Mar 8, 2021 - Economy
The Week America Changed

Sandberg thought Zuckerberg was "nuts" on remote work in January 2020

Photo illustration of Sheryl Sandberg next to a laptop with a zoom screen on it

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Image

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg thought Mark Zuckerberg was "nuts" when he raised the possibility in January 2020 that 50,000 Facebook employees might have to work from home. By March 6, they were.

Why it matters: In an interview Monday with Axios Re:Cap, Sandberg explained how Facebook moved quickly to respond to the pandemic with grants for small businesses and work-from-home stipends for its employees, and how the company has been watching the unfolding crisis for women in the workforce.

Flashback: "In January, Mark told me and others that we should get ready for the possibility that we would all have to work from home and there might be a pandemic," Sandberg told Axios Re:Cap host Dan Primack.

  • "And I thought he was nuts. I was like, 'What do you mean there'd be a pandemic. What's a pandemic? And would we really work from home?' But he said, 'No, no. It's possible that everyone's going to have to, like, go home.'"

What happened: Sandberg called the pandemic a "crisis for women," but said Facebook was able to retain people by providing additional COVID leave so their "attrition rates of women are not higher than our attrition rates of men."

  • "I definitely heard later that people followed some of the examples we set and I was happy about that. For women out there, I wish more companies did more of it."
  • "We gave everyone $2,000 to just buy stuff they needed."

The big picture: Sandberg said 50,000 employees and tens of thousands of contractors were affected by those early decisions. The company "reached 2 billion people with the right authoritative information on coronavirus" on Facebook itself.

  • "We gave hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to 30,000 small businesses around the world. And then we did another tranche later for Black, small businesses, nonprofits and creators that probably hit thousands more."

What's next: Sandberg said Facebook is exploring more work-from-home options and thinks this changed work forever, but added that she doesn't know what will happen with remote work in general.

  • "We had talked about people working remotely before, and we didn't think it was possible," she said. "Being away is still hard, I think. I don't know what's going to happen with work travel. I don't know how much more we're all going to do."

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Axios is looking back at the week of March 9, 2020 — the week high-profile leaders were forced to make consequential choices that upended our lives and society. Subscribe to Axios Re:Cap here.

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