Staying productive in a virtual-first environment with Dropbox’s Laura Ryan
Dropbox’s director of international human resources talks exclusively to UNLEASH about the success of the organization’s new ways of working.
Why You Should Care
Meaningful connection is more difficult in a virtual world than in traditional in-person work.
But - it can be done, and Dropbox is doing it. FInd out how in this exclusive interview.
After Laura’s conversation with Allie Nawrat last year, it was great to get back in touch with Dropbox to see how it’s made a difference to their business. Listen above or read the full transcript beneath, which has been edited for clarity.
Jon Kennard: We’re going to be talking about your virtual first strategy. I think a lot of a lot of companies have embedded this, but how to Dropbox do it?
Laura Ryan: Yeah, thanks so much, Jon. And thanks for having me, thrilled to be here. About six months into the pandemic, we announced our new working model called ‘Virtual First’. At the time, I guess we were only six months in, but we did feel that we were in a unique position to really see where the future of work was headed. And we wanted to position ourselves as an early adopter, in what we believed at that time was a permanent shift to remote work.
So really, what does Virtual First mean? It means that remote work is the primary experience for all of our employees. However, we did recognize that there will always be times where it will make sense to get people together in person. And so we really continue to invest in opportunities to gather our employees by offering physical spaces called Dropbox studios – very different to traditional office. They are collaborative spaces designed for teamwork instead of individual workspaces that you go to every day.
We were very intentional in not doing hybrid, as we felt it wasn’t a model that we wanted to implement and drop off at the time. Our aim was really to create a truly equitable experience, and a level playing field for all employees, regardless of location, and work preference.
So I think, for us now, two years on from the pandemic, we’re really emerging with a very clear playbook on what that strategy is, and how we want to reinvent the way work gets done at Dropbox. So we’ve introduced new practices, things such as core collaboration areas, which are essentially a set of a windows of time reserved for real-time, in-person collaboration over Zoom, and then allowing for larger periods for what we’re calling async work. And then other concepts such as non-linear working days.
And so far, employees have responded really, really well. I think it leverages the greatest parts of both remote work, as well as the in-person experiences with a real emphasis on fidelity and work life harmony. But again, preserving those in-person connections, which I think we all felt that we missed out on during the time of great restriction in the pandemic. And this April marks one year of this new strategy. We implemented it six months into the pandemic. We haven’t really been able to get into studios, because, we’ve been going through various different versions of restrictions. And so now that we have opened them, we’re actually fully living our new strategy. And we’re one full year down the road. So it’s been an exciting year of learning and change.
JK: Obviously, you take things as they come, but could you foresee this as being this forever? Are you going to review it? It seems like it’s working very well.
LR: One of our core principles when we designed it was to entrench it with a learning and growth mindset. We knew that we couldn’t predict the future, there was no crystal ball, it was pretty bold to make such a move so early into it. So who knows, I think we’ll continue to evolve the model as we go. And as we stand today, internal sentiment is really good. We’re constantly hearing from our employees that they love the model, because they don’t have to choose between remote work or meaningful in-person connections. And now that our COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, we’ve seen more and more teams come together to further build connection.
And so when we think about that, we’ve always known that we would have to learn as we go and we wouldn’t get it right from day one. Most of our learning has actually come from feedback from our employees. So, establishing the meaningful feedback loops with our employees has been fundamental to this model. So we asked them to come on this journey with us and to embrace the learning mindset and they have, and so what we have found to this point is that it is harder to build relationships outside of your meaningful team. Meaningful connection is more difficult in a virtual world than in traditional in-person work.
Our employees have told us that the shift to virtual first, that connections with their immediate team members have remained strong. But broader company relationships beyond the day to day work have been harder, which would naturally make sense, I think. I could have the ability to bump into co-workers in the hall or overhear casual conversation, there’s been less chance for employees to get to know people outside of their daily orbit. And these type of connections are key really, when you think about building an overall company culture and creating a true sense of belonging. So we’ve had to evolve and change our approach and think about how we can recreate those.
Again, we didn’t have all of this figured out, [at the] beginning of this journey. We think the studios, now that they’re fully open, and people are really embracing them, that’ll definitely alleviate some of that. And it does naturally create more opportunity for people to bump into each other. But we also believe that our virtual community building efforts are just as important as those as the studio.
So things like how are we thinking about creating more meaningful connection and strengthening connections remotely, we’re doing things like recently launching Dropbox neighborhoods. These are neighborhoods of people in similar locations that are run by local ‘community managers’. And it’s really about grouping people together that are in close location on Slack to arrange everything from events, volunteer days, informal meetups, people slacking to say, hey, I’m going to be in the studio, or I’m going to such and such a coffee shop, is there anyone around, and you can see people jumping in.
JK: You partially answered my second question which was, we know that we can be productive remotely, everyone, or lots and lots and lots of organizations across the world has done it. But the piece that’s been missing has been the culture bit, it’s something that a lot of businesses have been struggling [with]. So how are you going about this? Have you developed, like you said, building meaningful relationships outside of your team, which is one of the cornerstones of your good culture? What have you done there? And what advice have you got?
LR: Culture is the big one, for connection. Everyone is grappling with the same things. But my experience with this, was just being grounded to some core principles. So when we designed this working model, what are we trying to achieve? What do we want our employee experience to be? And what do we need to enable that? They were some core fundamental principles that we started this conversation with originally. And so we haven’t deviated from those. So one of our core principles is around fairness and equity, and this model is based on those principles, it’s based on truly creating a level playing field for our employees.
So breaking down those geographical and proximity biases that might have existed in a more traditional working model where there were ceilings on career growth. I think the model itself opens up a lot of that, and that was really core to creating a culture of inclusion.
So those core principles, I think, were fundamental. But it’s really was around leading with the growth mindset and asking our employees to embrace that learning with us. So, having a culture of embracing failure is really important. So being open to creating this safety for our employees to trying things, being able to call it when things aren’t working shift, and approach and move on, I think has been has been key to us.
We’ve just been very transparent and open and honest about about that. And setting that expectation with employees, I think has been key for us. And then I think the final one is really understanding the changing role that the manager plays. So, I think we were in a very restrictive environment through the pandemic, but even even beyond that, I think, we now need our managers and leaders in the organization to lead by example, to adopt the new practices and shift mindset. So we’re not focused on presenteeism and visibility and that the old assessments of how productive somebody was, well, they’re the first person in and they’re the last person home, they turned the lights off.
I mean, really shifting those outdated mindsets around what productivity looks like have been key, and educating managers around that, that, it’s not actually about, they’re not the things that we’re looking for, we’re looking for a shift in how you measure output and impact and results. So I think from a cultural perspective, establishing that clear, open transparency around where we’re at, what we’re trying to move towards, has been key in embracing the change, I would still say that we’re still on that learning journey. And we’ll continue to evolve as we go.
JK: Yeah, definitely. This is the last question: I know that your strategy for hiring is taking advantage – like many companies are – of being able to recruit from everywhere, and hire from anywhere, which is an incredibly freeing outlook and ethos to take on board so you can get literally the best talent from from all over. How’s that going? And also, are you recruiting for positions in job descriptions that we’ve never seen before? The idea of like a head of remote or these kinds of things as well?
LR: I’ll take the second part. First, my husband said to me last night, what do you think Anna will do? She’s our seven year old daughter. And I said, I can guarantee you whatever she’s going to do, that road hasn’t been created yet.
So, we’re seeing new roles in the organization, we’re seeing a head of Virtual First, we’re seeing more emphasis placed on employee experience than we’ve had. We’ve talked about the employee experience, but now it’s completely transformed into something different. And we have to reimagine that we’re talking about new roles, and really investing in cultural change within the organization.
We’ve always had communications teams, internal comms teams, but now, the emphasis on those is different, the priorities are different, and they’re more critical than ever before. Because again, another thing is that employees need very clear communication, and they need access to the information so that they can allow them agility within the organization.
So yes, we are seeing not wildly new roles, but we are seeing a shift in focus on priorities from a hiring perspective internally. And really, it’s about understanding what are the enablers to the strategy being successful? And how do we put the adequate resources behind it? I think that to the first part of your question – yes, we are definitely taking advantage of wider talent pools, the ability to be able to recruit from the whole world as opposed to 17 cities, it’s been a remarkable shift and change. And it’s brought a lot of diverse candidates with diverse backgrounds, like we started to shift away from those really the tech hubs, like which most kinds of tech organizations were recruiting in. And it’s been a wonderful experience. We’re definitely far more distributed across across the globe now.
It’s been a new challenge, but an interesting one. That’s the next challenge – trying to sift through all this exponentially greater number of applications, isn’t it? Our talent acquisition team are constantly reevaluating. We have invested in that team because they’re trying to understand what technology can help to filter out and do the adequate screening.
JK: Thanks so much for the update. We talked to you about a year ago I think, so it’s nice to bring it a year on and see what’s going on. Seems like it’s going great.
LR: Yeah, it’s been a wonderful year. I think as I said, once we were able to get Studios back up and running, we’ve been able to fully embrace the model as it was intended and designed and we’re continuing to learn and iterate as we go. And yeah, we’re delighted with the results that we’ve seen so far. Thanks, Jon. Good stuff.
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Editorial content manager
Jon has 20 years' experience in digital journalism and more than a decade in L&D and HR publishing.