its conservative head of policy, Joel Kaplan; and the rise of white supremacist organizations on the platform.
Google ended its weekly town halls in 2019 after a series of leaks, but at Facebook, they have continued — even as the pace of them has accelerated, revealing deep fault lines throughout the company. Once renowned for the loyalty employees showed its executive team, leaks from internal meetings began appearing with some regularity in The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Information, and elsewhere.
The murders by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans earlier this year, along with a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement that swept the country in June, galvanized Facebook employees who had begun to question how their own work may contribute to racial inequality. After Zuckerberg decided to let stand a controversial Trump post that threatened to shoot protesters, they led the first virtual walkout in the company’s history.
For the rank-and-file employees who participated, the walkout marked an unusually public reckoning with Facebook’s power and responsibility. But while the comments of Facebook’s angriest employees sometimes made their way to the press, the issues raised internally were a jumble: criticism of the company’s content policies and how they are enforced, concerns about rising competitors, and a flood of questions about the company’s shift to remote work and how it would affect workers’ careers.
Still, other employees responded to months of conflict in isolation by asking whether they could all run away — from the pandemic, from everything — together.
Can we build a quarantined Facebook city? an employee had asked ahead of the July 31st Q&A. Like, buying an island and all of us working there?