Why Dropbox’s ‘Virtual First’ model could be the future of work

From meetings in VR to carving out time for collaboration, concentration and wellbeing, Dropbox’s Virtual First plan can help work more impactful

Sometimes, the future never seems to arrive. When technology pundits speculate about the world of tomorrow, there are some predictions that have been part of the repertoire for decades: food pills! Space elevators! Flying cars! For a long time, “telecommuting” was one such forecast. Sure, cloud collaboration companies such as Dropbox had been making remote work increasingly possible, but for most businesses, there was still a premium on workers being present at the office – and it was hard to see what it would take to change that.Now, of course, we know the answer. And as we emerge, blinking into the post-pandemic era, companies are all too aware that the genie is out of the bottle – telecommuting is part of the here and now. Many organisations are thus opting for a “hybrid” model, allowing staff to choose whether to show up in person or work from home. That might seem like it’s embracing the best of both worlds. Truth is, this model can be problematic when it comes to inclusion and career progression.When Dropbox was settling on a strategy for its own workforce, it conducted extensive research into various working models. The risks of hybrid working became apparent. The approach tended to create different employee experiences, depending on whether you stayed at home more frequently, or came into the office. “What we discovered in talking with other companies is that you end up having issues arising with inclusion, promotion, career growth, cliques and different norms forming within different teams,” says Laura Ryan, Dropbox’s director of international human resources. “That, for us, was very much a red line issue. We didn’t want to run the risk of having any issues around equality or inclusion.”Dropbox was well positioned to come up with a solution. The company had been thinking deeply about remote working, even prior to the pandemic. Within its organisation, some staff were already working away from the office. What’s more, it had recently pivoted towards providing specialist tools for teamworking in the cloud. Last year, it debuted Spaces, for instance, a platform built for digital collaboration. Clearly, there was an imperative to live its mission of designing a more enlightened way of working. When the pandemic hit, this became even more important, so Ryan and her colleagues led the charge to devise a remote working strategy that offered all the benefits – but without the downsides. The result? A new model entirely. One that Dropbox is calling “Virtual First”.Here’s how it will play out. For all employees, remote working will be the default for solo tasks. That means staff are encouraged to enjoy all the benefits that come with complete autonomy and flexibility over how they work. Want to live in France for a month? Need to pick up the kids from nursery? Feel the urge to exercise? Go for it. The company will also operate physical workspaces – called Dropbox Studios – for collaboration as well as learning and development. This is a deliberate acknowledgment of the limitations of a distributed model. “With fully remote, there is no way of replicating in-person collaboration,” says Ryan. But Dropbox is going to take a stand: no independent work should be performed at the Studios. That way, presenteeism and inclusivity issues don’t start to rear their heads.Of course, some people may not wish to work from home. Perhaps their living arrangements would make that challenging, or they are more productive when surrounded by others. That’s why the name of the model isn’t “WFH First”. If employees wish to work virtually from a co-working space, that’s fine – and Dropbox will cover a membership pass, say, as a corporate perk.Dropbox has come up with some inventive tactics to help Virtual First work at its best. The most important is “non-linear workdays”. “What we found is that people’s calendars would have entire days of 30-minute meetings with short breaks between them, and there’s no structure or flow to their days,” says Ryan. Dropbox’s answer is to set aside a four-hour workblock in the day that is specifically for synchronous collaboration within a team or a region. “So in Europe, we could say, for instance, ‘Your core collaboration hours are nine to one,’ which basically means this is when all meetings should take place,” she continues. “Then there’s a block of time that is just preserved for asynchronous working.” Not only will this help promote meaningful solo work, unencumbered by interruptions, but it will also help colleagues respect each other’s scheduling boundaries – a hot-button issue for many remote workers.Similarly, Dropbox is also looking at smart ways to leverage new tools. This will be about software, of course – Dropbox will furnish staff with shared digital “whiteboards” to aid far-flung collaboration – but also innovative hardware. In the future, virtual reality could play a big role; one use might be to ameliorate the difficulty of inducting new hires remotely. “We are exploring the role of VR in our employee experience,” says Ryan. “Potentially, we’ll be incorporating VR into our onboarding process, L&D activities and wellness. We are excited about the possibilities to enhance and create immersive experiences in a Virtual First model.”Dropbox has codified all these big ideas into a resource called the Virtual First Toolkit – and it also contains guidance on the best ways to handle the minutiae of the working day. Dropbox has learned from its research that when a company is working remotely, best practice must be communicated to staff in a highly intentional way. “You have to be so much more prescriptive than you would ordinarily be, because of how people are separated from each other,” says Ryan. To that end, the Toolkit covers everything from feedback (“focus on behaviours, not traits”, say) and wellness (“set a team curfew”) to goal setting (“focus on impact, not busyness”) and scheduling (“communicate as you plan”). The Toolkit has been made publicly available. That means others can learn from it and help it evolve – allowing it to become part of an ongoing process of betterment.Of course, for now, Dropbox must wait until lockdown lifts before it can realise Virtual First in its true sense. But with a vaccine here, Ryan is optimistic about what 2021 holds. “That’s when we hope this model will really come into its own for people, so they really get that experience of ultimate flexibility, autonomy and freedom – the trust and empowerment to make the decisions that they need to make for their own unique circumstances,” she says. “And that’s what this model is all about. It’s really powerful.”

For more information on Dropbox’s virtual first toolkit click here.

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