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For Online Learning, Business Has Never Been Better

Around the world, students are learning from home. For Chegg, the online learning company, that has meant unprecedented demand for its services.

Chegg got its start as a textbook rental company, but has expanded to offer services like online tutoring. And while some teachers believe it facilitates cheating, students love it. Dan Rosensweig, Chegg’s chief executive, said his business had roughly doubled overnight when schools shut down, and had been growing ever since. The company’s stock is up more than 40 percent this year.

At the same time that Mr. Rosensweig has worked to meet this surge in demand, he has had to figure out how to run his company remotely. Chegg, which is based in Silicon Valley and has more than 1,000 employees, had invested heavily in posh offices and enviable perks. It’s unclear how many people will eventually return to the office, Mr. Rosensweig said, or what the office will be like when they do.

Mr. Rosensweig also said Chegg was rethinking how and where it makes its hires. If the majority of a tech company’s employees can work remotely, what prevents them from being in Boise, Idaho, or Birmingham, Ala.? And as Mr. Rosensweig confronts these questions, he is also having to address the issues of the day, including the protests against racism and police brutality.

This conversation, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was part of a series of live Corner Office calls discussing the crisis. Visit timesevents.nytimes.com to join upcoming calls.

At a moment like this, how are you addressing issues of racism with your staff and with your customers?

It’s time everybody, including us, acknowledge that we’re all part of the problem. If we don’t acknowledge it, we can’t be a part of the solution. As a company, the first thing is, we had to acknowledge that our responsibility is to clean and fix our own house. The first thing we can do is obviously make statements. We did that. The second thing and most expedient thing is to make financial contributions, and we have committed at least $100,000 to relevant causes. But all companies, and ours is no exception, need to look inside and say, “Where can we get better?” So through conversations and through listening, we are making some real significant changes in our company around diversity.

What can you tell us about those changes?

When it comes to racial diversity, we have not succeeded. We have not succeeded at the board level. We have not succeeded at the C-team level. We’ve done a much better job when it comes to gender diversity. We have three women on our board, and it was the very first time that any of them served on a public board. But when it comes to racial inclusion and that level of diversity, we have not yet succeeded. And that is my responsibility. It’s something that I have to own. And it’s something that I’m planning to fix.

Take us back a few months. When did the pandemic first start to affect Chegg as a business?

What Chegg does, in addition to having invented the textbook rental business, is we do homework help. We do expert Q&A. We do live, chat-based tutoring for as little as 50 cents a minute.
We saw almost a doubling of the business overnight. And since March 15, we’ve seen sustainable growth. And it is global. We’re seeing it everywhere in the world. Students need help, and we help them.

Many teachers believe that their students are using Chegg as a means by which to cheat. Is this a problem? And if so, what are you doing about it?

It’s always been a problem for colleges. Let’s face it: Students have always found a way, whether it’s in fraternities, or whether they go to Google. But Chegg is not built for that. We have built technology that removes copyrighted material before it even gets posted. If we’re notified by a professor or a school that there’s copyrighted material, it immediately gets flagged and then removed.

How did you deal with your staff when so much of the world started working from home?

Ninety days into it, the obvious ones everybody thought would be successful are working. Engineering could work remotely. Even in the office, it looks like they’re working remotely, because they have black screens and wear headsets. But the areas that surprised us were student support. They were able to go on and go work out of their homes incredibly well because the technology is available now, when it really wasn’t 10 years ago. Imagine what this would have been like without the internet and without delivery and e-commerce and all of those things.

Marketing and communication and the product teams and the development teams have also adapted really well. That was surprising to us, but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to have offices going forward. We’re thinking through whether everybody can work remotely. If you work remotely, what’s your career path? How do you get managed? How do we make sure there’s no bias in who comes in the office versus who doesn’t come in the office?

This is going to give a chance for companies who are located in cities to really recruit people that never wanted to move to very expensive high-tech cities. So we’ll get the chance to recruit from colleges and institutions where people would never move. There’s pros and cons to this. Ninety percent of our employees have asked to be able to work from home at least some days a week, but we’re going to have to learn it like everybody else. And we’re going to take some chances. The rules are going to be made, but revisited every six months.

What have you personally, and you as an institution, learned about the right way to manage remotely over the last few months?

So I can’t say that we can declare victory after 90 days, but here are the things that we’ve done in response to what we’ve learned. First of all, we gave everybody a day off. We also gave every Friday at 2 o’clock off almost immediately. We also told people to build in commute times on their calendars. So rather than starting work at 6:30 in the morning, just for mental health reasons block the time until 9:00 as your own time — do not let anything get scheduled.

We told our managers: Cut meetings from 60 minutes to 50. So people can take time, say hi to families, feed your child, take your child outside, teach your child through remote learning. You do not have to be on every call. And we deliberately built in daytime programming to prove that it was OK to take mental health breaks. We built in physical training, yoga. We have a master chef teaching people how to cook with their children. We’ve done “ask me anythings” with celebrities. And the latest thing that we’ve done is we’re giving the week before July Fourth off to everybody. What we’ve learned is people need mental breaks. Again, this is not normal. Having to work from home with family there is different, and we need to acknowledge it and deal with it.

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25 Comments

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