Building a product at Facebook is typically a lively, in-person collaboration among engineers, product managers, designers, researchers, and data scientists. But in the case of Facebook Shops, the team that was meant to bring the product to market never made it into the office.
“We had a group of engineers in a hotel, ready to come into the [London] office for a war room,” says Gareth Reakes, the Director of Software Engineering for Commerce Opportunities in Facebook’s London office. “They all had to fly home.” Stay-at-home and social distancing restrictions meant that a planned acceleration in Shops’ development would now have to be done remotely.
Putting Facebook Shops on hold was simply not an option. “We know that connections between businesses and people are absolutely essential to livelihoods,” Reakes said. In 2019, Facebook apps helped businesses in the European Union alone generate sales of over 200 billion euros, which according to standard economic modeling techniques, created an estimated 3.1 million jobs.
The lockdown was putting a strain on businesses — small businesses, in particular — making online commerce more important than ever. While many small businesses have found creative ways to stay open and serve customers during the pandemic, it has been impossible for others. Facebook’s own State of Small Business Report shows that 31 percent of small and medium-sized businesses are not currently operating.
For Reakes and the rest of the Shops team, there was a sense that Shops could help millions of businesses. What began as a commerce solution was becoming a potential lifeline for business owners and workers. And the race to release Facebook Shops had now gone from a marathon to a sprint.
“We knew the product could provide relief to businesses affected by COVID-19,” says Reakes. “Now we’re hoping that having a stronger online presence across Facebook’s family of apps allows them to rebound faster.”
The reality of remote
When thinking of remote work on any scale, it’s always easy to think of the challenges first. Internet connectivity issues, time zone differences, childcare, and travel complications all come to mind. That’s not to mention the difficulty of managing a remote team, whose members are all engaged in different workstreams and different problems and trying to move forward in parallel at an incredible pace on a complicated product.
Fortunately, Facebook was already well equipped for remote work, with tools like Workplace and Portal. “We’re fortunate to have a ton of communication tools that make remote working simpler,” says Tom Richards, a London-based product manager. “There’s also our culture. We always have a bold, clear vision of what we are trying to achieve … Project managers broadcasted decisions in all directions and kept people collaborating and aligned. Whether you were in London, New York, or Tel Aviv, you always knew how far work had progressed.”