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How Dropbox Unlocked the Potential of Virtual First 

Dropbox embraces Virtual First to provide flexibility to its employees,
In this article

“With Virtual First, we saw an opportunity to take a more purposeful approach, while giving employees the flexibility they were looking for. And that approach has led to clear benefits, including higher employee engagement and retention.” 

Melanie Rosenwasser, Dropbox Chief People Officer 

Dropbox embraces “Virtual First,” meaning remote work is the standard for all employees – from engineers to salespeople. This provides incredible flexibility, allowing them to work from virtually anywhere.  

Dropbox has over 2,000 remote workers in 11 countries. 

We wanted to dig more into the topic, so that we could share their story to inspire other companies that want to follow in their footsteps. 

How Did the Virtual First Experience Start for Dropbox? 

Yeah, you guessed it. It was the pandemic. 

Dropbox commissioned a study by The Economist Intelligence Unit, that ended up revealing positive findings for remote work. Knowledge workers report increased focus at home while keeping engagement. 

Internal Dropbox surveys echoed this sentiment, with nearly 90% of employees reporting productivity at home and a strong preference for flexible work arrangements. The success of the Dropbox remote model is further shown by uninterrupted customer service and continued product innovation. 

However, the picture isn’t entirely rosy. Video call fatigue, notification overload, and isolation can be drawbacks. The EIU study also highlighted concerns about company culture, potential miscommunication, and collaboration challenges in remote settings. 

Still, Dropbox kicked off its Virtual First program in April 2021. Later, in the second quarter of 2022, another Dropbox survey found that more than 75% of employees felt like they had more work-life balance under Virtual First. 

The biggest perk of Virtual First, for many Dropbox employees, isn’t just skipping the commute – it’s the freedom to live wherever they choose. 

Dropbox’s ‘Virtual First’ policy appears to be a game-changer for recruitment. The number of applications per job post nearly doubled, while offer acceptance rates have jumped 126%, suggesting that location flexibility is highly attractive to top talent. 

“We’ve always believed that companies that give flexibility will outperform, out-attract, and out-retain the companies that don’t.” 

Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox 

virtual first work

Source 

The Dropbox Virtual First Manifesto 

Here’s are the Dropbox guiding principles when working virtually: 

  • Everything is a prototype: Everything from company culture to products is viewed as a work in progress. We learn through trial and error and continuously iterate. 
  • Go async by default: The default mode is asynchronous communication (chat, email, docs) for most work. Meetings are reserved for specific purposes aka the 3 Ds (discussion, debate, decision-making). Focus and autonomy are valued over “presenteeism” (being seen as constantly working). 
  • Make (virtual) work human: Emphasis on creating a compassionate, inclusive culture that prioritizes employee well-being and fosters a sense of connection despite physical distance. Develop tools that enhance virtual work experience and flow. 
  • Keep it simple: Reduce wasted time spent searching for files or managing apps. Provide clear, centralized, and easily accessible resources to minimize administrative burdens. 
  • Design for joy: Inject a touch of fun and creativity into all aspects of work, even enterprise software development. Foster a playful company culture that encourages innovation. 

We see our employees as our customers. We will support however they want to gather, but we’re finding that these retreats and off-sites and things like that are often a lot more effective than asking people to commute. “

Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox 

The Dropbox Location Strategy: Flexibility with Occasional Collaboration 

Dropbox employees are expected to work virtually at least 90% of the time.   

While there’s no expectation to come to an office regularly, Dropbox Studios offer dedicated spaces for occasional in-person collaboration and events. Dropboxers are not supposed to perform individual work in the Studios. 

For those missing the office vibes, Dropbox will cover co-working memberships, as a perk.  

The company offers a $7,000 annual work-at-home stipend and core collaboration hours for virtual interaction. Employees are also given time in their workday both for personal needs and independent work. 

Also, Dropbox launched Neighborhoods to foster local connections. They are Slack groups managed by local community managers. These groups connect employees in the same area to organize outings and social gatherings. 

Dropbox has also defined Core Collaboration Hours, a set block of time based on your region in which you are available for meetings, while the rest of your day is reserved for focus time or personal life needs.   

Here’s how such collab hours might look like: 

async work

Source: Dropbox 

To be more productive, the Dropbox employees are recommended to take control of their own schedule: 

  • Audit your calendar: Analyze a typical week. See how you spend your time, identify interruptions, and gauge the ratio of planned vs reactive work. Based on this and your goals, adjust your schedule. 
  • Plan your week: Schedule critical deep work blocks, meetings for collaboration, and breaks (lunch, self-care). Reschedule conflicts as needed. 

Here’s an example of such a schedule: 

schedule example for remote first teams

Source: Dropbox 

The moment the scheduling is done, colleagues and team leads will need to be informed: 

  • Informing colleagues of the available hours and offline periods. 
  • Using the calendar and chat settings:  
  • Setting up an out-of-office message to decline meetings during focused work blocks. 
  • Blocking off work hours in the employee’s time zone. 
  • Using Do Not Disturb during work hours. 

Using The Right Tool for the Right Task 

There’s a framework Dropbox suggests for managing tasks, based on the urgency and importance of tasks. Employees could group tasks under the following batches: delegate it, do it, delete it, schedule it. 

tasks framework

Source: Dropbox

So, Dropbox has 4 Core Collab Hours to sync with teams. There’s also a framework for prioritizing tasks. But how do they manage async work? Which tool are they relying on? 

Here’s a breakdown of tools: 

  • Dropbox Paper: For writing, editing, brainstorming, project management (light), design reviews, and meeting prep. 
  • Email: Sharing important info, long docs, and external communication. 
  • Slack: Real-time discussions, quick questions, status updates, and building team spirit. 
  • Jira: Complex project management, assigning tasks, and roadmaps. 

Zoom is the go-to tool when it comes to meetings, decision-making, team building, etc. 

Zoom isn’t supposed to be abused. Dropbox has a list of dos and don’ts to avoid having unnecessary meetings. 

Conclusions 

A Dropbox spokesperson told Insider “Since our transition to becoming a Virtual First company, staff retention is at an all-time high.” 

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston believes in a virtual-first work model with trust and autonomy for employees. This approach lets them work remotely and manage their schedules while collaborating in synchronous meetings when necessary. 

In contrast, many CEOs are advocating for a full return to the office, even though some employees prefer flexible work arrangements. They believe physical presence fosters innovation and culture, and some may even tie rewards to being in the office. However, this could create tension and may not be a one-size-fits-all solution. Alos, surveys show a growing desire for flexible work arrangements among employees. 

We just love this quote from The Verge by, Drew Houston (Dropbox CEO): 

At home, you can set up your environment exactly how you want it and not just have snacks but your dog and something that’s totally purpose-built for you. So, I think forcing people back into the office is sort of trying to force people back into movie theaters — maybe you can do it for Top Gun once — or getting people back into malls or something. It was cool. Movie theaters were great, and malls were great for their time, but the world has moved on. “

 Now, while remote work offers flexibility, it can hinder collaboration. Also, hybrid models can create inclusion concerns. At Dropbox, “Virtual First” solves this by making remote work the default for solo tasks, with physical workspaces reserved for collaboration and learning. To combat isolation and fragmented schedules, Dropbox sets core collaboration hours and encourages “non-linear workdays” with large blocks for focused work.  

The company also explores VR for onboarding and training.  

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

Melanie Collins, VP, Global Head of People at Dropbox 

With “Virtual First”, Dropbox hopes to empower employees with autonomy and flexibility while fostering collaboration and inclusion in a future of remote work. 

Want to read more stories like this one? 

Check Building Winning Remote Policies: Lessons from Remote.com  and How Atlassian is Managing Distributed Teams. 

Alina Belascu
Alina Belascu
Alina is a digital marketer with a passion for web design. When she’s not strategizing she’s doing photography, listening to podcasts on history and psychology, and playing with her 2 dogs and cat.