Illustration by Sydney Goldstein
Illustration by Sydney Goldstein

Distributed work

The power of workplace flexibility in an uncertain future

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Published on July 30, 2020

Illustration by Sydney Goldstein

Five months into the crisis that closed down offices, it’s hard to know what working life will look like next month, much less next year.

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So how can you make plans when it feels like the normal you knew might never return? 

We’ve been thinking a lot about the future of work. Even as the health crisis chaos continues, a lot of teams have successfully figured out how to stay productive when they’re working from home. But there’s widespread disagreement about where we go from here. 

Some predict this will be the end of offices as we know them. GitLab cofounder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij is one advocate of going fully remote. He told WIRED he believes doing it successfully requires systemic changes with “operational intentionality,” whereas a hybrid approach “creates two fundamentally different employee experiences to manage.”

But as workspace researcher Jennifer Magnolfi Astill noted in Harvard Business Review, the best solution might not be strictly “either/or.”

“The real work of envisioning our future workspaces starts from acknowledging that ‘workspace’ is no longer just the physical office building but also the digital/virtual space where work happens. This means that future workspace offerings will come with some physical space applications and some digital space ones.”

The only thing that seems certain is that we can expect more uncertainty. So what’s the best way forward? Do we make decisions based on our best estimates for what’s to come? Or do we build flexibility into our ways of working knowing we may never know? 

“We’re effectively participating in a worldwide pilot on how to work remotely and we are learning a ton about the benefits and drawbacks.”—Mel Collins

Melanie Collins is VP, Global Head of People at Dropbox. For months, she’s been immersed in questions about the future of distributed work and how it might change life at our company and others. We reached out to ask her what our internal surveys and external research are telling us about the potential for workplace flexibility in the months and years ahead.

Do you think more companies will adopt flexible WFH policies? 

Collins: The silver lining of our current situation is that it’ll shed new light on the various possibilities surrounding the future of work.  We’re effectively participating in a worldwide pilot on how to work remotely and we are learning a ton about the benefits and drawbacks. This experience has certainly accelerated the conversation around the future of work and remote work in particular.

A lot of companies have already made declarations around the shift to permanent remote work or “work from anywhere” practices. It’s rapidly becoming en vogue. Before we make any definitive decisions at Dropbox, it’s important to be thoughtful, balanced and cautious.

As Astill points out, “From the workers’ perspective, this hasn’t been a linear transformation. It’s an emergency.” Is it fair to compare our current way of working to what might happen after the pandemic?

There’s a lot of research being done right now about productivity and engagement, but it’s important to remember that working remotely during COVID is very different than working remotely in an environment where you can leave your home and go to a local coffee shop, see friends and family regularly, or send your kids to school. Which is to say, this is an important “pilot,” but probably isn’t entirely representative of what the future of work can look like.

“Companies would have to embrace the fact that their culture will change and evolve as they make this shift.”

What do you see as the biggest benefits of workplace flexibility?

There are a number of clear benefits to remote or distributed work: access to broader and more diverse talent pools, increased workplace flexibility/work-life balance, increased productivity, the removal of barriers in terms of visa and immigration issues in the US, access to affordable housing, reduction in carbon footprint due to less commuting, and material savings in real estate

But there are also a number of drawbacks: cultural implications, decreased connection and community, burnout, and isolation to name a few.

Which is to say, I believe we’ll see an uptick around flexible and remote work at other companies, and this is something we’re also considering, but want to be thoughtful and balanced as we think through the potential implications.

We’re fortunate that Dropbox products help distributed teams work effectively. So as a company, we were able to transition to WFH relatively smoothly and focus on supporting the well-being of our people through increased investment in people programs and benefits.

Which roles are best suited to distributed work?

I’d say the last few months have really shown that while most roles can be remote, there are others that require physical presence like at our Data Centers, for example.

There’s also some discussion around whether remote work is better suited for ICs vs. Managers and this likely depends on which long-term, future-of-work policy you adopt. For example, Adam D’Angelo of Quora recently published a blog post on his “remote-first” strategy for Quora, where remote is the primary orientation of the company. This makes remote work a possibility for all employees regardless of level or title.

“Many companies who have done this successfully have a direct tie to their mission.”

Given the known challenges of remote work, what would have to be true in order to make distributed work, work?

The first is that it requires investment. While companies are realizing massive savings on real estate and in-office perks, making this shift requires investment to deliberately enable teams to come together. One area of exploration in the industry is around the notion of collaboration spaces—places (not assigned desks), but places where face to face connection and synchronous coordination can take place. Another is around increased Travel & Entertainment expense to enable distributed teams to come together for team building or strategic planning

The second is around embracing a cultural shift: This requires the foundation of a strong values-based culture in order to be successful, and companies would have to embrace the fact that their culture will change and evolve as they make this shift.  The value proposition would change from in office perks like onsite gyms and food service to flexibility and diversity for example. It’s possible that during this shift certain employees will opt-out for a more traditional work construct; but those who gravitate towards flexible work will find this more appealing

The third would be around changes in support systems and technology: Adopting new processes, best practices, and communication/team norms is critical to making distributed work a success. Breaks, flexible schedules, access to mental health programs are a few examples. Advancements in technology are also critical in ensuring seamless collaboration and connection in a distributed world which is a nice segue to my final point which is… 

Alignment to company mission: Many companies who have done this successfully have a direct tie to their mission. Part of the vision for Coinbase was to create a world with more economic freedom—and not being tied to one location was a key part of their decision to go remote-first. VMWare is about providing virtual desktops to remote employees, so there’s a pretty clear connection there. And needless to say, Dropbox’s mission of building a more enlightened way of working fits within this model. We would theoretically be builders and users of a product connecting teams and tools anywhere. 

While we haven’t made any definitive decisions around the future of work for Dropbox, these are all things we’re taking into consideration. 

To learn how Dropbox is helping distributed teams work together wherever they are, check out dropbox.com/business/solutions/distributed-teams