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The Big Idea

Have layoffs and banking woes brought tech workers back to reality? Maybe.

David Chang, a general manager at Hunt Club, an executive recruiting firm at the Industrious co-working space in Boston.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The party had been thinning out for a while, but the Zuckerberg memo this week seemed to shut it down.

On Tuesday, just four months after the Meta CEO laid off 13 percent of his workforce (10,000 people), he wielded the ax again and promised to slash another 13 percent. And just to show he wasn’t messing around, Zuckerberg also eliminated 5,000 open positions. No “help wanted” signs in Meta’s window.

It was a head-snapping turnaround for a company that had once offered employees on-site bike repair, a slew of free restaurants, a barber shop, and — of course — hefty pay packages. A year into the pandemic, Meta told liberated employees that, if they wanted, they could work remotely. Go ahead — buy that house in Utah!

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“We’ve learned over the past year that good work can get done anywhere,” Zuckerberg said in 2021.

Well, hopefully you were just Airbnb-ing your big-city abode because, baby, you better get back.

Zuckerberg noted this week that internal research “suggests that engineers who either joined Meta in-person and then transferred to remote or remained in-person performed better on average than people who joined remotely.” Which is why he urged “all of you to find more opportunities to work with your colleagues in person.”

Friendly suggestion? I wouldn’t bet on it.

It all felt like a sobering shift from the days of yore, when working in tech was a heady dip into awesomeness. I remember a friend telling me that his New York-based company brought chefs to their offices multiple times a week. You didn’t have to leave work to have the greatest dumplings or fried chicken in Brooklyn: Along with stock options, those dumplings came to you!

Now, with stocks down, layoffs mounting, and Silicon Valley Bank’s meltdown still playing out, tech workers are facing a new reality.

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David Chang, general manager of the expert network at Hunt Club, a recruiting firm, says that employees’ power accelerated dramatically up until the middle of last year.

In 2019, a broad national sample of those seeking tech roles through Hunt Club found that candidates were on the market for about 120 days before they received an average of 1.7 offers. By 2022, candidates lingered on the job market for just 70 days, garnered 2.8 offers, and had tremendous ability to negotiate: They generally received almost 30 percent more than the initial offer.

I asked Chang if the vibe has shifted — and folks who once saw tech as a utopia now see it as precarious.

“Yeah, that’s for sure true,” he said. But he argued that the bad news has largely obscured the big picture.

Customers in line outside Silicon Valley Bank headquarters in Santa Clara, California, on March 13, 2023. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“There’s general concern from the candidates,” Chang says. But, he emphasizes, “I directly see that companies are still hiring, great roles are opening up, people are negotiating higher salaries. So it’s not as doom-and-gloom as on the surface level.”

A principal engineer based in Boston at a large tech company told me that, though he sees more people getting laid off, they tend to land in new roles quickly. To him, the market still feels pretty dynamic: “I still get a ton of recruiters reaching out with new opportunities. ... It doesn’t feel super dire.” But he noted that for younger workers, the job cuts “have come as a shock.”

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Even with more than 150,000 well-publicized tech layoffs last year, the industry’s unemployment rate stands at 2.2 percent, considerably below the national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association.

Tim Herbert, CompTIA’s chief research officer, has argued that “context is critical. The recent pullback represents a relatively small fraction of the massive tech workforce.” In February, though job openings for tech declined, postings still stood at more than 200,000. Indeed, more people work in the tech sector than did two years ago.

For the most desirable candidates, Chang says competition is still intense. “I just saw that with a search that we’re doing. It was for an early-stage company, C-level search. The original comp was in the mid-200 [thousands], and they got up to the 325, 330 [thousand dollar] mark. And so that was sort of an unexpected thing. We would think that that person would have fewer choices.”

Finding the right match is still really tough for employers, leaving some candidates with a lot of leverage. “Top candidates still have this crazy power,” Chang says.

But how about remote work as a perk? Is it slip-sliding away, much like Meta’s remote-if-you-want policy?

Chang says he’s seen companies try to pull back on that — pushing employees to spend two or three days in the office, rather than one. “When they float those trial balloons, they land like lead. It’s basically a benefit you’re now taking away.”

And plenty of smaller benefits are starting to disappear.

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“Definitely, companies are cutting perks,” Chang says. “If you got sushi everyday, and now it’s once a week, that’s a little hard. ... It’s not that Shangri-La that it used to be.”

Meta’s employees, and others, now wish sushi was the only thing that was being cut.


Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.