As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to escalate in October 2020, most office workers entered their seventh month of working from home. With vaccines on the horizon and (preventive) rumors about it offices will begin to reopen in the new year, some organizations have decided to never return to an office environment—at least not one that can be recognized from the way it worked before the pandemic.
Dropbox was one of the first to make this decision, announcing on October 13 that “as of today, Dropbox is becoming the first virtual company.” The company said in a statement that “remote work (out of the office) will be the core experience for all employees and the daily default for individual work.”
The existing offices have closed for good, and in their place Dropbox Studios has opened for collaboration and community building. It was strictly forbidden to use the studios for independent work.
Almost two years later, Andy Whisson, Dropbox’s Chief Product Officer, spoke about the experience of becoming a “virtual first” company and what lessons Dropbox has learned along the way. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did Dropbox decide to become a fully remote company and how did you go about developing your “virtual first” strategy? “We are a company that creates products that enable people to work remotely, so at the beginning of the pandemic we decided that we needed to really live our product by working remotely and learning what works with our teams before we release our products into the world. .
“virtual first” [the name Dropbox gave its remote work strategy] was a very elaborate process. We didn’t just sit down and say, “We’re all remote now, let’s keep it that way.” We spoke to many other companies that were working remotely before the pandemic, asking what was successful for them, what was difficult, what processes they put in place, and from these conversations we began to build a new strategy for the company.
“For Dropbox, virtual first means that our primary workplace is remote, but that doesn’t mean we never get together. We’ve replaced our offices with studios so colleagues can come together to collaborate with their teams; however, it was important that people did not trade coming to the office for coming to the studio five days a week. We don’t want our staff to say, “I’ll be in the studio every week on Mondays and Tuesdays,” because that creates proximity bias, and we didn’t want to go down that road. We wanted to really live this remote working approach and understand what it would mean for people to work anywhere in the world, wherever they want.’
Why did you choose the telecommuting route rather than a hybrid model when developing the new strategy? “Many different models were considered during the development process. At the time we made these decisions, people were thinking that maybe we’d be back in the office in early 2021, so we actually evaluated a lot of different work models before settling on virtual first.
“We ended up ruling out using a hybrid approach because we didn’t think it would end up being fair to all of our employees after the pandemic. We had already started to expand our recruitment geographically and did not want to be limited by location moving forward.”
And as the world began to emerge from the pandemic, how did the strategy evolve? “Under virtual, first of all, there are a number of principles that define how we think about the future of work. One is “asynchronous by default,” the idea being that if we’re going to have people working remotely, it shouldn’t mean they’re spending eight hours a day on video calls. Instead, with Dropbox, you’re judged on the output and output you make, not the number of meetings you can attend.
“This led us to think about how much time we should spend in meetings, and as a result we introduced what we call ‘Coworking Core Hours’, where staff reserve four hours each day to be available for meetings. This means that there is a time when you are ready to meet with your team or someone else in the company, but also that you have the other four hours in the day to focus on the work that you need to do.
“Does that mean you won’t use it to meet someone who’s in another time zone or something? Absolutely not. It’s your time to lead as an individual because we measure your impact and the results you re to do
“Something like a-synch by default also means you think differently about how you use your time. It is a valuable resource and we want our employees to learn to value it more. It is also very important that as a company we try to continue our work in a humane way. We want this strategy to be right, but it’s a repetitive thing. We know that along the way we’re going to have to push her a little to get things on track and we’re still learning as we go.. But I think what’s important is that at the core of it we’ve tried to keep things human and create a very flexible and collaborative work environment, then ultimately everything is fine.”
How did the company take the decision completely remotely? “Prior to making the announcement, we conducted several surveys within the company and found that approximately 74% of our employees want to work remotely, some or most of their time.
“Then, after about six months of remote work, we surveyed our employees again and found that people liked the flexibility. We repeated the survey again in late 2021 and found that by Q4 2021, about 63% of respondents had adopted an asynchronous approach as the default, and more than 80% had adopted core collaboration hours.
“What was really interesting was that 72% said they felt more productive as a result of the change, which is surprising, and the same number, 72%, felt they had a better work-life balance, which is is one of those things that helps make work more human. We want our employees to have real lives, we want people to have flexibility and take responsibility for the results and how they balance their work.
“Throughout this journey, we listened carefully to the company and constantly asked them if this is how they want to work.”
What challenges have you faced since adopting your virtual first working model? “When we first launched the virtual system in October 2020, we were still in a pretty weird environment caused by the pandemic, so it wasn’t that big of a shift at the time because most people were still in lockdown and working with the U as a result, the immediate implementation of the strategy was probably much easier than it might otherwise have been.
“I wouldn’t say that there were any particular problems, but we had to change our attitude to many things that were previously taken for granted. For example, when hiring, you have to start thinking differently, because suddenly, you’re hiring from anywhere.
“Over the past six months, I’ve hired five people, all from very different places around the world. It did take a bit of a mind shift at the start, but it also means we now have a much larger talent pool to recruit from.
“We’re doing training to help managers hire remote employees, build remote teams, and ultimately get all these new virtual employees working together and building connections because it’s a very different experience when you’re used to doing it all in person.. We also ran workshops with employees on how to virtually brainstorm, how to manage their time, how to manage project deliverables, how to implement core hours of collaboration in a way that works for them.
“The opening of the studios also provided a real opportunity for Dropbox; this is the next chapter in our work together. Where and when we can, we aim to gather teams at least quarterly in our permanent or on-demand studio premises.
“However, the face-to-face meeting is purely so that we can focus on brainstorming and communicating with each other, not on using the space for face-to-face meetings. This is very important to us, and as a result, our studios are not I don’t have desks because that is not their purpose. They are meant to bring people together, create ideas, move things forward.”
What are the biggest advantages of “virtual first”? “This allows us to return to our mission as a company that is building a more enlightened way of working. It also allows us to live the truth about our products, as we not only create tools for remote workers, but we can also prove that they work because they are at the heart of our own work strategy.
“In terms of the benefits for our employees, people who work at Dropbox typically say they feel more productive and have a better work-life balance because they can control their work hours and adjust their hours to for them, which is very important to us.
“Another very important thing we’ve done is improved protection for people’s time away from work by introducing something called ‘non-network paid time off.’ Because we’re all so used to communicating through a variety of different tools, including mobile when you’re on vacation, it can sometimes be hard to disconnect from work when your emails are in the palm of your hand.
“So we’ve introduced something called disabled PTO, which means when you sign up to take time off, you just check a box that says, ‘I’d like to take time off,’ and then when your time off starts, we turn off notifications and disable all your accounts until you return.
“We’re really trying to think about that aspect of well-being because one of the biggest challenges with a remote workforce is getting your employees to disconnect properly. We’re trying to think through ideas like this to make sure all of our employees have the best employee experience, and as a result, we’ve seen a 1.7x increase in the number of people applying to work at Dropbox.”
What are the most important lessons Dropbox has learned from this experience? “First, great talent does come from everywhere, but that means you have to make the effort to find it and create an environment that is inclusive of remote employees. If the rest of the team is in the office nine to five, five days a week, and you hire someone from another country, what controls are you going to put in place to make them feel like a valued, equal member of the team?
“The second is to think about personal relationships as well as work relationships. If the team were sitting around a table, they’d probably all be chatting about how the weekend was or what’s going on in people’s lives. In a remote environment, you shouldn’t let out of- in mind the shared camaraderie that is created in the work environment. Think about how you can recreate this in a virtual environment. For example, we regularly have chats over coffee and in weekly team meetings, everyone is asked about an important event that happens in their life at work. When things are tough, I think it’s really important that we as a team can pull together and help out in any way we can. It really helps build a more cohesive team.
“The third thing is to get rid of unnecessary and unwanted meetings. When we first implemented virtual, we really had a moment where we all looked at our calendars and thought, ‘What meetings are there that are really not necessary meetings?’ From that point on, we had to be a little ruthless with ourselves and really question whether something really warranted a meeting, or if it could be an asynchronous update.
“These are the lessons I’ve learned and I think virtual work presents a huge opportunity for those looking to hire great talent, have a much better work-life balance and make employees feel more productive. These are real benefits that teams can get.”
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