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Interview

Dropbox on why the future is about asynchronous working

Dropbox is not embracing a hybrid model. Here’s why.

Allie Nawrat

Leader

Dropbox virtual-first
Credit: Jenni Chaput-Heller via Twenty20.

The company aims to balance the best of both worlds — in-office collaboration and remote working. Unleash Your Potential

  • Dropbox leveraged HR tech to support it in successfully pivoting to long-term remote working.
  • Now the company is looking to the future of work — but, unlike many other employers, it is not embracing hybrid working.
  • Instead, work at Dropbox will be virtual-first and asynchronous in order to focus on employee experience.

Very few people saw the COVID-19 pandemic coming. Governments, companies, and individuals across the world were caught off guard by not only the pandemic, but its disruptive impact.

Dropbox was no exception. The company’s head of international HR Laura Ryan states “we didn’t have an early heads up, but we were really lucky”. 

“As an organization that builds products for distributed work, we were able to make the move relatively seamlessly as we had the tools” to hand, adds Ryan.

Those tools included Dropbox Spaces for building projects, Dropbox Paper for information sharing, and an e-signature solution called HelloSign.

Dropbox also benefited from its experience of dealing with a global workforce. The company, which employs close to 4,000 people across the globe, was well placed to deal with distributed working.

Employees were also used to working from home before the pandemic hit and leveraging tools such as virtual collaborative whiteboard Miro and messaging platform Slack.

Laura Ryan, head of international HR at Dropbox.

HR tech to rescue

This doesn’t mean that Dropbox didn’t face challenges in pivoting to an entirely remote workforce. However, Ryan says workplace tech was there to help at every turn.

One of the main challenges that Dropbox faced was how to do its engineering whiteboard interview online. But, according to Ryan, “we used Zoom and their whiteboard tech to solve that issue”.

Another challenge was onboarding. To help resolve this, Dropbox relied on HelloSign and focused, particularly for early-career hires, on being very intentional in providing a clear roadmap for their first few weeks in the role.

This included virtual product walkthroughs, virtual coffees, as well as taking the time to figure out how to build an appropriate virtual buddy system, according to Ryan.

In addition, like most employers across the world, Dropbox realized early on that its employees’ wellbeing was likely to take a hit, leading to burnout.

“We really wanted to be mindful of the need to rest and disconnect,” explains Ryan. “We all love technology, but sometimes work is in our pockets 24/7,” which has a negative impact on work-life balance.

To tackle this head on, “we did company-wide shutdowns [and] last November we did a ‘gratitude week’ where we shut down for a week and gave everyone the same opportunity to disconnect from work”, notes Ryan.

Further to this, Dropbox leveraged Workday’s “unplugged time off” capability; thereby, ironically, using HR tech to help employees switch off from technology and work.

This works by allowing employees to choose whether they want to press a button that shuts down their access to email and other work notifications from the first day of their annual leave.

Although Dropbox introduced this before the pandemic, the usage grew by around 200% during COVID-19 “because people had nowhere to go. So even when they were off, they were still connected to work”.

A virtual-first, not a hybrid, future of work  

Prior to COVID-19, Ryan says Dropbox was already thinking about changing the way its employees worked. However, when the pandemic hit, “it accelerated all of our conversations”.

After dealing with the logistics of full-time remote work, in around June 2020, Dropbox began to think about “how we might design work life” if there was a clean state to work from.

So, Ryan explains, Dropbox started to compare data from the three months of fully remote working and more than 13 years of the old way of working. The company was committed to “building a model… that was the best of both worlds” and therefore designed a “very deliberate and intentional” virtual-first model for the future of work, which they announced in Oct.

Unfortunately, because of the evolving global COVID-19 situation, Dropbox is yet to open a studio. The company is waiting until certain criteria are met.

Dropbox’s virtual-first workplace aims to prioritize “in-person team collaboration” that everyone has missed over the past year. To achieve this, Dropbox has repurposed its offices into studios or collaboration hubs – they are a place for teams to come together for “social connection and community building”, notes Ryan.

However, “there’s no workstations in those. Solo work is done outside of those spaces and in a remote way”.

Ryan is clear that this is not a hybrid model – and that is on purpose.

“The reason we didn’t go for a hybrid model where you give employees a choice to come into the office is because we wanted to preserve employee experience and we wanted to ensure that was consistent from one employee to another”, explains Ryan.

Dropbox was very concerned about individual employees having a different experience that could lead to “issues down the road in relation to promotion and career trajectory”, as well as challenges with inequity and exclusion.

Ryan says that she knows other companies “are trying to cater to peeople’s [different] preferences and needs” in building hybrid models, but she asks, “how do you create a level playing field?”

[Read more: Reid Hoffman: Remote staff can’t become second class citizens]

Instead, “what we’re trying to do it get all of the flexibility and benefits that people love about remote and distributed work and retain all the great benefits that you have from in-person collaboration”, explains Ryan.

Asynchronous working at Dropbox

Another element of Dropbox’s virtual-first model are non-linear workdays and asynchronous working.  

“As part of our virtual-first model, we’re moving to async by default, which essentially means rethinking what activities you need to be in a meeting for,” says Ryan.

“Nobody needs to be on 10 hours of Zoom a day; we learnt that the hard way.”

[Read more: 6 tools to supercharge your productivity in the age of Zoom fatigue]

To achieve this, Dropbox has introduced the concept of operation hours – a set number of hours where employees need to be available for meetings – but otherwise employees can choose when they work.

This allows the company to cater to individual flexibility and needs. For instance, Ryan explains, she has always been a full-time working mum, but “because of my non-linear working days, I can bring my three children to school and I can put them to bed, and then come back online at night”.

Whereas some of her team use asynchronous working so they can go hiking in the middle of the afternoon “because that’s what they need at that particular moment in time”. Therefore, this approach empowers employees to make decisions about their time that suits their routine.

The ultimate aim is to move away from guilt around work and the “outdated mindset of [the need to work] nine to five in an office”, which simply feeds into the presenteeism mentality.

“It is about focusing less on the time that people are online and more about what they are delivering, and what impact people are having”, adds Ryan. “We are not looking at inputs, we are looking at outputs.”

Asynchronous working is a particular passion area for Ryan as it prevents individuals having to make sacrifices to fit their lives around their nine to five. However, Ryan is also clear that playing a role in designing the future of work is a privilege for her.

However, she is very clear that Dropbox – and HR leaders in general – are still learning about what the future of work will be.

“We are very much going into it with a learning mindset. We know that it will evolve and it will change – right now, it is about living in the present,” Ryan concludes.

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