For years, big tech companies were seen as some of the most desirable places to work in America. Between 2013 and 2018, tech firms consistently topped job search website Glassdoor’s rankings of the best places to work, which are based on employee feedback. During this period, Facebook (now Meta (META)) was in the top five large companies to work for all but one year, while Google (GOOGL) graced the top five three times. But by this year, Google dropped to number seven on Glassdoor’s rankings, and Meta is 47th on the list.
This data point speaks to a vibe shift of sorts in tech, driven by growing fears of a recession, declining worker leverage, and a pullback on the lavish perks that long defined big tech. Put simply, working in this industry is less fun than it used to be, and some employees are less inclined to stay in the industry than they were prior to the pandemic. This is particularly true for workers at companies that have encountered growing pains in recent years, or are struggling to reconcile their worker-friendly image with the darker realities of their business.
“We say it’s the golden handcuffs,” said David Jacobowitz, who previously worked at Meta, referring to the incentives that keep workers in tech jobs, whether financial or otherwise. “But many are not happy with the work itself.”
Big tech workers come down from a “Disney-esque” high
The tech-heavy Nasdaq stock composite has fallen by 27 percent so far this year and in recent months many tech companies have started tightening their belts, with worker perks quickly landing on the chopping block.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, cut free laundry services and reduced the hours when employees could get free meals in the cafeteria on its Menlo Park campus. Google and Microsoft both instructed employees to spend less money on business travel. And Netflix recently limited the employee swag stipend to $300 a year (it was once unlimited).
Such reductions may seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. Many American workers still don’t receive paid vacations, much less free laundry service.
But such perks are a big deal to workers who became accustomed to a “Disney-esque” set of experiences and expectations over the years, Bill Gurley, a venture capital investor, argued in a June 15 Twitter thread. Deep-pocketed tech companies that spent big money to compete for talent are now facing cost reductions, and such adjustments may come as a “shock & surprise” to their employee base, Gurley said.
For employees that have only known this world, the idea of layoffs or cost reduction (or being asked to come into the office) is straight up heresy. In many ways this is not their fault. Excess capital led to excessive showering of employee benefits and heightened expectations.
— Bill Gurley (@bgurley) June 15, 2022
“For a while it was all about attraction. ‘How do we attract people to our company?’ And now that shifted to, ‘oh wow, we have to conserve cash,’” said John Anderson, an executive search consultant with Allegis Partners who works out of San Francisco with venture-backed companies. “For most tech companies, the biggest bucket is salary, but there are other buckets you can look at too.”
Pandemic growing pains
The pandemic forced big changes to tech’s workplace culture well before the current downturn. Jacobowitz joined Facebook in 2017, still in the company’s halcyon days. In their Austin office, “we had fresh-cooked meals three times a day, a gigantic snack bar, and a micro-kitchen,” he recalled. Working from the office was a selling point for Jacobowitz, who was an e-commerce account manager. Not only were the perks “out of this world,” but he said he made good friends during his four years there.
When Covid-19 hit, the allure of companies who built their brand around in-office perks changed. To be clear, Meta held on to its office cafeterias, and has kept many of its most generous benefits in place, including a “wellness reimbursement” of up to $3,000 for expenses like gym memberships, and a paid month-long break every five years. But Jacobowitz said his enthusiasm for Facebook dwindled when he stopped going into the office, particularly since he had been hired for a client-facing role. He took a job at TikTok in 2021, and later left to focus on his own business, a food product company called Nebula Snacks.
Maddie Machado, a recruiter based in Tampa, said she wasn’t drawn to Meta for the office perks, but rather for its promise of flexibility. When she started working for the company in September 2021, it was her understanding she’d be able to do the job from anywhere.
But the company was still ironing out its remote work policy, and she soon realized the company would limit the number of business days employees can be away from their home area—its current policy allows employees to work from another country where they have work authorization for 20 days each year. Employees may work “occasionally” from a location outside their assigned office or remote home location if they’re traveling within their country of employment, according to Tracy Clayton, a Meta spokesperson.
“That was one of the things that made me realize just how controlling the company was,” Machado said of the restrictions on work location. Adding to the pressure was the suspicion that Meta can track employees’ location through the VPNs on their devices (Clayton denied this). After just six months, she left for a job at LinkedIn.
In an industry where workers held the upper hand throughout much of the pandemic, companies have struggled to strike the right balance on work flexibility as they seek a return to normalcy. Though Google employees returned in April, they’ve since raised concerns about Covid levels in the office. Apple workers circulated a petition to protest their return-to-office policy in September, and Tesla has reportedly struggled to get all workers back in the office, even though CEO Elon Musk has been one of the strongest advocates for in-person work.
Some workers who have left big tech say flexibility and work-life balance have become more important to them in a job.
“Pre-pandemic, (perks) were super appealing,” said Christen Nino de Guzman, who previously worked at TikTok, Instagram, and Pinterest. While working at Instagram, she said, her meals were paid for, and she didn’t ever have to make an extra trip to get something notarized, or go to the bank—she said those services were provided on campus. But in recent years, “I realized I value the flexibility of remote work over working for a company like that.” She now runs her own company Clara for Creators, which she describes as a Glassdoor for Internet creators, focused on helping them navigate brand deals.
Startups’ sheens fade
While big tech firms have mostly avoided the widespread layoffs that have in recent months affected many crypto startups as well as smaller companies such as Snap, Shopify, and Twilio, some leaders have started to take a more forceful tone on employee performance and productivity.
Google management reportedly warned of “blood on the streets” in August if results don’t improve. That same month, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees he planned to raise performance goals in the face of one of the “worst downturns” in recent history. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” Zuckerberg said, according to an audio recording of a meeting obtained by Reuters. He went on to say some employees might decide Meta isn’t the place for them, “and that self-selection is okay with me.” Both Meta and Google are currently working to cut staff by reorganizing departments and requiring employees to reapply for roles to stay at the company, the Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 21, though they haven’t gone as far as calling the measures layoffs.
Former Meta recruiter Machado joined the company shortly before it transitioned from Facebook to Meta, and Zuckerberg unveiled a long-term bet on the metaverse that may not be realized for a decade. Around the same time, the Wall Street Journal published a trove of documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former employee who accused the company of prioritizing profits over user safety. These changes, coupled with Meta’s precipitous stock decline, made it challenging to recruit workers for the company, Machado said.
Though Facebook had been Machado’s “dream company” when she started, she felt differently by the time she left Meta. “Meta really wanted you to focus on the company first, your ‘metamates’ second, and you last,” she said, referring to Zuckerberg’s new term for employees. She noted this re-prioritization—“Meta, metamates, me”—were even written into the new company values, and rubbed some people the wrong way. “It was very obvious that they don’t want you to care about yourself as much. It’s not an employee-centric company.”
Clayton, Meta’s spokesperson, said the new values are intended to send a message “about being good stewards of our company and mission.”
Rising employee activism
There’s a growing sense among employees that these companies aren’t living by the values that first attracted them to work there. This was the case for Ariel Koren, who worked as a product marketing manager at Google for seven years, but recently decided to leave after voicing concerns about the company’s involvement in Project Nimbus, a contract to supply artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to the Israeli military.
Koren, an interpreter, was initially attracted to Google for its work on language access through tools like Google Translate. She said she was encouraged by the company’s worker-friendly image and the idea that it was a place “where you are encouraged to bring your full self to work.”
But over the years she witnessed Google “aggressively” pursue military contracts, she said, including with the Department of Defense. It’s also signed onto controversial projects such as “Project Dragonfly,” a censored search engine in China that was ultimately nixed.
“It was so shocking,” Koren said of first learning about Project Maven, a Pentagon contract that drew scrutiny from workers in 2018. “You join Google because you’re excited to work at this large search engine whose mission is making world information universally accessible. It became clear to me that working at Google is not neutral. You work at an incredibly powerful company.”
Workers at both Google and Amazon, which is also involved in Project Nimbus, recently walked out of offices across the country to protest the contract. Similar conflicts have popped up this year over tech companies’ data-sharing policies related to abortion, and at Netflix, where workers walked out over the streaming service’s decision to air a Dave Chappelle special that was criticized as transphobic.
Google & Amazon heard from hundreds of people across the country, in NYC, Seattle, SF, & Durham, including dozens of tech workers, that we will not tolerate our tech being used to facilitate occupation & abuse.#NoTechForApartheid now & forever
— Alphabet Workers Union (AWU-CWA) (@AlphabetWorkers) September 9, 2022
This rise in employee activism suggests tech’s vibe shift is about more than surface-level changes to worker perks—it’s also about disillusionment with Silicon Valley. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 80 percent of tech employees surveyed by the anonymous workplace website Blind said they were considering looking for another job earlier this year. There has also been an uptick in worker organizing at Google, Apple, and video game company Activision.
The most recent protests against Google and Amazon’s involvement in Project Nimbus, Koren said, seem to be “a pretty clear indicator that workers are really fed up.” While CEOs stress over bottom lines, it seems likely employees will continue to raise concerns about the way they make those bottom lines—and that vibe shift could last well beyond a potential recession.