Back in October 2020, Dropbox was one of the first companies to announce that they were taking a virtual first approach to work. CEO Drew Houston said that this was a difficult decision at the time since it meant throwing their highly developed in-person culture out the window and starting from scratch.

But Houston emphasized that he had to give clarity to employees, who were deciding where they wanted to live. It was unfair to give only three-month windows between updates, decisions, and changes in policies. So, the Dropbox Team took the plunge.

They decided to go fully remote to get the best and avoid the worst of both worlds. Requiring team members to be in the office two days a week still physically ties them to a geographic location, and getting staff to come in on the same two days to boost creativity meant that they were paying for office space that was empty 60% of the time.

Dropbox has been reviewing the success of its approach regularly for the past three years, with excellent results. But we got an even more candid view from CEO Houston in a recent interview published by The Verge.

Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from the interview and the cornerstones of Dropbox’s Virtual First approach to working.


Who are Drew Houston and Dropbox?

Drew Houston founded Dropbox back in 2007, before cloud storage and sharing “was a thing” and is still the company CEO. Dropbox’s core offer is cloud storage and document synchronization, but it is platform agnostic, so you can share across Google, Microsoft, Apple, and more without being locked into a product suite.

While the offer might seem simple, when talking to users Houston discovered that many people see Dropbox as their virtual workspace. Remote workers, people who work from multiple locations, and distributed teams often see logging onto Dropbox as their place of business (not that you have to log on, since it works seamlessly).

In his interview, Houston talked a lot about the history of Dropbox and how it found its niche and purpose, including when Steve Jobs tried to buy Dropbox calling it “a feature and not a product”. He also talked about Dropbox’s plans to leverage AI in the future. Probably the most exciting AI-powered service currently available is Dropbox Dash.

The idea is that while it is very easy to search the World Wide Web for whatever you want to know, it can be hard to search your own documents for information, especially if you are using a variety of different ones. You might have information locked up in Google Docs, email, Slack, Salesforce, and more. Doprbox Dash makes searching across these platforms simultaneously possible.

Eventually, it will hopefully result in something like DropboxGPT, where you can ask “when is my lease up”, or “what at the actions from my last meeting”. Unlike ChatGPT, Dropbox will look at your data rather than universal generic data to answer these questions.


Dropbox’s Virtual First Approach

In the interview, Houston also talked a lot about the success of the Virtual First approach to working adopted back in 2020. Before the pandemic, Dropbox was your typical tech company with offices in San Francisco and other major centers. Now, the team of 2,600 is 90% remote. But that 10% in-person doesn’t look anything like it did before the pandemic.

Houston talked a lot about how hard it was to make the decision, as it meant giving up on their successful strategy and developing a vibrant in-person work culture. He also acknowledged that “there’s no substitute for the in-person experience and meeting face-to-face. Our biological wiring isn’t going to change.”

This is why many companies are taking the hybrid route, but the Dropbox team decided that this left you with the worst of both worlds rather than the best. If you have to commute two days a week, you are still geographically tied to an area. This is bad for employees, and bad for Dropbox, as it limits the location of the talent pool they can draw from. Similarly, it means maintaining big and expensive offices that are empty most of the time.

So what did they do at Dropbox?


Principles of Dropbox’s Virtual First Working Strategy

First and foremost, Dropbox allows everyone who can work remotely to work remotely. They still have offices, for example in San Francisco, Sydney, and London, and teams are attached to an office, but there are no specific days that people need to be in the office.

They did not want to give up the face-to-face experience, but they did not want to rely on Zoom to pick up the slack. Houston said that no one forms proper connections over Zoom. So what did they do?

Dropbox offices around the world were downsized and offices converted into Dropbox Studios, which are creative and collaborative spaces that teams can use. There is no mandatory minimum and teams are given the freedom to self-organize. Houston did admit that these are probably underutilized.

For team building, each office has a quarterly get-together, but not in the office, but rather somewhere inspiring, such as Dublin or Paris. These are about team building, innovating, and developing company culture.

For those meetings that do have to happen on Zoom, Dropbox introduced core working hours for each region that encompass workers across time zones. All meetings must be scheduled within these hours.

But more than that, Dropbox has also followed Amazon’s lead in banning Powerpoint. Instead, instead, people have to write extended memos with their information. This tends to be a faster way to communicate, and it forces the writer to distill and clarify. At the start of every meeting, there can be about 20 minutes of silence as everyone reads the memos, and then the meeting can start with everyone having absorbed the relevant information.

This is only one of the tools and approaches that has been tested and proven successful at Dropbox. They have put together a Virtual First Toolkit, which is available to all staff and also to anyone else who wants to learn from Dropbox’s experience.

Dropbox is experimenting with a variety of approaches for a more holistic employee experience. For example, they launched virtual coffee chats were random employees are matched up to get to know one another. They also launched neighborhoods, which allows Dropbox workers to find others in their area, regardless of whether they work together, and organize in-person meetups.

Overall, employees seem to be happy with the approach. Thibauut Lasfargues wrote an article for Dropbox about his experience with the Virtual First workplace.


Under Review

Dropbox has invested in research and studies to analyze what is working for them and what isn’t. All of this they have been sharing, presenting themselves as an incubator for the virtual first workplace.

They have found that Dropbox has successfully expanded its talent pool, with around 50% of employee now not living around their offices. They also note that employee retention and engagement are up.

A survey suggested that 70% of employees believe that they are more effective working remotely than they would be in the office, but also agree that good management is more important than ever to ensure that remote teams collaborate well. Improving approaches to asynchronous communication is a major priority.

The same survey found that 70% of workers now take a non-linear approach to their workday, choosing the hours that are best for them. An impressive 75% said that working remotely has improved their ability to find uninterrupted time for deep work.


Workplace of the Future

Does what Dropbox is doing represent the workplace of the future for many people? Probably. There is no turning back the clock to a time before the pandemic, and Dropbox is proving that virtual first companies can thrive. But what they have also shown is that we can’t just try and replicate what we used to do in the office online when it comes to collaboration. We need to take a more proactive and innovative approach.