Don't forget to brush your teeth, WFH staff told as Dropbox drops the office, declares itself 'virtual first'

But is remote working less productive?

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Cloudy storage company Dropbox has declared itself a "virtual first" company, meaning that for all of its employees "remote work (outside an office) will be the primary experience".

The 3,000-staffer company, which has a head office in San Francisco and 12 offices elsewhere around the world, said that while remote will be "the day-to-day default for individual work", it plans to have "collaborative spaces" called Dropbox Studios in all the locations where it currently has an office.

These will be in the current office building in some but not all cases, depending on whether it has a long-term lease. Employees will not generally be allowed to use these spaces for solo work, only for meetings or team work, though "there may be exceptions based on team or role". These new spaces will not be set up until "it's safe to do so".

The current mandatory work-from-home policy has been extended to June 2021.

Dropbox is also adopting flexible working hours but with "core collaboration hours" and a set of guidelines called Virtual First Toolkit, covering topics such as time management, fitness and communication. The guidelines are not tied to particular tools, though the company does include details on the technology it uses, starting with its own collaboration tools like Dropbox Paper. We learn that Dropbox uses Gmail (described as a silo), Slack, Atlassian Jira, and Zoom. We are also advised, under "How to stay well", to "try not to work from your bed or couch all day" and "don't forget to brush your teeth."

The company has good reason to promote home working, since its services are designed for remote collaboration, and it has striven to position itself as a "smart workplace" rather than merely offering cloud storage and file synchronisation. The pandemic has done no harm to its revenue, which for the last reported period, the quarter ending 30 June 2020, was up 16 per cent year-on-year.

As part of its pitch to encourage more permanent remote working, Dropbox commissioned a survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit to show that employees are less distracted when working from home. The survey itself is inconclusive, though. It said that 36 per cent consider themselves "more focused working from home as opposed to their office", but 28 per cent feel less focused. The US-based Economist study said that "on average 581 hours are lost due to distractions per person annually, equivalent to 28 per cent of total working hours," a loss of productivity the study claimed is equivalent to $62bn thrown down the toilet.

Top distractions were said to be interruptions from colleagues, and dealing with email, while in fourth place is "my own mind wandering", admitted by 23 per cent of workers surveyed. Working from home is no cure-all for being free of distraction. Respondents cited food, TV, family, and pets among the distractions, while also complaining about "feeling disconnected from colleagues" and "lack of stable or secure internet connection".

Take regular breaks... but don't get distracted...

The email problem is a big one, the issue being not total time spent, but frequency of checking. "When liberated from email for sustained periods, workers show better focus, lower stress and higher wellbeing," said the Economist researchers, a finding that could guide policy equally whether or not working from home. The survey also cited regular breaks as the best way to increase attention and creativity, though it is not clear if such breaks count as part of the distraction time also said to be harming productivity.

Is remote working better? There is no straightforward answer, with factors including industry sector, company culture, and individual preference; some workers cope better than others. JP Morgan reportedly believes that "overall productivity and creative combustion has taken a hit," according to an analyst, with the bank confirming a productivity decline among "employees in general, not just younger employees".

Performance monitoring company Aternity maintains a Global Remote Work Productivity Tracker and the latest report stated that "workers are getting less productive the longer the remote work shift continues" and spoke of a "remote work productivity tax". Contrast that, though, with GitLab, which has always been a remote-working company, and has stated: "Employees find themselves to be overall be more productive (52 per cent) and efficient (48 per cent)."

The reality for many companies will be a hybrid approach. Microsoft recently said it is "embracing a flexible workspace", which means "we view working from home part of the time as now standard" but also "we are not committing to having every employee work from anywhere as we believe there is value in employees being together in the workplace."

Dropbox, however, is opposed to hybrid working, saying that this may "perpetuate two different employee experiences that could result in barriers to inclusion in inequities with respect to performance or career trajectory. These big-picture problems are non-starters for us."

Therefore, for Dropbox, it is virtual first – though note that it has allowed for exceptions, so how exactly this will work out is open to speculation. The truth is that any model can work well or badly according to how it is implemented. Statements like this one from Dropbox underline that whatever the future holds for office work, it will not be a return to how things were. ®

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