Work is changing at warp speed. The rules and expectations around when, where, and how work happens are all in flux. It can be dizzying. At Dropbox, we’re going Virtual First, which means we’ll be mostly distributed with in-person gatherings for team collaboration (once it’s safe to do so). This is new to us and we’re still learning how to do it well. We wrote some principles based on our experiences so far and and included resources about adapting to Virtual First work. We’re publishing this Virtual First Toolkit, and we’ll practice, test and add more content as we learn. This piece is about supporting your team in Virtual First. You can visit the rest of the Virtual First Toolkit here:
- How to shift your mindset for Virtual First
- How to manage your time
- How to stay well
- How to communicate effectively
You don’t have to be an executive to meaningfully impact your team’s well-being and productivity. Here, we’ll share ways that anyone—from new employees, to senior executives, to super ICs—can help their teams thrive in a Virtual First context.
Prioritize Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)
Diverse organizations tend to be smarter. They perform better, too. At Dropbox, we’re committed to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion across our organization. We think every company should prioritize diversity.
Build a diverse team
Recruiting is one opportunity to ensure diversity. Make a commitment to interview at least one woman and one underrepresented minority candidate for open positions, especially in senior roles (the Rooney Rule). Distributed work can help companies meet this goal—and hire a more diverse workforce generally speaking—by recruiting employees from disparate locations and industries.
- Seek out people who aren’t like you. Instead of just asking your friends for referrals, try to expand your search. Look for people who aren’t in your same community.
- Use inclusive language. When writing job descriptions and perks, avoid language that targets a specific type of person. For example, many people associate terms like “high-powered”and “results-driven” with men, and “people-person”with women. Don’t allow yourself to reinforce these stereotypes. Try to avoid extreme or vague language like “rockstar,” too. Textio is a software program that can help keep your writing inclusive.
- Create a hiring plan. Building a diverse team starts with evaluating what you’re doing well now, and where you could improve.
Develop and support your team equitably
Going Virtual First means being even more intentional about how teams develop and support each other.
- Assign tasks fairly. If you’re a manager, take 30 minutes to review your team’s projects every six months. Take a look at who’s contributed to what project, and how you’ve assigned each task. Do you tend to offer high-priority or creative projects to a specific person (for example, the louder or more outspoken employee)? Are there opportunities to distribute work more fairly?
- Encourage underrepresented minorities (URMs) to apply for choice positions, internal development programs, and external awards when it’s appropriate. This type of support is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for minority folks working in a majority environment.
- Keep performance reviews equitable. To reduce unconscious bias in your reviews, focus on your report’s performance against their job requirements, and include concrete examples to support your claims and feedback. Avoid language that’s vague, subjective, or that focuses on innate personality traits (for example: hardworking, dutiful, born leader).
- Watch out for “office housework.” Tasks like note-taking, relationship building, and organization tend to fall disproportionally to women. If you notice someone doing more than their share, offer to take on some of the work yourself, or suggest that another teammate do it.
- Make your meetings inclusive. Check out Get great at meetings for tips on reducing bias in your Zoom sessions, brainstorms, and chats.
Grow your DEI-Q
Learning to recognize and reduce bias is a crucial step in building a healthy workplace. Here are some ways to educate yourself:
- Get proper training. At Dropbox, we encourage all employees to participate in education resources like DEI Fundamentals and Inclusive Leadership training, and attend speaker series like our Truth and Reconciliation series. We hope everyone has access to similar programs.
- Join an Employee Resource Group. ERGs are employee-led groups that offer professional development and mentoring for underrepresented minorities.
- Learn to identify bias. Identifying unconscious biases that might influence you is difficult because, well, they’re unconscious. But it’s possible, and important. Here are some tips to get started.
- Expand your social circle. Instead of only meeting with the people you know well, try branching out or joining a company interest group on Slack. This can help you build cross-connections with people you wouldn’t normally encounter.
Be a super teammate
High-performing teams are built on the quality of their relationships and the clarity of their vision. In an asynchronous world, getting clear about goals, values, and roles is one of the surest ways to give your team superpowers.
Be worthy of trust
Trust is the backbone of high-functioning teams. Teams who trust each other are better at navigating healthy conflict, committing to team goals, and holding each other accountable for results. You can build trust with your manager and team by doing the right thing, being honest (even when it’s uncomfortable), and acting in an authentically kind way.
Find your shared values
Team norms, like how you communicate and make decisions, often develop organically. Designing them on purpose can help you build strong relationships with your team, and create ideal conditions for working together. A team values toolkit is a good place to start.
Clarify your vision and goals
Great teams know what they’re marching towards, and why. If you don’t understand your team’s vision or goals, it’s okay to bring it up. Ask your manager to translate company strategy into plain language, or suggest that your group build a Team Charter together.
Define roles and responsibilities
Even the most cohesive teams can get stuck when making tough decisions. To keep things moving, outline who’s responsible for what before your projects begin. One model we love is the DACI:
Driver: One person who’s responsible for moving the project forward. They may not do all the work, but they do corral stakeholders, communicate progress, and present recommendations to the Approver.
Approver(s): The person or small group of people accountable for a project’s outcome. When the Driver presents recommendations, the Approver makes the final call.
Contributors: People with relevant expertise and knowledge, who influence the decision. They help the Driver arrive at a well-reasoned recommendation, but they don’t block decision-making.
Informed: People who the decision impacts indirectly, and who get updated about it periodically.
Get great at feedback
If there’s something your teammate could do to be more impactful, it’s important to let them know in a respectful, helpful way. When giving or getting feedback:
- Tie it to your team’s long-term success, not minor or subjective issues. “Suzy could be more impactful if she helped her team prioritize their work” beats, “I don’t get her humor.”
- Focus on behaviors, not traits. “Jim will be more persuasive if he speaks up and makes eye contact when giving presentations” is helpful, whereas, “Jim lacks executive presence” is not.
- When getting feedback, listen first. Instead of jumping in to disagree, make sure you understand what the other person is saying. If you’re not sure, say, “Can you say more about that?”
Manage conflict like a pro
When you work closely with other people, it’s natural that conflict will arise from time to time. Here’s how to keep it constructive:
- Remember that healthy conflict can help your team grow (and find creative solutions together)
- Agree on a set of conflict norms (For example, all ideas are valid and respected, no personal attacks, separate the person from the position, one person speaks at a time)
- Acknowledge and talk about the conflict instead of letting it fester: “I sensed you were frustrated by something I said in our last meeting. I was feeling frustrated too! I want to make sure I understand you. Can we talk about it?”
- When someone else is talking, listen carefully before responding
- As you discuss, try to define the underlying problem together
- If you make a mistake, apologize sincerely
- When everyone’s been heard, agree on next steps together
If you’re having conflict around a key decision, an approach we recommend is Disagree and Commit.
Getting in the habit of reflection is a great way to keep learning. While reflecting in a free-form way can be relaxing, structured approaches are especially productive:
- Having a persistent problem on your team? Try a Five Why’s exercise to identify root causes
- Starting a big project? Facilitate a pre-mortem to think through and mitigate possible risks
- Project just ended? Hold a lightweight retro to discuss what went well, and what you can improve for next time
The principles of great management rarely change—but when we’re working virtually, we notice their absence even more acutely. If you find yourself in a leadership position, here’s how to create a safe space for excellence.
Get to know your people
When you take time to understand what makes your reports (and their reports!) tick, it’s easier to build strong relationships with them. As you get to know them, try to learn:
- What are their strengths and development areas?
- What’s their communication and working style? Asking them to fill out a Working with me doc is a great way to find out more
- What’s their current virtual WFH set up like? What’s working or not working for them?
- What are their career aspirations and goals for the year?
Model psychological safety
As a leader, building trust with and among your team should be a top priority. When we can’t bump into each other in the hallways, this takes a little more effort. Some ways to do it:
- Invite engagement by asking “what do you think, Jane?” or, “What’s on your mind?”
- Get in the habit of asking, “how can I help?”
- Listen actively when others are talking (rather than tuning out or interrupting)
- Admit mistakes (and share what you learned)
- Offer up new ideas, and encourage your team to do the same
- Model giving people the benefit of the doubt
Become a good coach
As a manager, it can be tempting to think you need to have all the answers, or jump in to solve all your employees’ problems. But when it comes to helping people learn and grow, a coaching mentality—one where you offer thought-provoking guidance and supportive structures, rather than rote instructions—can be more effective. This is especially true in rapidly changing environments, like Virtual First work. Here are some ways to up your game as a coach:
- Ask open-ended questions. When someone comes to you with a problem, help them think critically, instead of simply telling them what to do. Questions like, “What have you already thought of?”, “What are the key things we need to know?” and “If you had a magic wand, what would you do?” are good places to start.
- Clarify goals. To make an impact, your team needs to know what they’re aiming for. Help your reports stay focused on the big picture by setting good goals and asking questions like, “What really matters here?” or, “What do you want when you walk out the door that you don’t have now?” in your 1:1s.
- Get great at feedback. Like any good coach, your job is to create a culture where feedback happens regularly (rather than only at annual performance reviews). When offering constructive feedback, try to name the situation, behavior, and impact. “At this morning’s meeting, I noticed you weren’t able to answer questions about two of your slides, and some of your numbers were incorrect. I felt worried that our team’s reputation might be compromised.”
- Prioritize development. As a manager, helping your people grow is one of your most important jobs. Encourage your reports to fill out make personal growth plans, and schedule career conversations twice a year.
Recognize and reward
Positive feedback is just as constructive as negative feedback. So if your reports do something great, let them know. Good ways to praise:
- Make it specific and concrete. “I love how quickly you pulled that presentation together. Even though you were on a tight deadline, your points came across clearly and persuasively. Thank you for representing our team so well!” is better than, “Great job!”
- Make it official. Real-time feedback is important—and of course don’t forget to document it in performance reviews
- Make it fun. Utilize whatever form of casual shout-out your company uses to say thanks and show appreciation
If exercising control leads to compliance, then granting autonomy leads to deeper engagement. Empower your team by letting them know you care more about the impact of their work than how busy they are. Give them the tools they need (clear purpose, supportive feedback) to meet their goals, then encourage them to think critically about how best to get there.
One study suggests that how quickly managers respond to email is a primary predictor of how satisfied their reports will be with them. Though it’s no more appropriate for managers to be always-on than it is for their reports, your attention matters. Maintain healthy communication with your team. Respond to requests in a reasonable amount of time. Agree on a regular 1:1 cadence, then stick with it. This will signal you care, and keep people moving forward.
Lots of skipped meetings, missed deadlines, and lackluster participation are signs of burnout. If someone on your team is having a rough time, it’s important to show your support. (Note: If they’re having a significant performance or personal issue, reach out to your HR contact).