Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Virtual First

A workplace is more than just a building


Published on May 07, 2021

Now that more people know productivity isn’t about where you are, what will the workplaces of the future look like?

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Here’s a riddle: Is an empty office building still a workplace if no one works there? Employees are waiting for an answer after over a year of remote work. Many large employers have given notice on their leases, and office vacancy rates are at their “highest levels in decades,” according to the New York Times. But the chief economist at the company review website Glassdoor predicts most workers will return to in-person, in part because people miss the personal interaction. Suffice it to say, this extended state of purgatory has surfaced more questions than answers. 

Of Americans who are able to complete their duties from home, 71% are doing so “all or most of the time.” This shift has given them time to consider the importance of work-life balance and just how possible an office-free career is. In fact, a new GitLab study, sponsored by Dropbox, found that one out of three global workers surveyed would leave their jobs if remote work was no longer an option.

So what does a workplace look like now? What will it look like in the future? Most importantly, now that we’ve lived life out of office, will we ever want to go back? 

What can an office become?

Fast-forward to a world where everyone is immunized: Do you picture yourself back in the office, business as usual? Have you leaned into your home office, accustomed to Zoom and melding your work and life together seamlessly? Or can you imagine some utopian combination of the two where you choose which location is most productive for a given project—getting through your to-do list at home alone and meeting up with colleagues to brainstorm? For most, where you clock in will be a business decision based on productivity and cost, not based on personal preference, though that doesn’t mean your opinion won’t be taken into account. 

A new GitLab study found that one out of three global workers surveyed would leave their jobs if remote work was no longer an option.

For some workplaces, especially those on Wall Street, an office is a space to have a direct hand in the growth of employees. Companies have noted a downturn in productivity during the pandemic, especially in younger workers. They’ve also cited a concern for a loss of mentorship and learning opportunities for junior staff if business isn’t done face to face. As such, they’ve urged a return to the office sooner rather than later. In fact, some have asked employees to go back as early as June.

For others, the office is more of an abstract concept—a series of tools that make up the space you inhabit while you do work or a mindset that can be turned on and off no matter where you’re sitting. The silver lining of stay-at-home orders for these employees is the chance to work in a way that’s tailored to their preferences. In a workplace like this, you’re assessed on output rather than number of hours in your chair; your personhood, rather than the profits you drive, is the focus.

This might explain why a majority of now-remote workers would prefer that things remain this way going forward. If you can still be successful while working remotely—something that’s now common knowledge—then the workplace becomes a space of possibility once more. A lot of tech companies agree and have offered permanent remote status to any employee who wants it. 

A hybrid option includes parts of both worlds: Workers may continue to work remotely, but perhaps there’s a common day or week where important meetings are held in person at the office. This model allows for more freedom and autonomy and enables people to schedule their work around their lives instead of the opposite. This can engender trust and loyalty and combat burn-out. Hybrid also creates the balance of collaborative and concentrated work that workers say they miss. 

But, as the term hybrid alludes, the model has the potential to create two very different experiences for workers, which could result in inequities that the physical workplace helped to dismantle. The first obvious difference is a disconnection between individuals and teams. When working remotely, your primary team becomes the core of your daily communication, and as such teams can end up creating their own norms that aren’t necessarily aligned with the goals and values of a company. This is both difficult to notice, monitor, or correct when teams are interacting less frequently.

In a workplace like this, you’re assessed on output rather than number of hours in your chair.

Another concern with the hybrid model is the aforementioned loss of in-person mentorship. Research shows that peer mentorship—learning that takes place between colleagues of the same rank—bears even better results. In fact, according to one study, “mentees paired with their peers outperformed those in hierarchical relationships in all ways.” For traditionally marginalized groups, this lack of in-person professional connection could be a detriment to career growth. Additionally, stages of the performance management cycle—like monitoring and rewarding—could be harder to enact without more regular in-person interactions, which could lead to some employees falling through the cracks during promotion cycles and other integral career steps. 

To strike the right balance of flexibility and human connection, Dropbox adopted an alternative approach called Virtual First. Remote work is now the primary experience for it’s workforce but employees will soon have the ability to congregate at Dropbox Studios, physical spaces earmarked for collaborative work and team bonding—the sort of experiences that just feel better outside a screen but not necessarily in an office. 

A room of one’s own

If an office building is sometimes just a building—if we’ve proven that the conditions of productivity can come in many shapes and sizes—then what will the workplaces of the future look like? That all depends on our collective understanding of what purpose an office even serves—of what a workplace even is at all. And that will be a collaborative effort between workers at all levels.

While decision-makers make the ultimate decision of what workplace style functions best for their companies, workers at many places have the opportunity to give feedback or take matters into their own hands. For those who decide in-office work is really not for them, there have never been more remote opportunities and they continue to pop up every day. Through the past year, a lot of people have learned what does and doesn’t work for them and have adjusted things as such.

To strike the right balance of flexibility and human connection, Dropbox adopted an alternative approach called Virtual First.

Desk workers entered the pandemic in survival mode—just having a job and your health was enough to feel lucky. But as weeks turned to months, it became increasingly clear that staying alive and actually living were both equally necessary. Routine and attempts at home/work separation were key elements of survival that were missing in the beginning. 

To help with that transition, some companies offered home-office stipends so employees could upgrade their workspaces, improve internet connection, or purchase items like ergonomic chairs to help with back pain. “Office centricity is over,” said Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lütke, who has plans for a permanent majority-remote workforce going forward. With no need to pay for building maintenance, snacks, and other in-house perks, cost savings have been significant for some businesses, so choosing to reinvest that money into creating productive and comfortable work environments just made sense. It makes just as much sense for employees to invest in a home office that’s kinder toward their individual physical, mental, and emotional needs while in this transitional period. 

But your workplace isn’t just physical. It’s temporal, too. And you should approach the design of your schedule much the same as the design of your set-up. Would different hours be better suited to your lifestyle? Try asynchronous work by blocking out specific hours for collaboration and the rest for autonomous work. You might find “meetings that could have been emails” become just that. 

Something beautiful the office gave us was knowing when work started and when it ended. Applying those same boundaries to your workday—having a clear start and end time—enables you to enjoy the other parts of your life. And if, like most people, you miss socializing with co-workers, be the one who schedules it. The point is, you know what works best for you. 

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can adapt when times get tough. And if your workplace is currently more of a mindset, make sure you’re dreaming big.