Last week, Dropbox announced that it is retiring the 9am to 5pm workday, and replacing it with a “Virtual First” workplace strategy. On the surface, this may not seem like big news. Many companies, from Adobe to Salesforce, have announced plans to give employees the option to work from home through the next few months or even indefinitely. 

However, Dropbox’s Virtual First approach is more strategic than this hybrid model—in which employees can decide whether to work remotely or in the office. In the Virtual First model, employees will work remotely (outside an office) as their permanent day-to-day default mode. Dropbox chose this path instead of a hybrid model to help ensure a level playing field for employees. The company believes that a hybrid approach would create two different employee experiences and that this could potentially result in performance or career inequities.

Beyond this important distinction, Dropbox is also: 

  • Repurposing its offices to facilitate collaborative, team-oriented work.
  • Restructuring the workday by establishing core collaboration hours, with overlap between time zones. 
  • Encouraging staff to work their remaining hours on a flexible schedule suited to their needs. 
  • Extending its mandatory work-from-home (WFM) policy to June next year.
  • Providing employees with a remote work allowance, which they can use to equip their home offices, and/or use to cover costs of co-working spaces. 

The Massive Shift to Remote Work Is Working for Most, But…

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a massive, unexpected shift to remote work for many companies. SMB Group’s July 2020 study, SMBs: Navigating a Path Forward, revealed that in the wake of the pandemic, 67% of businesses surveyed had established WFM programs for the first time, or had expanded the more modest WFM programs that they’d put into place prior to COVID-19.

Furthermore, although this shift was abrupt, it has worked fairly well for most SMBs: 52% said that WFH  had significantly or somewhat improved employee productivity, while 31% say it had no impact, and 17% say that it hurt productivity. Looking ahead, 57% of our SMB respondents said they were planning to increase budgets to better equip employees that work from home. 

On the flip side, the honeymoon phase of WFM is likely to wane—or may already be waning. Endless video conferences, unrelenting screen time, and the absence of casual interaction with fellow employees with peers are often stressful and isolating. 

Despite these negatives, now that the WFM genie is out of the bottle, it’s unlikely that most businesses will ever fully go back to the traditional workplace of the past. As the virus continues its unpredictable path, companies and people will need to continue to test out different types of flexible work accommodations, and new ways to make remote work more engaging and productive. 

Perspective

The current pandemic has sparked an almost en masse shift to remote working. As time has gone on, and policies and regulations have ebbed and flowed, most organizations have responded with an ad hoc hybrid approach.

In contrast, Dropbox has factored in more than just the “where” of the workplace in its model. While this approach won’t be right for all companies, it should prompt all businesses to take a more thoughtful path in this area. Some of the key questions to consider in developing a strategy include:

  • For what purposes and activities do employees benefit from being in the office? Think about how you can reconfigure and design office space to best accommodate these activities, and center redesign initiatives to meet these needs. 
  • What do employees and managers need to work collaboratively and productively? This starts with how to physically equip employees—from desks and chairs to laptops and monitors, etc.—to improve productivity. Then, think about the tools employees need to collaborate in a more integrated, less cumbersome way. While video conferencing has become the poster child for collaboration, it’s just one small piece of the puzzle. If you’re using several disconnected applications to collaborate, employees are probably wasting time and getting frustrated.  Consider replacing them with a cloud-based, unified collaboration platform that can serve as an integrated workplace for different types of collaboration—from file sharing and document management to video conferencing, and from email to instant messaging and real-time chat forums.
  • What business processes do you need to digitize? Now’s the time to use the cloud to modernize how you do business. Cloud applications have been a life-saver for businesses during the pandemic. In every category, 83% or more of respondents said cloud applications have been extremely/moderately valuable in helping to weather the COVID-19 crisis. This isn’t surprising, as cloud solutions enable you to digitize activities, enabling employees to get their jobs anytime, anywhere, and to share information in real-time. Examine critical business processes, from accounts payable to sales to determine where you can replace clunky manual processes, spreadsheets, or old client-server applications with real-time, digital processes. 
  • How can you foster employee well-being and engagement? Early on, a lot of people embraced taking a break from the office and the commute. But the novelty is wearing off for many, especially for people that have kids, elderly relatives, pets, and other needs to take care of at home. Get creative and figure out how you can remove some of the stress. Designate specific times when video conference meetings can be scheduled, and give people more manageable options to help structure their days. Encourage employees to go outside for meetings if they want–studies show that fresh air makes for better workdays. Build-in time for purely social virtual activities, coffee hours, wine tastings, ice cream sundaes, ornament making—just get creative, send out kits with the ingredients people need, and talk about families, pets, or anything else non-work related. And of course, encourage employees to take advantage of any behavioral support programs that your company offers.