Recognizing that—pandemic or not—the nature of work is changing, Dropbox has announced its commitment to moving to a Virtual First way of working. We’ve begun prototyping, experimenting (and you can see some of our early advice in this series of posts), and, of course, researching.

As many organizations in the technology industry and beyond have begun making these changes, we’ve learned from them. Now, we’re sharing what we’re learning.

Before we dive in, here’s a little bit about how our research came together: Irene Jue from the Dropbox Research Operations team helped organize a broad and diverse sample across the ranks of Dropboxers. We decided to look beyond factors like role and team, more holistically incorporating context, like caregiver status or ERG affiliation. The point wasn’t to tick diversity boxes, but rather to acknowledge that looking at the breadth of remote working experiences was absolutely critical to what we’re seeking to understand—how people are redesigning the way they work to adjust to their new circumstances.

Change is cultural

While there are many technical—and tactical—facets to shifting to Virtual First, it’s important not to underestimate the extent to which this is really a cultural change you’re making. In Alastair Simpson’s recent post, People, practices, and products, he reminds us why we’re focused on change at a cultural level—it creates the necessary conditions to make amazing products.

And by culture, we mean the unspoken norms, behaviors, and expectations that bind a group of people together. Making change is something that takes time and isn’t always easy to see when you’re in the midst of it. But pay attention to softer signals, like the progression from New Rules (for example, a memo that advises everyone that 30-minute meetings should end at 25 minutes) to New Behaviors (for example, people reminding each other in a meeting that they should wrap up after 25 minutes) to New Norms (for example, people default to the expectation that they will end meetings after 25 minutes).

In this example, where the change is replacing one default behavior with another, you can look to those unspoken norms in order to facilitate that change. Set the default meeting time in your calendar tool to be (say) 25 minutes, company wide. This way, you can reduce friction toward adopting the new behavior and, at the same time, passively remind people what that new behavior is.

Put together a timeline that maps out what stages you expect this transition to cover. Currently, we’re working from home, but what are you doing now—this summer—this fall—two years from now? Your plans will change, but thinking about this as a transition that takes place in phases will help you to prioritize your own activities and better communicate expectations.

Depending on the nature of the change of behavior, there may be significant time required for individuals—and teams—to navigate those changes. Shifting to 25-minute meetings from 30-minute meetings is a minor change, and it may take a few iterations for (say) the agenda of a standing meeting to adapt. A more extensive change, like establishing a daily set of hours where everyone is expected to be online (what we call Core Collaboration Hours), will take longer. Already-overextended team members will have to review their entire schedule, set priorities, negotiate with their colleagues, develop asynchronous processes to replace meetings, and so on.

Your teams will benefit from guidance through this process. There’s no need for each person in your organization to reinvent the wheel. Gather patterns, “hacks,” best practices, and so on, and make those alternative solutions available. Even better is personalized coaching for people who don’t see an easy or obvious way to switch their work processes and habits. Such conversations are also invaluable to you as a way to understand the breadth of your own organization and how its particular work and home situations are going to impact its success in shifting to a new way of working. We found the following factors determined how someone might specifically adopt our Core Collaboration Hours (a company-wide approach to synchronous work):

  1. Are they in the same time zone as most of their team?
  2. Are they in the same time zone as most of their stakeholders?
  3. Are they in the same time zone as most of the people they typically collaborate with?
  4. Are they in a customer-facing role?
  5. Are they a manager (with a calendar full of 1:1 meetings)?
  6. Can they work independently on tasks (say, as an IC) or does their work depend on coordination and alignment?
  7. Do they have seniority/agency to set their own schedule?
  8. Has their manager (and “department head”) adopted Core Collaboration Hours?
  9. Does Core Collaboration Hours fit with their preferred working style?

Many of the changes that companies are facing as they shift to remote/virtual go beyond how an individual works, but rather consider how a group of people—a team, a department, an initiative— work, and work together. That means these changes are limited by—or empowered by—the network effect. The network effect describes how the power of a network is related to the number of people using it (think about any social media site). Within any particular work network in your organization (not limited to teams), people can’t adopt these new processes and tools until almost everyone adopts them.

Managing boundaries and shifting context

As you’d expect, people’s life stage, geographic region, home size, number of household members, caregiving responsibility, and so on impact how they shift to virtual work. Managing the boundaries between work and personal time (especially as many are shifting to nonlinear work days) is a significant effort for many people, at least as the organization is evolving from “New Rules” to “New Norms.”

While we work to create norms and common best practices, we should not lose track of the importance of variety. Here are several different ways people can break up their work day in an effort to find the value in variety:

  • Personal time, spent out of the home (a walk, a doctor’s appointment)
  • Work time, spent in different locations in their home (selected to suit the specific task)
  • Work time, spent with and without other (non-work-related) people nearby (to suit the specific task)
  • Work time, spent in online meetings with varying formats, structure, duration, interaction, and so on

In an in-person work environment, even a busy meeting day would afford the opportunity to move from meeting room to meeting room, change the view, have a walking break, shift contexts, and so on. With those built-in transitions removed, people are finding success in choosing to create context shifts in other ways—for example, by holding morning meetings in a home office space, going for a walk outside midday, and then doing solo work in a part of the house where there are other people.

The importance of human connection

Unsurprisingly, people miss the human connections they were able to experience in a face-to-face work environment. At a basic level, people miss casual interaction with others. It could be time spent sharing a meal or a coffee and talking about life at work, or their personal lives—but not necessarily something specific to work. And while socialization is crucial for creating that sense of belonging, people also miss serendipitous in-person encounters and the value they provide. These unplanned interactions didn’t just foster a sense of connection and belonging, but also provided unexpected and beneficial opportunities for collaboration.

With less in-person serendipity, people are seeking connection via intentional encounters across different channels (say, an ongoing Slack channel with a few people for informal work chat; a private text messaging chat for sharing puppy pictures).

And while we focus on maintaining existing relationships in the workplace, there’s been a steady flow of job changes, new hires, reorgs, and so on. People have come to realize that work relationships are harder to establish in a virtual world, without that in-person baseline. Establishing trust and personal connection in new relationships is more challenging.

Designing for these outcomes is essential, and we are still learning. We continue to pay close attention to how people themselves are innovating and experimenting to establish and maintain those personal connections and are building tools and practices that help people foster connection. We expect these individual adaptations to continue evolving as we move through phases of this transition; what works at one point may be less effective at another point.

We are seeing a regular stream of announcements across industries about how different companies are conceiving and planning for their futures. We can see that we are heading toward a more flexible and adaptable era of work. How might you (and your team or company) build on our lessons and move forward with intention?

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