What Meta employees really think about their company’s brutal year

Illustration of a jagged downward-trending graph line with a Facebook thumbs-up logo at the bottom end of it.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Recode obtained a recording of a Mark Zuckerberg Q&A and internal survey results that show how Meta’s struggles are impacting staff.

At the opening of Meta’s last company-wide Q&A of 2022, Mark Zuckerberg sounded disappointed but determined.

“We made our plan for ’22 in terms of how we thought the business was going to go, and obviously it hasn’t gone the way that we wanted to,” Zuckerberg told employees in an audio recording of the meeting that Recode obtained.

The tech CEO was putting it mildly.

Meta has arguably had one of its toughest years ever — not because of scandals like in times past, but because, after 18 years of seemingly unstoppable growth, its stock price plunged by 65 percent year over year. In 2022, the entire tech industry faced a stock market slump due to rising interest rates, sharp inflation, and other rocky macroeconomic conditions. But Meta was hit with the largest drop in valuation among the top five Big Tech firms. Wall Street analysts blamed a number of setbacks specific to the company: rising competition from TikTok, slowing ad sales because of Apple’s new privacy restrictions, and skepticism about Zuckerberg’s $10-billion-a-year investment in building a virtual- and augmented-reality metaverse.

Zuckerberg says he has a plan to reverse the slump. He’ll keep building the metaverse, but he’ll focus most of his time on improving Meta’s core social media business (Facebook and Instagram) and finding new ways to expand the company’s popular but less profitable messaging apps. And he’s going to need Meta employees to work harder than ever.

“I’m quite optimistic about all of this,” he said at the recent company-wide Q&A meeting. “But 2022 is a good reminder that things are not always as good as what you want, and you can’t take that for granted, so we’re gonna have to really push hard.”

Recode interviewed nearly a dozen Meta employees — some current and some who left the company in the past year — who described a state of anxiety and optimism inside the company about the challenges it faces. These sources, who include high-level directors and rank-and-file engineers, told Recode the company’s culture is becoming more focused on efficiency and increasingly restrictive about employee communications. At the same time, they said colleagues are more competitive than ever. Some welcomed these changes, but overall, they said morale is lower than in previous years, especially because of the recent layoffs, the stock price decline, and persisting doubts about the company’s metaverse pivot. (These sources were granted anonymity for fear of professional repercussions for speaking publicly.)

“The worry is: What is going to sustain us, especially if the stock keeps going down?” said one employee who has worked at the company for several years. This person is genuinely excited about Meta’s long-term plans, like developing lightweight augmented reality glasses, but is concerned about how long it will take until Meta begins making money from these kinds of products. “I don’t know when they will become a reality,” they said.

An internal Meta survey from October that Recode obtained reflects these employees’ perspectives: Only 28 percent of employees responding to the survey gave a favorable response about their optimism for the company, and 58 percent were favorable toward the company overall. The survey results came around the time that rumors of layoffs started to swirl and the company had instituted a hiring freeze. In this October survey, only 31 percent of employees reported favorable scores in their confidence in leadership itself, an 11 percent drop from the last survey that ran in May. Still, employees were optimistic on some fronts: 74 percent of employees felt favorably about leadership’s “set vision,” 82 percent felt favorably about Meta’s mission, and 84 percent felt favorably about their managers.

In response to the Pulse survey results, a company spokesperson sent Recode the following statement: “Feedback is a core part of our culture and the purpose of the survey is to learn where we’re doing well or where we need to improve. We’re optimistic about the path ahead and appreciate all of our employees who work every day toward our mission.”

Several employees told Recode they’re waiting to see if the next year gets any better for Meta. There are some reasons to be more hopeful: Facebook is growing its user base again after a first-time reported drop earlier last year; people are spending more time watching Reels (Meta’s TikTok competitor) than before; and the company’s stock has increased by 40 percent from its lowest point in November 2022. But the tech giant still has a long way to go before it gets back to its market peak.

Meta’s products are collectively used by over 3.71 billion people — nearly half the world — making it by far the biggest social media company on the planet. Apps like Facebook and Instagram shape our cultural, economic, and political norms. The fate of the company — and whether or not it can regain investor and employee confidence — will determine whether it continues to be a dominant force in people’s everyday lives, or starts to cede its power to other growing competitors like TikTok.

Trying to return to a “scrappier” culture

As Meta’s core business growth has slowed this year, the company has made some unpopular decisions to cut certain jobs and staff perks, and it has begun restricting what employees can talk about internally. While that’s angered some of Meta’s staff, the company’s leaders see it as a tough but ultimately necessary course correction.

“One of the big things for 2023 that I would like us to focus on is can we return to a scrappier culture overall where we’re a lot leaner and doing things more efficiently,” Zuckerberg said in Meta’s end-of-year all-staff meeting. “Because you’ve got the layoffs, this was the first step around resetting some of the headcount. But there are a lot of other things that we need to do,” he added.

In November, Meta laid off an unprecedented 11,000 people — or about 13 percent of its workforce — across virtually every department (some, like recruiting, were harder hit). After the tech giant aggressively hired more than 27,000 employees in 2020 and 2021 combined, it had over 80,000 employees before its November layoffs. Out of all the major tech companies that have done layoffs so far in the past six months, Meta’s have been the largest.

“It wasn’t just the low point of my 2022, it was probably the low point of my professional career,” Meta CTO Andrew “Boz” Bosworth told Recode in a December interview about his end-of-year memo that reflected on the company’s challenges and achievements in the past year.

In the recent company Q&A meeting, Zuckerberg told employees that Meta would cut more costs in the months ahead by further limiting employee travel, reducing the number of free catering options at the office, and consolidating real estate. While he thanked employees for their resilience and executing well “during what has been a thrashy and difficult time,” he also renewed his call for employees to work with greater speed and efficiency. That’s a repeated message from last year that didn’t sit well with some employees who had been working hard during the pandemic.

“He was telling us we were spoiled,” said one former employee who left the company this year.

At the end-of-year company Q&A, Zuckerberg implied that his company had been too lenient with employees for too long, especially during the initial phases of the pandemic, when the company focused on “flexibility” to support staff through what the executive in the end-of-year Q&A called a “weird time.”

Some employees poked fun at Meta’s calls for working with greater intensity on Meta’s internal employee discussion groups. In one group where employees often post memes and jokes, called “shitposting,” an employee wrote a post in July calling on people to “shitpost with increased intensity.”

“Intensity is not a new concept for us, but [at] Shitposting for the last week, we have seen what each of us can do to help move the memes forward during this period of economic and business uncertainty,” said the post, mimicking the efficiency-focused language used by Zuckerberg and other executives.

But now that leadership’s focus is on efficiency over flexibility, they have started implementing new guidelines to tighten employees’ focus, including around what they’re allowed to talk about at work. Meta has long been a company that has permitted employees some freedom to share their politics and criticize management on internal Workplace groups. While the company’s culture isn’t known to be as open as its tech rival Google, it’s still far more so than most other non-tech companies of its size.

In early December, the company instituted a new “Community Engagement Expectations” policy (CEE) limiting what employees can say on Meta’s internal messaging platforms like Workplace. The policies banned employees from talking about sensitive political, health, or legal matters, such as abortion and gun control, unless it was specifically related to their job function.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen discussions that cause a lot of churn and distraction, which drain us as a community and take us away from our work,” read an internal memo posted by Lori Goler, Meta’s head of HR, announcing the change in December.

The note told employees to “give feedback appropriately,” to specific teams or people, instead of making general negative statements. In response, some employees have begun sharing critical comments verbally or posting to platforms managers don’t oversee, like Signal or Blind, one employee said.

“The company as a whole can’t seem to go a week without doing something that disappoints employees,” one employee told Recode. But given its financial reality as it starts 2023, Meta may have to continue making some unpopular decisions with its staff.

During Meta’s company-wide Q&A meeting in December, one employee asked Zuckerberg, “What initiatives will improve employee morale and culture in 2023?”

The tech CEO paused. “Winning,” he said, then laughed. Joking aside, while Zuckerberg acknowledged that Meta’s declining stock price is affecting his employees’ personal finances (it’s common for a large portion of Meta employees’ salaries to be paid in stock), he made it clear his primary goal is to improve the business.

“It’s not like there’s an initiative to improve morale and results. It’s succeeding at more of the things that we’re doing,” said Zuckerberg, “I think we’re here to win and achieve the mission of the company and put up good business results.”

A rude awakening for Metamates

The past several months have forced Meta employees to adjust to the harsh new realities of working at a company that, at least for now, is no longer winning.

Meta’s tanking stock prices have been a particularly sore point for employees, and a common focus of grumbling.

In screenshots of posts on Workplace, Meta’s internal employee message board, that Recode viewed, staff shared memes making fun of Meta’s falling stock price when it started dipping after Meta’s rough October earnings report. One employee made a bot that calculated what employees’ stock price was when they were hired compared to the stock’s current value. “You are down 71.1% from your initial grant price,” read one image posted on Workplace in August. Another employee posted a meme of three Winnie the Poohs, one of them representing Amazon, the other Google, and the other Meta, with the lowest comparative stock price after adjusting for a stock split. “One of these is not like the other,” the meme was captioned.

For many employees, Meta’s falling financial performance has given them pause about staying at the company.

“Some people had moral qualms about working at Meta, but the money is pretty good,” one former employee who left the company this year told Recode in September. “Then all of a sudden, the money is not good.”

One said that morale was the worst they’ve seen since the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, during which the company faced a deluge of criticism after reports that it allowed third parties to collect millions of users’ data without their consent and use it for political advertising.

“It makes it hard to justify working on things you don’t believe in if you don’t make that much money at the same time,” said one current employee. “I think people at the boundary of the ethics of what Facebook does are looking around more critically.”

Complicating matters is that there’s been a shift throughout Silicon Valley. In earlier times, it would be fairly easy for Meta employees to jump to another tech giant like Google, Apple, or Amazon, but all of these companies have slowed or frozen hiring in the past year.

Meta staffers continue to worry that more cuts are coming — a possibility that Zuckerberg didn’t rule out at the company’s recent Q&A meeting.

“I tried to be pretty clear that the hope was that the cuts that we made were deep enough that we weren’t going to have to do another significant company-wide round of layoffs,” he said. “But I also can’t predict the future. And obviously, if there’s a very big downturn, then we may have to revisit.”

Competition, internal politics, and reorgs

Meta has long been a company known to be metrics-oriented and competitive, with rank-based performance reviews tied to the company’s product metrics determining employees’ career trajectories. Now that resources are limited, several current and former employees described an even more cutthroat culture, reinforced by increased company reorganizations and fear of more layoffs to come.

Some workers see Meta’s reorgs and focus on performance metrics as simply a reality of working at a tech giant: “They’re a necessary function of a lot of corporate entities” as large as Meta, they told Recode.

Another former employee thinks it’s going further than that. “Facebook is the most political place I’ve worked, and it’s become 10 times more political,” said the employee, who left in 2022 after several years at Meta. “People are backstabbing each other, wanting to show results to their managers as quickly as possible.”

As the company changed its structure, many employees tried to shift their work toward the highest-priority projects at the company, such as Meta’s TikTok competitor Reels and metaverse-related projects.

“There’s been a mad dash toward jobs in Reality Labs,” one former employee told Recode earlier this year. “Particularly within the metaverse product group. Even if you’re in privacy or policy or any of those teams, it’s, ‘Get on the metaverse privacy team, get on the metaverse policy team.’”

One employee said that people not working on high-priority projects feel at risk of losing their jobs or being given fewer resources. “For teams that are not on the critical path, it’s a pretty tough time to work. All the focus is on doing more with less and trying to avoid being a part of more restructuring over the next year.” The employee added that they worried that social impact-related teams — such as those related to youth and well-being and charitable giving — are “basically going to keep the bare minimum going.”

Even some Meta employees working on its critical AR/VR teams have struggled with Meta’s work culture this year.

Virtual reality industry titan John Carmack, who used to be an executive consultant on VR for Meta, quit the company in late December. He wrote in a now-public goodbye note that while he believed in Meta’s vision for AR/VR, he feels the organization has a problem with efficiency.

“We have a ridiculous amount of people and resources, but we constantly self-sabotage and squander effort,” wrote Carmack. “There is no way to sugar coat this; I think our organization is operating at half the effectiveness that would make me happy.”

Several employees Recode spoke with said Carmack’s frank assessment of Meta’s organizational problems made waves within the company. One said that it worried them how “even someone of his stature couldn’t fix the issues.” Carmack did not respond to a Recode request for comment.

Carmack’s note shows just how hard it is for company leaders to steer a ship as large as Meta in a single direction, even when the top-level vision is clear.

“It’s irrelevant whether Zuck knows what he’s doing, because he has to fight bureaucracy,” said one former employee. “There are 20 layers up and under him who are not worried about the metaverse. They are worried about headcount and getting through the next re-org.”

Though Meta’s cuts and push for efficiency are challenging, some employees support the effort and hope it will help the company refocus.

In the past few months, Zuckerberg’s leadership has been “pretty good” in terms of clearly defining priorities with “a lot more transparency” and “depth that was not there beforehand,” according to one employee, who said that the layoffs are “motivating a lot of people to get aligned with the company mission and move into the areas that need support.”

“The layoffs sucked,” said the employee. “But I think the level of cohesion that has resulted since then might, in the long term, be good for the company.”

Unexpected wins and the long-game metaverse bet

There are some silver linings to Meta’s tough year.

In 2022, Meta grappled with fewer public scandals than in prior years. That could be in part because Elon Musk’s dramatic Twitter takeover and the fall of Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX dominated headlines, particularly in the latter half of the year. It’s also because Meta didn’t mess up publicly on the scale of past years.

Even among employees who are doubtful about Zuckerberg’s metaverse concept, many see promise in the tangible technologies supporting that work. In particular, they’re excited about the potential of augmented reality (AR) technology to allow for more practical products in the future than a heavy virtual reality (VR) headset, like lightweight glasses with the power of a computer in them.

“From my point of view, this metaverse pivot has been well-received,” said one former employee. “I did not expect people to actually call the company ‘Meta’ and see it as something really happening, as opposed to some PR talking point from Zuck.”

For now, Meta’s closest thing to an AR product — the Quest Pro (which it calls “mixed reality”) — is expensive for many people, priced at $1,500 per headset. It could take years for Meta to develop a breakthrough AR device that’s significantly more affordable. But in some ways, Zuckerberg is one of the best-positioned tech leaders to make the long-term investments required to reach that breakthrough.

“Mark is somebody who has tremendous vision for what will be popular and resonate with billions of people in the future,” said Meta CTO Bosworth, speaking to Recode in a December interview about his end-of-year memo. “He has the willpower and the fortitude to survive all the critiques and criticism around it. And he’s got a track record that I think speaks for itself.”

One of Zuckerberg’s greatest strengths as a leader — which many employees recognize — is that he is the only remaining major tech CEO who is also a company founder, with control of the board and essential immunity from being fired. That means he can make decisions that may seem risky to shareholders at the time but end up being smart long-term bets. Ten years ago, many industry experts thought Zuckerberg was wildly overspending when he bought Instagram, but it ended up being one of the most successful acquisitions in tech history.

“He’s always had a one-year, three-year, five-year, and 10-year plan,” said top social media business analyst Mark Mahaney, senior managing director of Evercore. “It’s a great thing for managers to show they’re running the business long term, [and] they’re not gonna be juked out of a business plan just because of Wall Street.”

Still, though Mahaney is long-term bullish on Meta, he’s asking himself, “Is this the next Yahoo or not? Is this a melting ice cube? Are there going to be fewer people using Facebook” in the future?

Many Meta employees are asking themselves the same questions. For those who believe in Zuckerberg’s vision and stick around, this could be a chance to beat the skeptics.

Toward the end of Zuckerberg’s Q&A with employees, in response to an employee question about some of the more “alarming” results in the employee morale survey reflecting people’s poor confidence in leadership, Zuckerberg told his employees to see the upside. He said that now, with lower stock prices, employees would benefit more if the markets swing the other way.

“I don’t know when investors will recognize the success of what we’re doing,” Zuckerberg said. “And maybe that’ll be in [2023], or maybe a week, [or] maybe we’ll take a few more years.”

You May Also Like