Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Quora had a strong office culture and discouraged employees from working remotely most of the time. But once the company had no choice, Quora CEO and co-founder Adam D’Angelo says they discovered the benefits of working from anywhere far outweigh the drawbacks. Just a few weeks ago, Quora announced it would become a remote first company. That policy will extend beyond any public health restrictions on in-person gatherings, and Quora’s office will function more as a co-working space for employees who wish to return to the office rather than as the company’s central headquarters.
Greylock general partner David Thacker sat down with Adam to discuss his decision to make this far-reaching change, what impact the shift has made on Quora’s productivity and culture, and how he thinks remote working will change society for the better. This episode of Greymatter is part of a new series focusing on the people, technologies and policies that are making working from anywhere possible.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Below are key highlights from the conversation. Answers are from Adam D’Angelo.
Why didn’t you initially embrace remote work?
“It was a very different time when we started the company. It just made sense to have everyone in the office. Housing costs in Silicon Valley were pretty low relative to what they are now, it was easy to get H1B visas and easy for people from around the world to get here, it was easy to assemble everyone in one place and office space was cheap. So we would only look at this from time to time, where we would experiment with remote work. And it always seemed like people who were remote were at a disadvantage. But actually, everyone was at a disadvantage because you end up having to do everything two ways.”
“If someone was working remotely, they were always missing out compared to those who were in the office. Say you were having a meeting and everyone was in the office except one person, who is on a video call. It’s fine at first, but then everyone tends to kind of forget about them. They can’t see everyone’s faces. It’s hard for them to get people’s attention. So they end up feeling disconnected, and then over time they kind of become regarded as a second-class team member. None of this is malicious or intentional, but people tend to have a bias toward whoever is right next to them and who they are seeing every day.”
“It’s hard enough to run a company and get everyone going in the same direction when you aren’t all operating on the same system. And for a long time, that’s how it has been because we’ve moved toward open office plans and lots of meetings and moments for interactions. So the office had the normal way of building relationships and making choices, those who weren’t there just didn’t have that.”
What have you seen since Quora has been working from home that has changed your mind?
“People are very productive and a lot of them actually prefer working from home. They don’t have to worry about a commute, they aren’t limited in where they can live, they don’t have to worry about the safety of the office. And everyone is on the same page because it’s not a mix of people in the office and people remote. Everyone has the same advantage.”
How do you make it work?
“So far we’ve been able to roughly maintain the same process. We set goals, we have meetings, we stay in sync. We test things out, we’ve run a ton of experiments. All of that has continued to work. We rely on a lot of in-house tools for things like experimentation and continuous deployment of our code. But so far it hasn’t had to change too much.”
“We’re very focused on synchronous communication. We use Zoom for video calls and we do a lot of them. And we think that the kind of back and forth between people who have different skill sets and different responsibilities is very important. We realize you have to write absolutely everything down and formalize everything into, you know, structured goals, that’s going to limit creativity and it’s going to limit the ability to kind of push the boundaries of what’s possible.”
What are the hardest aspects of remote work?
“What’s been challenging in adapting to the new environment is trying to replicate some of the informal communication that happened around the office. It’s an area I’m particularly interested in right now.”
“Especially at this point, when the majority of our employees are saying they would prefer not to come back to the office. But there is still a significant fraction of the employees who really liked the office – they want to socialize, maybe they don’t have space at home to work super productively, or maybe they have kids and they want to have some boundary between home and work. So as we are doing this, we’ve run a series of surveys of employees asking things like, ‘How productive do you feel like you’ve been?’ ‘What can we do to make you more productive?’ ‘What would you like to know from us?’”
How did you decide to adopt a firm remote-first policy, rather than waiting and seeing how this plays out?
“First, I think everyone really benefits from being decisive. I’ve heard from a lot of employees at other companies that the uncertainty is killing everyone. No one knows if they are going to have to go back to their office or not, they don’t know if they can move out of the Bay Area, they don’t know if their kids are going to be back in school, their lease is almost up and they have to figure out their next move, etc. But their company still hasn’t given clear guidance, or they give guidance that keeps changing – like they are remote for now, but then they will probably go back to office-first, but they don’t know when, or they don’t give a clear answer on what the hybrid model will look like, or whether it will be preferred for people to be in-office. And when people don’t know what to do, the whole thing can unravel pretty quickly.”
Why did you decide to put a remote-first policy in place, rather than a hybrid of in-office and remote?
“With a hybrid set-up, a lot can go wrong because you are always going to get a little bit of an advantage from being at the office. And that could just be because your boss is there and you can build a stronger relationship with them by being right next to them, in-person. Or there can be an issue because people might be in the habit of subtly judging someone’s work based on whether they are there in front of them, and how often. In the office, you can more easily demonstrate that you work really hard. But if you are remote, people can’t see exactly how much you’re working. I think things really tend to trickle down from the CEO. If the CEO is there, then the most ambitious other people who want to build relationships with them, will assume that their best chance at that is by being in the office.”
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in the past that have helped you adapt to the current situation?
“I learned that you really have to be decisive. When we started the company in 2009, it was just before the big wave of mobile and smartphone adoption hit. And we didn’t really jump on mobile as an opportunity – we tried to gradually adapt to it. There were some bottom up efforts, we had a mobile team, we had individuals working on mobile apps for different platforms, etc. But we never really said at a high level, ‘Hey, this is really important and we really need to make tough decisions and orient the company around them.’ We eventually adapted to it, but it took a lot longer than it should have. In retrospect, I think as CEO I needed to first recognize how critical that decision was and how important it was to make a choice, and then I needed to stand up and make it everyone’s top priority for some period of time. I needed to be willing to almost impose that choice on everyone, even though it was a tough choice to make.”
How do you think this current period in time will change workplace policies going forward?
“I think a lot of employees have learned that they prefer working from home, even if they wouldn’t have wanted to work for a remote-first company in the past. But now they’ve had this experience and know it works. That’s a big change going forward in that you can now more easily recruit better employees, just because the market for people who want to work remotely has probably grown massively. And I think investors are seeing these companies do well despite the fact that they are remote. In the past, it might’ve been harder to raise money for a company that was remote-oriented. I saw an interview with the Gitlab CEO who said that for most of their existence, investors saw the fact that they were remote as a negative. It would undermine the process of everyone’s confidence in the success of the company. So I think that has totally changed now that everyone has seen that working from home can work really well.”
What are other positive impacts of working remotely?
“We made this choice because we think it’s the best thing for us and our employees and for our mission. But I think there are a ton of benefits that come to the world and to society as more companies orient around remote work. One big cost is just commuting. People in the Bay Area spend around an hour commuting each way, and that whole time is basically wasted. Another dynamic I’ve gotten interested in is this issue of labor mobility in the US: if you look at data from the 1940s and 1950s, people used to move around the country a lot more than they do now. They used to move toward locations where they could make more money, so the states that had higher GDP per capita would usually see inflows of population, and people would just leave the states with states with lower GDP per capita. So people would set out for where they could make more money, and that was good for everyone. But that means everyone goes to the same places and now you have all the issues we have right now: high housing costs and crowding where the jobs are, and no opportunities in the other regions.”
“If you are part of a couple who is working remotely, suddenly this whole coordination problem is gone. Each partner can just take whatever the best job is, and the couple can relocate to wherever works best for them. You don’t even need the whole workforce working remotely to get this benefit. We can get back to the level of labor mobility we had in the past, and it will take pressure off the high-cost housing markets.
“A lot of employees have had to face a choice of either stay in one location, or move around but not have the same advantages as those at the office. And so I think remote-first will give us this level playing field by saying wherever you are in the world, you’re going to be on even footing with everyone else at your job. It’s going to free people up to move around for whatever is best for them, not just for work but for whatever they value in the rest of their life.”