“Our HQ will be in the cloud”: What if remote-first work is an opportunity, not a compromise?

Founder of social network Quora explains why the firm is done with the office as the center of interaction

TRD NATIONAL /
Jun.June 26, 2020 06:00 PM
A photo illustration of Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo from a scene in the film The Matrix (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures; Quora)

Remote-first work could lead to greater employee wellbeing, lower housing costs and a fairer company, according to the CEO of Quora

 

When it comes to the future of remote work, everyone and their landlord has weighed in.

Owners of prime office buildings have dismissed remote work as “serviceable at best” (SL Green Realty’s Marc Holliday), having a “shelf life” (Rudin Management’s Bill Rudin) or “not sustainable” (Empire State Realty Trust’s Tony Malkin). Even owners who have acknowledged that more remote work is a reality and that productivity hasn’t plummeted in its wake have framed it as a compromise — an experience that is doomed to be a lesser version of the office experience.

But what if removing the office from the center of a company’s experience unlocks a host of benefits? That’s the scenario the CEO of Quora envisions.

In a piece he published on the popular Q-and-A-style social network Thursday, Adam D’Angelo argues for a radical reframing of remote-first work. He doesn’t see it as the middle stepchild of office parents, but as a pathway to a happier workforce, greater labor mobility, a broader pool of talent to recruit from and a more just company.

“Remote work will be the primary orientation of our company — the default for all choices,” D’Angelo wrote. All employees will have the opportunity to relocate to wherever they wish, all meetings will be held via video, the firm’s current headquarters in Mountain View will be converted into co-working space to accommodate those who want to come in, and D’Angelo himself plans to be in the office no more than once a month.

In this, D’Angelo distinguished Quora’s approach from the “hub-and-spoke” model many companies have been advocating for, one in which the main office remains the cultural and power base of the company, while clusters of people work from home or in flex spaces in satellite locations.

(Related: The REInterview: How flex space could upend supply-demand dynamics in the office market)

“In most companies, it is a significant career advantage to work from the headquarters rather than to work remotely,” he wrote. “People in positions of power have a tendency to bias toward giving out opportunities to those whom they are familiar with. That then leads to a cascade where the work at headquarters tends to be more successful, the most important projects and roles tend to be at headquarters, and the people who really care about their career move to headquarters.”

Office landlords in core markets such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles have long made this point – it’s part of how they justify the pricey rents in their buildings. Even Facebook, which shook the office market with its announcement that it would be a distributed-workforce company, is maintaining its power base at its Menlo Park headquarters, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg will continue to work.

(Related: The REInterview: Bill Rudin on remote work, property taxes and the future of tech leasing in NYC)

In contrast, the policies Quora is enacting, D’Angelo wrote, “will prevent the office from becoming the ‘real’ headquarters, but if we start to slide backward for whatever reason we will take more action to counter it. Our headquarters will be in the cloud.”

D’Angelo cited Trump’s crackdown on skilled-worker visas as another factor in the decision, saying that “if we require everyone to be local in the office, that means their jobs are permanently at risk, dependent on arbitrary and unpredictable actions from the government.”

Remote-first would allow access to a broader, global talent pool, he argued, though employees will be required to be on a “synchronous coordination” schedule — a six-hour period daily where employees, wherever they are in the world, will be required to be online. Allowing employees to work from wherever would also help them make better choices in relationships in which both partners are working, he wrote, solving the “two-body problem.” 

D’Angelo wasn’t making a one-size-fits-all statement about remote-first work. He knows that his firm – a child of the internet making internet things – will have an easier time of it than some traditional companies. He also acknowledged that the remote-work experience has a ways to go.

“If people could instantly teleport to work and live wherever in the world they wanted, and everyone could have their own office along with shared collaboration space, office work would be better for everyone than remote work,” he wrote. “But that is unfortunately not the world we live in. Most of these barriers — commutes, housing costs, and immigration — are not about to change, whereas the technology that supports remote work is going to continually improve.”

(Related: Office landlords: Don’t eat before watching this)

Quora was in talks for a $60 million funding round in May 2019 that would value it at $2 billion, according to Recode, though it’s unclear if it has secured that funding. The firm employed about 200 people at the time of those talks, though it did a round of layoffs in January of this year.

D’Angelo’s arguments on remote-first work have resonated with leaders in proptech and in the broader technology space.

“Many companies are thinking through this right now and @adamdangelo breaks down Quora’s motivations really well,” Gustaf Alströmer, a partner at startup accelerator YCombinator, tweeted Thursday. Ryan Simonetti, CEO of Brookfield-backed flexible-office startup Convene, called the piece “one of the best articulations on the value of a remote first work strategy that I’ve seen.” And Brandon Weber, founder of cloud-based lease management platform Hightower (now VTS), called it “a real contribution to the collective knowledge base.”

Office landlords have long been vocal cheerleaders of the megacities they own property in – there are near infinite variations of “there’s only one New York.” High housing costs, long commutes and other factors made working in cities tough, the argument went, but in the end, megacities represent the summit of human capital and innovation. D’Angelo no longer thinks that’ll be the case.

“The rise of remote work will create an infinitely dense city in the cloud, the largest effective labor market in history,” he wrote. “And it will have many of the benefits of cities without the downsides.”


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