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Making Remote-first Work

A conversation with Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo about the company's commitment to remote-first work—both during and after the pandemic.

Kevin Delaney

The following is an excerpt from Reset Work’s latest newsletter, written by Kevin Delaney. You can read the full newsletter, as well as past installments, here.

In June 2020, Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo published a post titled “Remote First at Quora” laying out a vision for how working at the internet company would change even after the pandemic. He had been observing the “surprisingly high productivity” since offices had closed and employee preference for remote work, and decided to make that the default going forward. 

The post provided remarkable clarity and specificity, especially given that it was written at a still-hazy time—noting that employees could relocate to wherever Quora could legally employ them, for example. And D’Angelo said that the company would maintain its offices, but he himself would not visit the Mountain View, Calif., headquarters more than once a month and the leadership team wouldn’t be located there—so as not to undermine the remote-first approach.

Nine months later, how does D’Angelo see things? We spoke this week, and here are excerpts from our conversation, edited lightly for space and clarity:

Has your thinking changed since last June based on the experience since then?

No, it’s largely played out the way we had expected. We’ve had a lot of employees move out of the Bay Area, and have hired a lot of people outside of the Bay Area. We still think it’s the right strategy. Remote first—not all remote, we’re going to keep our office in Mountain View—we think that’s the right thing for the company. It’s been very interesting to see how the whole industry has adapted to being forced into this. When I wrote the blog post, it was unclear how long the pandemic was going to be.

It has turned out to have gone on for longer than people were expecting back then, which has opened up more people to remote work. That’s good for us. I’ve been interested to see a lot of companies have not taken a strong stance still on what they’re going to do. They’re still in ‘wait and see’ mode. I feel like if it’s been this long into the pandemic and you still can’t make up your mind—what are you doing? We still feel good about the choice we made. We think it’s the right thing for us.

Can you recap the essential thinking that went into your decision to go remote-first?

First, people find they can get a lot more done at home than they could in an open-office environment. Unfortunately, that was what we had—that’s what most tech companies have because the cost of office space means that it’s very expensive to give everyone a private office. Maybe that will change if enough companies go remote. But there’s a lot of data that open office plans actually decrease the amount of communication that happens between employees, so being able to focus is huge.

The biggest factor for us is just about talent, though. It’s the ability to hire people from all over the world, especially when it’s hard to get people visas into Silicon Valley these days. And even if people are legally able to work in the Bay Area, it’s a super-expensive cost of living. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if you’re in a high-paying role, or don’t have a family to support, but as you start to grow the company you need many different kinds of people all working together to build this product. And we want people to be able to stay at the company for many years as they go on with their lives and have a family of kids. Being able to do that in the Bay Area is very hard for people. It doesn’t seem like there’s any kind of path forward for California to get more housing.

One of the risks when I wrote the blog post was—will we be able to recruit great people outside the Bay Area? Maybe the most talented people had already moved to the Bay Area, or maybe the recruiting challenge of recruiting worldwide is a different thing. But that’s actually gone very, very well. We’ve been able to get very good people all over the world and it means we have better employees in the company on average as a result of this. That was the theory, but now we’re seeing it play out in practice.

You have said your commitment was not to go to the headquarters more than once a month—why is that?

There’s a lot of value in orienting the company truly around remote work. There are many forces that can cause that to fall apart. One of the things that matters to people working in a company is being able to influence decision makers, and getting opportunities when new roles and responsibilities come up. If you’re better off being in the office and being able to do that, then you’re going to want to work from the office. Even if it’s a little less efficient for how much work you can get done. If the CEO, and especially if the whole executive team is in the office, it’s just human nature that whoever’s around you—whoever you’re socializing and eating lunch with—you’re going to build relationships with.

You’re not going to build as many relationships with people who are remote. It could vary, but it’s a slippery slope where it could very quickly become that. If you want to advance your career at Quora, you’ll grow 10% faster if you’re in the office and hanging out with the CEO and exec team over lunch—that’s a real thing that could happen. If everyone knows that, then other people will want to work from the office. You’ll know that the people two levels down from the CEO are in the office because of that. So you want to be there too. And in this way, the whole culture can actually just unwind and orient around the office if you’re not careful.

I thought it was important to publicly commit to not being in the office to avoid this spiral. And I also thought it was important because it was a commitment that other CEOs wouldn’t be willing to make if they weren’t serious about that. When we wrote the blog post, it was trendy to say that you’re focusing on remote. I’ve heard from a number of other companies that announced employees can work from everywhere now, where it’s turning out that wasn’t exactly true. We’ve hired people from those companies who report that they know they’re going to be second class at that company—they want to work at a place where remote is truly first. It was something I could credibly commit to and show that we’re different. I think it’s worked out.

What changes in terms of resources, processes, and communication?

We’ve been going through this big effort internally called the handbook, trying to centralize all our documentation. We had a lot of different documents that were floating around and it was hard for a new employee. They would have to ask a lot of questions to other people in person. And they would sometimes point you to a document, but the documents weren’t all well-organized. So we now have this central place where all the documents are indexed and organized. Every department has a page in the handbook. It tells you who’s responsible, what the current goals are for the next quarter for that department, who to talk to in different cases, what the processes are, how the organization is subdivided, and you can click to see the other parts of the organization. It’s been very helpful.

We’ve hired a lot of people in the last six months, and they’ve been able to absorb our culture and figure out how things are done actually faster than people in person. When we were back in the office, you had to wait until the right conversation—casual conversations and informal stuff, even gossip, that was like an actual way that information got communicated. And now that everything is forced to be formalized and in this central place it’s actually meant new employees can, can ramp up way faster, which is super valuable.

How do you think it’s possible to establish and maintain a strong culture in a remote setup?

Culture can mean a lot of different things. If some of it means the way you do things, that’s one definition of culture. It’s the natural way that you do things, especially when you’re not formally directed to; how are all these little local decisions made by default? At Apple, for example, there’s a way of doing things. And as a user of Apple products, you can feel that in their products and you can call that a culture. That aspect of culture has been great. The handbook is where I think we’re even more consistent about establishing ways of doing things and sticking to them. Even adapting them—it also becomes easier to change the culture and adapt it when it’s actually explicitly written down. For the definition of culture as a way of doing things, the way we’ve operated with that has gotten better.

The other thing people mean when they say culture is the strength of the bonds between employees. As in trust, or how easily you can give negative feedback. If there’s a lot of trust and you have a good long-term relationship with them, then they’ll assume that you’re giving that feedback because it’s in their interest and you care about them. And also how loyal will people be over time to the company, whether people are going to put the company first ahead of their own personal interest, things like that. That’s been mixed. I wouldn’t say that it’s obviously gotten worse, although it’s harder over videos—if you’re going to interrupt someone in the middle of the sentence, and you have a few hundred milliseconds of lag, it just is a little bit harder. But we’ve done a pretty good job at it.

If you look at old remote companies like GitLab, they tend to have very good employee retention over the long term. You can say it’s because of a lot of different factors, but I think that employee loyalty is actually something that you can maintain pretty well in this environment. A big source of employee turnover actually is the location constraint on where they have to be.

A third aspect of culture is about whether you want to hang out at the office after work and go out for drinks with people, or if someone will invite all the coworkers over to their place on the weekend. You can say that that’s culture, it’s probably helpful in building trust. It also leads to things that don’t really help, like politics and cliques, but on the whole that is a good thing. Employees just socializing has been harder for sure in a remote environment. We’ve experimented with a bunch of things, but I think we still need better products for this. Stewart Butterfield, the Slack CEO, mentioned on a Clubhouse panel that they’re building intra-company Clubhouse into Slack. That would be amazing. That’d be so much better than all these artificial things we’ve tried to set up. 

I’ve been a little disappointed during the pandemic. The software has not evolved that fast. So many companies have been totally overwhelmed. Zoom has to spend all their time on scalability and basically do nothing else besides that, which is understandable. But over the next few years, we’re going to see really good remote socializing. I’m looking for a video version of Clubhouse for within a company—that’d be really good. There’s a product called Rally that we’ve experimented with a few times, there’s Gather, there’s a whole space of products but no one has really gotten it right.

On Clubhouse, people actually in some cases have better experiences than going to parties, because they can find the right room and talk to the right people in a way that would never happen with real world socializing. A video version of that would be really great for the company holiday party; or maybe every Friday after work, you set that up and people like go into that space, but it’s just very hard to get this working over something like Zoom.

You can read a full transcript of our conversation, including a discussion of the implication of remote-first for working parents and Quora’s use of “coordination hours.”

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