Tim Leberecht is a German-American author and entrepreneur, and the co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community with the mission to make humans more human and business more beautiful. Previously, Tim served as the chief marketing officer of NBBJ, a global design and architecture firm. From 2006 to 2013, he was the chief marketing officer of product design and innovation consultancy Frog Design. His TED Talks “3 Ways to (Usefully) Lose Control of Your Brand” and most recently “4 Ways to Build a Human Company in the Age of Machines” have been viewed more than 2.5 million times to date. Tim is the author of the book The Business Romantic (HarperCollins, 2015), which has been translated into nine languages to date. Tim’s writing regularly appears in publications such as Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, Inc, Quartz, Psychology Today, and Wired.
About this episode
Kara started her career at Uber, driving employee programs at the Seattle Engineering office as it scaled from 30 to over 500 employees. When the company transitioned to remote work during the pandemic, she found the opportunity to engage employees virtually to be both challenging and rewarding. Kara joined Quora in December of 2020, where she now manages the expansion of the organization’s international workforce and remote-first culture initiatives.
What you’ll learn
- How Quora implemented its remote-first policy, and why
- The requirements of a successful remote culture
- Exclusive commentary, tips and challenges faced by Quora and its Remote Work HR Specialist
- Coworking as a third-space offering
- The ways Quora supports its employees’ wellbeing at work, and home
- Tools used by Quora to enable effective collaboration
- Three takeaways to help organizations adapt to remote work, and workers
Intro [00:00:00] In terms of culture at Quora, I don’t know if it’s new so much as it’s just different and kind of evolved than adapted. It’s very much Quora and the things that, you know, the values that we hold are still very true, but it’s just remote. And so, it’s been kind of a shift to that. I would say this last year has really been focused on building the foundation on which we are able to hire internationally. And do you miss the office? Yeah, it’s a funny question.
Jo Meunier [00:00:51] Hello and welcome to the Future of Work podcast by Allwork.Space. I’m Jo Meunier and today I’m joined by Kara Ortbal, the Remote Work HR Specialist at Quora. And I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite a long time because I’m really interested to hear Kara’s first-hand experience of transitioning Quora from what was a traditional headquartered Silicon Valley company to one that’s now fully remote all of the time. So, we’re going to hear more about that and how the company adjusted to it. And a big part of that adjustment comes from Kara, who joined the company shortly after CEO Adam D’Angelo made the decision to switch to a permanently remote work-anywhere strategy, which took place right in the middle of 2020 in the heat of the pandemic. So, we’ll be learning more about that. Kara is now managing Quora’s remote first culture initiatives, as well as the expansion of its international workforce, so there’s quite a lot on your plate Kara, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today and welcome to the podcast.
Kara Ortbal [00:01:48] Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here and to talk a little bit more about remote work.
Jo Meunier [00:01:54] That’s great. I’m looking forward to digging into it.
Jo Meunier [00:01:57] So first off, let’s just go through the basics. Can you tell us in Quora’s case what remote first means and what it’s like on a day-to-day basis and where and how staff get their work done?
Kara Ortbal [00:02:10] Absolutely. So remote first at Quora, it really means that employees can work pretty much anywhere in the world, with very few exceptions. Certainly, we have a couple of folks in our facilities team or IT team that need to be in that headquarters. But beyond that, it is truly pretty much anywhere in the world where we can feasibly hire people.
Kara Ortbal [00:02:37] And so we still do have quite a few folks in our Mountain View Bay Area office that was previously to June of the last year, 2020, Quora only hired people primarily in that location. And so, we’ve really transitioned to being more remote first and so hiring people in different locations. Like I said, a lot of people are still in Mountain View, but we’ve really expanded, and it’s happened quite quickly, a lot faster than we’d anticipated initially. We’re kind of going into unchartered territory.
Jo Meunier [00:03:21] And for the people who are working remotely, are they mostly at home?
Kara Ortbal [00:03:25] Primarily, they’re at home. We did recently start a coworking space program, and so we do reimburse employees if they would like to be in a coworking space. So that could be like, WeWork is a popular one. But we have employees in some private coworking spaces as well, so we really want to offer that optionality and that flexibility for our employees.
Jo Meunier [00:03:49] Mm-Hmm. And how do you choose those coworking spaces? Is it a case of the…?
Jo Meunier [00:03:54] Yeah, we really leave it up to the employer. We do have one or two partnerships with large coworking space companies, but we also have quite a few employees that live in not major cities. And so there might be a private one off coworking space and we will do reimbursement for those. So, it’s really case by case and we don’t want to be too prescriptive. We do encourage employees to choose private coworking spaces just from an information security perspective. It’s really important to us. But outside of that, we are quite flexible with what works best for the employee.
Jo Meunier [00:04:38] And how has the team adjusted to the remote work culture? I know last year right in the middle of the pandemic, a lot of people all over the world were forced to work from home, but for some it was temporary. They always knew they’d go back eventually. But Quora made this quite definite decision very early on to say no, we’re going remote, we’re going to stay that way.
Jo Meunier [00:05:01] What was the transition process that happened during that time?
Kara Ortbal [00:05:06] Yeah, so I think it was, you know, it’s really dependent person by person. We did recognize what some people do really like being in the office. And so that’s why we did maintain our building in Mountain View and that has now turned into a coworking space. So, we do have a couple dozen employees who work out of that space regularly, and so we do want to maintain that optionality. But I think there is just a larger movement here where we’re seeing this a lot, particularly in tech, where, some people do want that traditional office space and some people do want the flexibility and those options and being able to travel and work and to have that experience. And so, I think we’re seeing a lot of resettling of what’s happening. So, employees are trying to do that reflection and see what’s important to me and what works best for me and make those decisions. But it’s certainly interesting within tech. You know, you’ve seen a lot of changes within the industry and different companies making different decisions, going back and forth, they’ll say one thing and then it’s changing… And I think we would be fortunate in that sense that we’ve made this decision.
Kara Ortbal [00:06:28] And so regardless of what happens with the pandemic or with anything else, we’re not having to go back and forth with our messaging. And so, I think we’re fortunate in that case because I do feel for those companies and those H.R. teams that are having to try to wrestle with that. It’s really challenging.
Jo Meunier [00:06:50] Yeah. And as you say, it must be unsettling for the people that are dealing with it because you’ve got the pandemic still going on and all the uncertainties and worries that comes with that. And on top of that, you’ve got a company that doesn’t know whether it’s going to be staying remote or coming back to the office.
Kara Ortbal [00:07:05] Yeah, yeah, it’s really, it’s quite challenging. And for facilities teams too, it’s been so much work. Our facilities team is phenomenal, and they’ve been great at turning our physical space into a coworking space and having those precautions and safety protocols. It’s a lot of work.
Kara Ortbal [00:07:27] And it’s constantly changing and it’s, you know, I think for our Head of Facilities, you know, he’s constantly trying to work through what’s the latest law or regulation for both the city, the state, the country and trying to grapple with all of that. It’s a lot.
Jo Meunier [00:07:48] Yeah, that is a lot. I don’t envy you
Jo Meunier [00:07:53] In terms of the culture at Quora. One of the things that the company did very early on when it made the commitment to become remote first was to hire a remote work specialist, which is you. So, this tells me that the company recognized right from the get-go that transitioning to a remote culture from a previously in-person face to face organization would need specialist help.
Jo Meunier [00:08:18] So can you tell me a little bit about how you and your team have worked to build this new remote culture at Quora?
Kara Ortbal [00:08:25] Sure, yeah, so I would say, first, you know, in terms of culture at Quora, I don’t know if it’s new so much as it’s just different and evolved than adapted. It’s very much Quora and the things that, you know, the values that we hold are still very true, but it’s just remote. And so, it’s been a shift to that. I would say this last year has really been focused on building the foundation on which we are able to hire internationally. And so that has been quite a logistical feat that we really have been trying to work on creating really to the extent possible, consistent employee experiences. So, these little things that we wouldn’t even think of, like trying to make holidays consistent across employees in 15 different countries and trying to make these really consistent experiences. And how do we develop just the basic infrastructure within our teams? How do we make our HRIS scale to that, when our HRIS is very much meant for U.S. employees? And so, we’ve been really focused on trying to build that foundation. But of course, we’ve also done traditional fun culture things as well.
Kara Ortbal [00:09:58] One, of Quora’s, great traditions is called Off Road. It’s essentially our version of a hackathon where employees for a whole week don’t do their regular work, but they take on a project. And so, we did this virtually, and it went really well. We did have an Olympic theme, and so we put employees into teams. We had a bunch of fun events, we had trivia and scavenger hunts. But then we also had other team awards that were related to the actual projects. And so, it was quite fun. So, we’ve certainly done some more of that traditional culture stuff as well. But I would say that the primary focus has been on just building that really strong foundation.
Jo Meunier [00:10:50] Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so important. And one of the things that ties into that that we write about a lot on Allwork.Space, is wellbeing, and wellness in the workplace. What kind of initiatives do you implement at Quora both for your in-office people and those working from home?
Kara Ortbal [00:11:09] Absolutely. I think there’s a couple things that play into that. One, we started, our business partners have started a regular weekly mindfulness group that just takes, it’s about forty-five minutes, walks or a guided meditation just to re-center.
Kara Ortbal [00:11:28] We try to have that at a relatively friendly time, time zone wise, which is difficult. But we do our best and we also have one that is more friendly for our folks in India, so we try to balance it there.
Kara Ortbal [00:11:44] And then the other thing I would say is we’ve offered employees a remote work reimbursement for any kind of office equipment, and we’re very generous with that, I would say. So, we really, anything that makes remote work better for that person. So, one of my colleagues was able to reimburse an air purifier because that was really, you know, something that she wanted in her space that helped her.
Kara Ortbal [00:12:21] And then finally, I would say just really being intentional about our benefits. We have an employee assistance program, EAP, that provides mental health support and counseling. We’re fortunate that they are global and so we have that for every country that we’re in. And so, employees have access to that, to that resource as well. And so that’s been important for us. And beyond that, just outside of that, just other medical benefits that goes back to what I mentioned before, which is trying to create consistency as much as possible, which is challenging. And so, we’ve tried to say, OK, everyone gets private health insurance. But then in some countries, that just doesn’t really make sense. And so, it’s tricky when we don’t have that background of that country.
Jo Meunier [00:13:31] And just moving on to technology.
Kara Ortbal [00:13:35] Yeah.
Jo Meunier [00:13:36] I read one of your posts on LinkedIn at the start of the pandemic, which there was a general concern that the technology Quora needed to support a truly remote workforce at large scale wasn’t quite ready. So, like everybody else around the world, you had to work with what was available to you. So how did you get past that? And obviously, we’re quite a little way on now from the point at which the company went fully remote. What tools do you use to enable effective collaboration between your people and what have you sort of tried and tested along the way?
Kara Ortbal [00:14:11] Absolutely. So, we stick to probably a pretty standard tech company suite of Slack, Google, Zoom, and we also use Quip heavily, which is like Google Docs, is a collaboration documentation tool. And then we’ve also just started testing other tools. I think with the pandemic, with this shift to remote work, the remote tool space has kind of exploded and there are so many options. A lot of them are still quite new and so they’re still finding and improving. And so, we’ve created a remote tools working group, which is a group of cross-functional folks. We have ICS managers, folks from engineering, sales. Just a good cross-section of folks to try out different tools. And so, we’ve been doing demos. We’ve tested a number, we’ve recently implemented our first tool. It’s called Poll Everywhere.
Kara Ortbal [00:15:25] It helps with interaction within presentations. And so, it helps to have that real time feedback. So, you don’t feel like you’re just sitting on a screen watching a presentation, but you’re engaging and interacting. And so, yeah, we’ve tested, and we’ve continued to test. I think, like I said, though, a lot of these tools are still really young. And so, I’ll be excited and interested to see where they are in the next two to three years or sooner. I think that they’ll all start… as we know, technology does improve quite quickly. So, we’re seeing the early stages in that arena.
Jo Meunier [00:16:12] And talking of Zoom — and not just Zoom, I’m not picking on Zoom, but, you know, any video recording technology — there is such a thing as ‘Zoom fatigue’ or video fatigue. I read recently, some companies are now adopting sort of video free hours during the week, so they might have core meeting hours between 10 and 2 and no meetings either side of them. And that’s partly to enable people to sort of get off their screens a little bit, but also to help for example, working parents, who might have to go and collect children from school and so on.
Jo Meunier [00:16:47] And of course, it does help with the different time zones. I’m sure you appreciate that as well. Do you have any policies at Quora to help make the working day more flexible, given that you’re working with people in multiple time zones and positioned all over the world?
Kara Ortbal [00:17:04] Yeah. So, our policy that we’ve started with and that we still have is, we have these coordination hours. And so, we, with the exception of our sales team in India, we do expect that employees are able to work between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Pacific. Now that does, that’s tricky in certain locations, but we’re upfront with employees and throughout the recruiting process while they’re still candidates about that expectation.
Kara Ortbal [00:17:41] And so we do have that. I would say generally speaking, our employees and our management team is quite flexible and understanding with employees and their schedules. You know, it’s not uncommon to see a pet or a child pop up in the background. And that is totally OK. In fact, you might, my dog just got back from his walks so you might see him!
Jo Meunier [00:18:13] He is welcome to join us!
Kara Ortbal [00:18:18] So that has, that’s what we’ve done so far. I think, you know, we are starting to think about what could asynchronous work look like, right? And we’re just starting to have those conversations. And again, that does go back to the technology, like, do we have the tech infrastructure in place to be able to really accommodate something like that? What could that look like? And we’ll see, you know, we’re just starting to think through those things and have those initial conversations.
Kara Ortbal [00:18:51] So, yeah, I would say right now it really is up to the individual teams, individual managers of accommodating that. But generally, I would say we are quite flexible.
Jo Meunier [00:19:02] Yeah. And has it meant that you’ve been able to hire from anywhere now that you’ve shifted from having a sort of headquarters in a specific location and being remote, does it mean that you’ve now been able to really expand your hiring circle and hire based on talent rather than location?
Kara Ortbal [00:19:21] Absolutely. So, I, you know, with very, very few exceptions, there are a couple of countries in which there are some information security concerns. But outside of that we’ve, like I said, we are now in 15 countries, which prior to June of 2020 we were in the U.S. and we had just started our India site. So, we were in two. So, we’ve really, truly expanded that quite quickly. And we use for that, just on a logistical note, we use both a PEO model as well as our own entities. So Quora now has Quora India, which is our first, which was in the works pre-pandemic as well. And we also have Quora Canada, which started at the very beginning of this year and then Quora Ireland, which is very new still, just about a month into having employees within that entity. And then any group outside of that or any country outside of that, we’ve used a PEO model. And they both certainly come with their own sets of challenges as well as you could imagine.
Jo Meunier [00:20:39] That was my next question. What are some of the challenges that you’ve experienced since you joined Quora, a bit less than a year ago, and adjusting to the remote culture, hiring from anywhere… What are some of the biggest challenges you found and how have you overcome you?
Kara Ortbal [00:20:56] Yeah, so I’d say for both the entity model and the PEO model, there are some unique challenges. So, for the entity model, it’s really just this huge cross functional logistical lift. So, we’re working with legal, finance facilities, HR, and trying to kind of understand our country and employment laws and tax laws that none of us are familiar with. And so, we do, of course, rely on outside counsel. But I think one of the things that we’ve learned both with the entities and with the PEO is that there’s legal and then what’s common. So, for example, I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me right now, but in Germany, which we have an employee in Germany, there is the legally required number of days off. But no employer actually gives that — it would be offensive. We’ve learned to give that. And so oftentimes external counsel will only advise on what is legal. And so, we have to do some digging to figure out what is acceptable. So, we’ve each connected with people on LinkedIn who we know who have experience in other countries with Germany. One of our employees, who’s fabulous, worked in Germany, is German, and worked there for a while. And so, she helped advise us there. So, we think that is just entering into the unknown and truly with those entities, it doesn’t necessarily get easier every time because it’s a new country each time. And then on the PEO, which I should say, is a Professional Employment Organization.
Kara Ortbal [00:22:50] And so it’s this employer of record model. And you know, it’s really challenging for us and for them. Oftentimes they are direct in some countries, so they have their own teams, but more often than not, they’re using another third-party vendor and the backend. And so, you’re playing this like, frustrating, and slow game of telephone to try to understand, you know, when we have a question, we ask them and then they ask them, you know, there’s just this kind of challenge there.
Kara Ortbal [00:23:26] And so they, you know, the vendors, I think, do the best they can, but it is challenging. And so that’s something that I do see and hope that will improve in the next few years. And there’s a few companies on the PEO side that are really starting to be more platform focused. And so again, in a couple of years, I think we’ll be in a much different place and I’m cautiously optimistic.
Jo Meunier [00:23:53] That’s good to hear. So, a lot of the time it comes down to good old fashioned phone communication, collaboration, and asking lots of questions.
Kara Ortbal [00:24:02] Absolutely, absolutely. And that is another thing with the time zones, because our vendors are in Europe, it’s, you know, it’s tricky. So, we’re trying to fit in 8:00 a.m. calls and there’s only five days in a week. And so it’s challanging.
Jo Meunier [00:24:29] We’re doing the same aren’t we? It’s 9 o’clock your end and 5 over here. But we make it work! And in terms of your staff, so many of them are working at home and that introduces its own challenges for them. We all know, as you say, your dog might come wandering in at any moment, and it’s so easy just for children to, or cats to walk across the keyboard, et cetera.
Jo Meunier [00:24:49] So that’s quite a challenge when you’re trying to get your work done. Also, for some people who don’t necessarily have a private office or a spare bedroom that they can sit and work from. Working from home isn’t always as easy as some people think it is. So how do you help your staff to create the right home environment, one that’s productive and one that keeps them, keeps them busy and motivated?
Kara Ortbal [00:25:15] Yeah, absolutely. So, like I mentioned, we do have the remote reimbursement that we do offer employees and it is quite generous. It’s a significant sum for the first year and then we have an upkeep for every year thereafter. And so that’s one of the ways. I would also say we just we really encourage employees to take charge of their workday, of their workspace. And you know, one of the examples that comes to mind is our CFO. He has blocked off on his calendar most days during the week, and it’s during coordination hours that he must go pick up his daughter. And it’s not like a private hold, like it’s a public hold. Everyone can see it. But I think that just shows a great example, you know, really leading by example that it is OK to do those things.
Kara Ortbal [00:26:14] And that is, that’s one of the perks about being able to be remote is that you’re able to, you know, go, and run a load of laundry in the middle of the day, go take your dog for a walk. And so, I think those things are… I think it’s great that our leadership team is kind of modeling that for employees. And that’s something that we do talk to employees about when they join in our onboarding and our onboarding processes. Take breaks, go take a walk. I think it’s so easy and, you know, maybe easier said than done and I’m maybe not the best example of this myself, but so easy to just go and sit down and sit here and stare at a screen for eight hours. Really, reminding employees that, hey, when you were in an office, you would go grab coffee with someone down the street. It is OK to do that, and you should do that because it’s important. And so, yeah, I’ve seen all kinds of… one of our business partners has like a workout every day and it’s, hard block. Do not book over this time, like, this is when I work out and people expect that. And so, I think it’s really encouraging and empowering employees to do those types of things.
Jo Meunier [00:27:34] And do you miss the office?
Kara Ortbal [00:27:38] Yeah, it’s a funny question. So, I do in some ways, and I think that is where we have this distinction of remote work, and then remote work during a pandemic. I would try as best we can to separate those things out. But I think it’s hard because for many of us, myself included, a pandemic is the only time that we are working remotely, right? And so, it’s hard to separate out those things. One thing that we’ve said from the beginning and that we still said, even though we haven’t necessarily been able to act on it is that
Kara Ortbal [00:28:17] remote doesn’t mean you never see your coworkers in person. That is something that we really want is to be able to bring everyone together. Logistically, that’s going to be extremely challenging with the current situation that we’re in. I think it’s… I think becoming remote first and having employees globally is going to frankly make that harder, right, because of travel restrictions with countries and all of that. And so, we’re starting to think about those things. I think this summer we’d really hope like, oh yeah, we can start doing that and then things change. And so, we had to be flexible and patient, but that is certainly our intention that employees are able to connect with one another. And we’re trying to think about ways that we can say, you know, maybe you can’t get together with your whole team and we can’t get together as a whole company, but can you meet with someone who’s in your area? If it’s safe and appropriate, right? And so, I think, those are the things that we’re thinking about. That’s what I miss, right? Like being able to see people in person. And I was lucky that I was able to, just happenstance, I had a trip planned to California and one of my coworkers happened to be in the same city. And so, we got to meet up. And it was so great. And I’m like, I want to do it with everyone. So yes. Yeah. So, I think from that perspective, I do miss seeing people in person, but I am again cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to do that soon.
Jo Meunier [00:29:57] And so with restrictions easing that it should become a little bit easier going forward.
Kara Ortbal [00:30:02] Hopefully. Yeah, absolutely.
Jo Meunier [00:30:06] Well, we’re nearing the end of our conversation, but I just have one last question for you. Based on everything that you’ve learned since you joined the company. Quite a strange time, quite a strange time of our lives, really, when you first entered Quora because that was December 2020, wasn’t it? Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. So, it was still in the heat of COVID 19. There was a lot going on. The company had just switched to remote work, so there was quite a lot thrown at you, straight into the deep end. With everything you’ve learned along the way, what two or three big takeaways can you give our listeners to help them adapt to remote work and really sort of hit the ground running?
Kara Ortbal [00:30:45] Absolutely. I would say a couple things. The first is really documentation. That’s something that we’ve really been trying to encourage our employees to do. And you know, we’re not at the point where we have dived into asynchronous work. But I think even still having that process documentation is so important. I would say, and I tell this to our new hires a lot, and this is true for me that working remotely, and onboarding remotely are very different things. My previous company, I was at Uber for about five years, and, you know when the pandemic hit, I had had four years with all these people. And so, we were just trying to transition to remote. It was still challenging but onboarding remotely and starting brand new and feeling like you’re frankly bugging people because you’re messaging them all the time versus being able to turn to the person next to you and say hey, what is this? You know, it feels different. And so, I think documentation can only,
Kara Ortbal [00:31:50] only help that. And so, we’ve tried to be a lot better about just documenting our processes. We’ve done that on the HR side, but I know that other teams have been doing that as well, and I think that that is important. The other thing I would say, and I think this is something Quora has been quite good about and this really is credit to our leadership team, to our CEO that we’ve really been very diligent about ensuring that our office in Mountain View doesn’t become a center of gravity. And so, we’ve implemented several measures to ensure that people outside of the Bay Area don’t feel like they’re missing out. So, one of them is that in any given meeting, the expectation is that everyone is on their own Zoom tile. So even if two people are in the same location, you still need to be on your own tile. And I think that’s really helped. And it’s a credit to our employees, too, because they’ve been quite good at adhering to that and really ensuring that their colleague in Estonia or in Mexico doesn’t feel left out.
Kara Ortbal [00:33:05] And then the other thing that is related to that is that our executives have been diligent about not going into the office every day because that was something that Adam said early on was, I will not go into the office more than once a month and the same expectation for the rest of the executive team. And so that’s really helped to make sure that employees don’t feel that way as well. And then finally, I would just say, it’s like I said before, remote work shouldn’t mean that you don’t see people in person. That’s not the goal. We’ve had that challenge because of the pandemic, but really we’ve been trying to mentally separate those two, even though it’s tricky. I think that it’s important to remember that it doesn’t mean that you can’t have that social interaction in person as well. And frankly, even my coworkers who I haven’t met in person, I feel so incredibly connected to them, like I have this deep trust. I have an amazing team and I can say confidently that we all feel that way about one another. And so, it is possible to have that occur over Zoom as well.
Jo Meunier [00:34:27] Fantastic. Well, that has been a fascinating insight into Quora and how you’ve managed to transition it into a remote first culture. I’ve really enjoyed learning all about it. So, thank you so much for joining us today.
Jo Meunier [00:34:41] Thank you so much. This has been great.
Jo Meunier [00:34:44] And if our listeners wanted to get in touch with you or to learn more about the company’s culture, how would they do that?
Kara Ortbal [00:34:51] LinkedIn, yeah.
Kara Ortbal [00:34:53] LinkedIn is probably the best spot for that, I do have Twitter, I’m not very active and it.
Jo Meunier [00:35:00] We’ll put a link on the on the transcript. That’s it. Thank you very much and enjoy the rest of your day.
Kara Ortbal [00:35:06] Thanks, Jo. Take care.