Coronavirus

Facebook is clamping down on 'idle chat' from its now-remote workforce

With its 45,000 permanent employees working from home, the social media giant is grappling with new challenges.

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In a recent interview with The New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg admitted that his company is struggling to handle the avalanche of unexpected pressures the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused. Spotty videoconferences, a sudden lacuna in its content moderation system, a surge in network traffic, and a weakened ad business have all hit Facebook hard. "I've never seen anything like this before," Zuckerberg told the publication.

On top of that, it was Facebook's (seemingly reluctant) decision to turn to remote work that unsettled higher-ups, according to The New York Times. The world's biggest social network is known for placing an emphasis on in-person and face-to-face meetings for its employees. The coronavirus, however, changed that. Now the outlet reports that with Facebook's massive workforce conducting business from home, the company has had to crack down on "idle" chatter.

Hit the message boards — Facebook employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for obvious reasons, told The New York Times that since they've been working for home, their colleagues have been posting on internal messaging boards "at a record rate."

The posts on these message boards don't sound alarming at all. In fact, as the publication noted, much of the content concerns itself with quotidian and harmless subject matter, like how to set up a home office, how to make face masks, or how to grow your own garden with seeds if you have the space.

This is hell for Facebook — If you're familiar with Facebook's corporate philosophy, you might already know that Zuckerberg's enterprise places a special and rather pronounced emphasis on in-person meetings, calling it "an important element of our culture." These in-person collaborations and brainstorming sessions, Facebook writes, help the company "build the best possible services for our community."

Transitioning to a remote work culture during a global health crisis for such a company sounds nightmarish. So it's not a surprise that Facebook engineering teams have been reportedly instructing workers to cut down on casual chat, worrying that their productivity levels might be affected with non-essential banter. That said, productivity everywhere is going to dip as people continue trying to work while also grappling with the various strains our new, collective, remote-first lives place upon us.

Let cooped up workers cope — Social distancing is stressful for everyone, including full-time Facebook employees who have been given the new and daunting responsibility to moderate content instead of the underpaid, overworked, and benefit-free contractors who have traditionally been tasked with it. Facebook has yet to figure out a plan for contract workers as it gets to grips with the new remote-work landscape. Which likely means those contract workers are even more stressed than their stand-ins.

Chatter sounds to us like a coping mechanism for strained workers' trying to adjust to the new normal. No one's asking Facebook to let its employees waste time, but the occasional water cooler chat with colleagues isn't just innocuous, it's probably beneficial for their mental health. And you know what's even less productive than chatty staffer? A stir-crazy one.