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Why Is Facebook for Remote Work? It Wants Pay Cuts

Conor Sen

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One constant in Facebook's corporate culture is the ruthless aggression when it comes to growth and competition. To take just one example: More than a decade ago, a young, upstart Facebook smashed a wage-fixing cartel that than had been imposed by older, more established tech companies and it tried to hire the best tech talent. With Facebook now among the most dominant employers in the San Francisco Bay Area labor market, the company is using its lessons from the past few months of work from home to hire remotely all across the country in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In doing so, it's telling both its own employees and tech employers across the country that competition is coming. What remains to be seen is what effect this will have on wages both in and beyond the San Francisco area, where terms are ultimately set when it comes to the compensation of tech employees.

The headlines in Facebook's announcement about working from home were twofold: First, that during the next five to 10 years, as many as half of Facebook's employees could be remote; and second, that the pay of remote workers will be tied to where they work. In other words, if you're moving from Palo Alto, California, to Boise, Idaho, expect a pay cut.

Although controlling employee compensation costs is surely part of the thinking, current and would-be Facebook employees should recall that today's high compensation for Silicon Valley software engineers is partly because of Facebook's rule-breaking moves in the past. Until Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg left Google for Facebook, large technology companies such including Google, Apple, Intel and Intuit had what constituted a hiring cartel to prevent employee poaching, part of an effort to retain scare talent and hold down wages. Facebook, perhaps as an early indication of the disruptive nature of the next generation of technology companies, decided it would prioritize its own growth and talent acquisition. That undermined the cartel and led to rapid growth in both employee pay and home prices in the San Francisco Bay Area during the past decade.

Facebook's decision on remote work is an extension of that mindset, one that doesn't abide by any niceties when it comes to attracting and retaining elite technology workers. Although the Facebook decision might be seen as little different from similar work-from-home announcements made by other Silicon Valley companies like Twitter and Square, it serves as a watershed moment in the same spirit as Amazon's public search for a second headquarters. Both decisions reflect the high cost and limited availability of technology talent on the West Coast, and that the need to hire outside the region persists, with different companies experimenting with different models on how best to do that.

What's unclear is how this will shake out for workers. Although current and prospective Facebook employees are understandably concerned about the company saying that compensation will be tied to location, as long as technology talent remains much sought after, compensation should stay high. Housing costs outside of the West Coast may still be a fraction of what they are in San Francisco or Palo Alto, but technology talent is scarce and mobile throughout the country. It's unlikely that an employee that Facebook would pay $300,000 in San Francisco will be available for $100,000 in Salt Lake City, and if they are, that gap is unlikely to last for long as the word gets out and as other San Francisco Bay Area-based technology companies mimic Facebook's approach.

Facebook's latest decision may well have a comparable impact to its decision not to join the hiring cartel, lifting pay everywhere outside the San Francisco area. Many tech employers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Kansas City know their best employees could always get recruited by West Coast tech companies if those workers were willing to relocate. But there are frictions involved in relocating, and maybe companies have been willing to bet that those workers aren't willing to move because of family and community ties. But if all of a sudden it's well-known that companies such as Facebook and Google are willing to hire anywhere without demanding relocation, then other companies will be forced to raise pay or risk losing talent -- the same quandary once faced by cartel members such as Intel and Intuit.

Ultimately, the question is does being based in the San Francisco Bay Area function as a moat for technology employees, guarding their lofty pay, but one that is ready to be breached ? Or is high pay a function of high productivity, demand and industry growth? If it's the latter, tech workers shouldn't worry about Facebook's work-from-home decision. But it might well be the former.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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