Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo on His Company’s Shift to ‘Remote-First’

Jul 10, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many companies to rethink the way their employees work. Adam D’Angelo, CEO of Mountain View-based tech firm Quora, a user-based question-and-answer platform, recently announced that his company is shifting to a “remote-first” work environment. Staffers can now work from anywhere they choose, even after the pandemic is over. D’Angelo spoke with The California Report’s Lily Jamali this week.

Lily Jamali: You are now what you call a ‘remote-first’ company. What does that mean exactly?

Adam D’Angelo: What it means to us is that remote work is going to be the primary orientation of the company. So with basically every choice we have to make about how we do something at the company, we’re going to say, “What would we do in a world where every single employee was remote forever?” And we’ll make that choice.

One consequence of this is we’re going to hire people all over the world. And any employee can immediately relocate anywhere we are legally set up to employ them. There’s a fraction of employees, a minority, but a significant minority that wants to continue to work from the office in the future. So we’re going to allow them to do that. We’re going to keep the office around for them.

Is it safe to say this never would have happened were it not for the pandemic?

Absolutely. Running a remote-oriented company in the past was very difficult. I think the pandemic basically served as an education to a lot of us on how to run a company remotely. I think it’s also made a lot of employees learn that they actually prefer this. So the majority of our employees now are going to choose to work remotely forever even though we selected for a set of employees who were originally required to work from the office. I don’t think that actually would have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic.

How are you liking it? Are you finding that you are more or less productive this way?

For me personally, there are pros and cons. It’s nice to not have a commute and to get that time back. It’s nice to have more isolated space to focus. But as a leader, I spend a lot of my time in meetings with other people and meetings are a little bit harder over Zoom. I could’ve gone either way if I were just choosing for myself. But we made this choice because it was the best thing for the company and for our mission.

It also gives you an opportunity to hire people anywhere in the world. How big of a deal is that for you and for Quora?

It’s huge. We’ve always hired people from around the world who just happen to have the ability to relocate to Mountain View and get a visa if that was what they needed. Others moved here from somewhere else within the country. We’ve always hired a lot of new grads out of universities. And so we’ve always been interested in hiring the best people wherever they are. But it’s always involved this big relocation step.

And now with COVID-19, I think people are getting a little more averse to relocation. With the changing political environment in the US, getting visas is harder. Another issue is that housing prices in the Bay Area have gotten very, very expensive. So being able to let people continue to live wherever is best for them will allow us to get the best people from around the world without the kind of constraints we’ve had in the past.

Given what the Trump administration is doing on immigration — there’s the H-1B freeze in place right now — how much did that color this decision?

That freeze actually happened just after we made the decision. It made me feel like we had made the right decision, but it wasn’t a factor because we had to make the decision before that.

There has been a long-running crackdown on immigrants since Trump took office. Is there anything else you want to say about that?

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I just I think it’s too bad for everyone. It’s bad for employees; it’s bad for employers; it’s bad for Silicon Valley. I think everyone will just try to make the best of the situation. We have a number of employees who were on visas and were just in a persistent state of fear that they’re going to lose their visa or not be able to renew it. One of the nice things about this remote-first policy is that they have a backup option now. So if they lose their visa, they can go back to wherever they’re from or to some other country where they can get a visa and work from there.

That may not be their first choice. I think almost everyone would prefer to stay in America, and I think that would be the best thing for the country too. They pay taxes and these are high-skilled roles. It’s good for everyone to have them here. But it’s been very good for everyone to have the certainty that in the worst case, if they have to leave the country, they can continue to work for us — just remotely.

You’ve mentioned that Quora was sort of built for this — that the kind of company that you are lends itself well to this. Can you talk about that?

Every CEO right now is going through this very tough decision process around what to do. Some of them just personally really don’t like the experience of working remotely. Some companies you hear about, on leadership teams, there’s a lot more conflict or social dynamics are getting harder within their companies because people don’t have the in-person interaction that can cause everyone to bond. When they survey their employees, a much higher percent of employees wants to come back to the office, like maybe 60 or 80 percent, whereas for us it was 40 percent.

There are just some things about our culture and the way we do our work. We tend to write a lot of things down. We have a lot of documents and written communication. We value clear communication for getting everyone coordinated in the same direction.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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