Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

The shifting dimensions of work


Published on October 27, 2020

Illustration by Justin Tran

Never waste a crisis. Times of tumult lay the groundwork for big changes and often better futures. Out of the Great Depression sprang the New Deal—the same can happen now.

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The chaos of 2020 presents a chance to fix lots of broken patterns, including how we work. For many with office jobs, work has been getting more dysfunctional over the last decade. The productivity growth curve has been flattening—not despite the explosion in new work technology but in part because of it. A new study of knowledge workers from The Economist Intelligence Unit commissioned by Dropbox, finds that distractions eat nearly a third of all working hours in the US, at a cost of $391 billion annually. 

Lack of focus is not only fracturing us personally (according to the study, only half of us ever work for an unbroken hour) but it’s putting a damper on innovation and growth, too. The EIU estimated $1.2 trillion in unrealized upside that companies can claim by improving employee focus. Throw in growing income inequality and wage stagnation, and it’s clear that work desperately needs a reboot. 

Technology isn’t all to blame. In the EIU study, the biggest distraction in an office context was face-to-face interruptions. Knowledge work has grown increasingly complex and collaborative, and most current behavioral and technological solutions aren’t well-adapted to do it well. The mass shift to distributed work presents a chance—a mandate, really—to fundamentally rethink work and set us up for the next step change in social and economic progress.

Three dimensions, shifting

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has already had a big impact on how we work, and many of those changes will turn out to be long-lasting. Dropbox itself recently announced a Virtual First workforce policy that makes remote work the default, and in-person collaborative work an important, but less frequent occurrence.

Eventually, these changes may affect what work we do and why we do it, but for now we see the biggest impacts in the when, where, and how of work. Once we break the assumption of all being in the same place at the same time, we not only change the workweek and the workplace, but fundamentally change many aspects of the ways we work together.

Employee engagement is directly tied to the feelings of autonomy and physical well-being afforded by remote work.

We believe these changes will ultimately be positive and that the future of work will be better than its past. There are many benefits to the distributed work paradigm. Workers will have more flexibility to shape their working lives around the demands and preferences of their personal lives. They will also have more autonomy in how they do their work and how they reclaim the time no longer consumed by their daily commute. And although there’s much to figure out about preserving the camaraderie of office life if we’re rarely there, employee engagement is directly tied to the feelings of autonomy and physical well-being afforded by remote work.

There’s also no question that we’re in for an extended adjustment period. Many initial ideas will shake out and other will emerge. Some companies and industries will have an easier transition, and others may discover that the old way just works better. What we know is that this will be a time of experimentation and rapid iteration towards an elusive “new normal.”

Rethinking the workweek

Perhaps the biggest shift in distributed work is that synchrony becomes voluntary, at least to some extent. Instead of the 9-to-5, butts in seats presenteeism of traditional office work, we’re allowed to question these assumptions. During what hours is all being online together necessary? Is an 8-hour day or a 5-day week really optimal for everyone? How might we redesign the workweek to have happier workers that produce better results?

As many commentators have observed, the pandemic has been a radical accelerant of trends already in flight. This century’s digital technology, from the cloud to mobile to high-speed internet, has led some people to work longer hours and others less, though during COVID most people the EIU surveyed reported working more. Remote work is now possible at scale in many industries, and increasingly, working parents and people with long commutes have been asking to work from home.

What they’re really asking for is the flexibility to work on their own schedules when it doesn’t negatively impact their ability to do their jobs. Companies on the forefront of remote work, like Automattic and InVision, have developed practices that prioritize this flexibility, and been rewarded with high employee engagement and retention. One German company got a lot of attention for trying a 5-hour workday, but since lockdown has allowed workers to design their own schedules.

Because technology is a force multiplier for individuals, leading to the rise of “solopreneurs,” today’s knowledge workers also prize their autonomy. This means not only having more control of their own time, but also being able to redraw the lines of their employer’s synchronous expectations of them. One team at Dropbox, for example, recently experimented with a 4-day workweek, even though the company at large works a 5-day week.

Taking control of your time is a great way to increase focus.

As the EIU study shows, taking control of your time is a great way to increase focus. People who say they have temporal autonomy in their jobs also reported feeling highly focused. These same respondents were also more likely to be among the higher levels of management, but the rise of distributed work is likely to extend this autonomy and flexibility to more workers.

Projecting this trend forward, we’re likely to see many forms of work finally break free from the assembly line, punch the clock mentality of the 20th century. This freedom promises to raise levels of worker engagement higher as we’re able to spend more time being self-directed, while cultivating our interests and expertise. Over time, we could see a wave of intentionality and individual initiative replace the current glut of disaffected box-checking. We hope this unleashes a torrent of new breakthroughs in innovation fueled by better utilization of time—our most precious resource.

Rethinking the workplace

The most obvious impact of pandemic on office workers was the sudden closure of all but the most essential workplaces and the shift to enforced work from home. This was not, however, the WFH that many workers were clamoring for. Working parents had their kids WFH too, often along with their partners. People with small apartments or roommate situations that worked fine for office life have felt claustrophobia set in.

As stressful as this has been, the EIU survey found that for most knowledge workers, the benefits of ditching the commute outweigh the downsides by a wide margin. Now that we see that many companies have decided to not go back to the old way of doing things even after it’s safe to return, we have to ask, what’s next? What does the workplace of the future look like?

People working from their homes is clearly part of the story, but this isn’t the end of the corporate office. At Dropbox, we’ve decided to convert much of our existing office footprint into multi-function collaborative spaces we call Studios. Many other companies seem to be planning for more of a hybrid approach where some but not all workers will be in a traditional office on a daily basis post-COVID. There are tradeoffs with all approaches, but maintaining an even playing field for all employees when some have much more face time with management than others will be a non-trivial challenge.

How often workers are in the office aside, it seems clear that the function of the corporate workspace will shift towards supporting social and learning experiences. For a glimpse of what this might look like, the leading edge of public library design, particularly in Scandinavia, provide a working model. To remain relevant in the digital era, libraries there and in the US have transformed from repositories of books to flexible spaces for learning and inspiration, as well as meetings and making. Offices, too, will become more flexible as they move from collections of individual offices, cubicles, and desks to reconfigurable, whiteboard-covered, multi-media-infused collaboration and learning spaces.

As workers gain greater autonomy through distributed work, the value of an organization’s work culture will come into sharper focus.

Where workers work, and in what proportions, will have a big impact on their experience as well. The more time they spend away from the office, the more important their time there will become. As workers gain greater autonomy through distributed work, the actual value of an organization’s work culture will come into sharper focus. The trip to the office now has to feel worth it in ways we never calculated when we just assumed we had to be there.

And as we design spaces that have to work both for the people physically present and those physically distant, the digital environment will also become even more mission critical. Just as these new workspaces will accommodate all kinds of video conferencing, they will also become virtual destinations for remote participants. What will this be like? LoFi and abstract like Minecraft? Virtual reality with personalized 3-D avatars? How much resolution and interaction do we need to feel presence? And how much presence do we need to work well with each other?

Rethinking the way we work

As the dimensions of time and space shift in work, so will what we do within those dimensions. From the perspective of distributed work, the traditional 9-to-5 office is a special case, a focal point where the lines of perspective converge. But like the Ames room optical illusion, as soon as you move away from the convergence point, the distortions become evident.

The flexibility of shifting your work in time and space is not just possible—but increasingly necessary—as the rate of change in the world accelerates. The stable structure of the modern office, like the assembly line that preceded it, arose out of predictable workflows, timelines, and business models. In retrospect we may see this pandemic and the widespread economic uncertainty it has unleashed as the jolt that pushed the world towards new ways of working.

Assumptions that seemed impossible to challenge just last year are on the table now.

No one would have asked for these circumstances, but they have become an opportunity for employees to focus more on the impact of their work and less on the sheer quantity of their activity. Assumptions that seemed impossible to challenge just last year are all of a sudden on the table now. A great example is Wall Street, where WFH has long been a non-starter until COVID made it the only option. 

Granting workers more flexibility and autonomy, however, isn’t enough. They need to employ these new degrees of freedom within company- and team-wide systems and practices that evolve out of these new circumstances. Global companies have a head start with distributed workforces used to handing off information across time zones.

Effective communication is a big part of making this work. Assumptions of in-person interaction in offices translated into a reliance on real time chat and video conferencing as organizations became more physically distributed. This might have worked OK when remote collaborators were the exception, but now that it’s the rule these expectations are leading to Slack overload and Zoom fatigue. Even email, technically an asynchronous medium, becomes synchronous if workers feel compelled to constantly check their exploding inboxes.

Shifting the balance of communication from sync to async is the first step towards giving individual workers the autonomy to spend their time in the most impactful ways.

Shifting the balance of communication from sync to async is the first step towards giving individual workers the autonomy to spend their time in the most impactful ways. But there’s a lot more to do. The EIU study shows that only a small minority of companies have any concerted programs to help their workers focus. And although most workers surveyed feel that focus is an individual’s responsibility, the EIU report concludes, “Companies also cannot simply tell workers to spend less time on email; they may need to re-think workflows in a deeper way.”

The goal of this rethink is not just productivity, but engagement. Organizations need to become much more dynamic and responsive to create more room for individual initiative and ownership. Leadership may need to come from the top, but ideally should percolate throughout the company. Focus at work may be as much a social construction of the org chart and private offices as an objective difference between individuals. Creating a culture of focus will lift all workers’ ships.

As companies begin to grapple with managing WFH workers for the long term, job descriptions and requirements will invariably change. Once a company sets up their systems to work for people who aren't necessarily physically or temporally colocated, new relations and social contracts become possible. Work will be more than a place you go and a clock you punch. It becomes a set of objectives to fulfill and goals to put in motion with other people and other organizations.

The future of distributed work

Ultimately, the changes at work are not only necessary because we’re living through a global pandemic but because we now live in a world where we know such things are possible. And viruses are not the only volatile factor that can disrupt our office routines. In an increasingly uncertain world we need everyone’s full participation to meet the global challenges of the 21st century.

Just five years ago, the press was filled with fears of the “existential threat” posed by artificial intelligence, followed by studies from Oxford and McKinsey showing that most human jobs would soon be automated away. Instead, we’ve seen the largest employment drop since the Great Depression come not from automation, but from the inability of humans to safely congregate.

There’s no question that we like to congregate, both at work and leisure. But we’ve been forced to reexamine centuries of habitual patterns in the span of months. What we’re finding is that, at least on the work side of the equation, well-designed digital environments can replace some, but not all, of the reasons we showed up to the office every day.

This discovery leaves us with two complementary questions: What is the role of the office if it’s not the default place where work gets done? And, how do we structure our time, independently and in coordination with others, if we’re not all in the same place at the same time?

Right now, we have questions but not yet answers. We know that part of the solution is giving workers more flexibility and autonomy in how they use their time. Another part is deepening our engagement with our work and crucially, with our teammates. As our VP of Design, Alastair Simpson says, “This tension between synchronous and asynchronous needs can only be resolved through trust. Trust and psychological safety are at the heart of great teamwork. Without them, true distributed work isn’t possible.”