Protocol | Workplace

Dropbox is reopening its offices — but they’re not offices anymore

The newly "virtual first" company is doing away with desks and walls, and building more cafes and conference rooms.

Dropbox's Studio

Dropbox's Studios are designed for collaboration and team-building, not sitting at a desk. In fact, there are no desks.

Photo: Dropbox

Dropbox is reopening many of its buildings on Wednesday, and they'll be used for many things: team meetings, group hangs, impromptu concerts, all-hands meetings and quarterly strategy sessions. But do not, under any circumstances, call them "offices."

Alastair Simpson, Dropbox's VP of design and one of the leaders behind the company's plan for the future of work, only used the word "office" twice in our conversation, and both times quickly corrected himself. He prefers the word "studio," which is how Dropbox has rebranded all its physical spaces.

Inside those Studios, Dropbox employees won't find rows of desks or corner offices. Instead, there are two types of spaces: spacious rooms designed for group meetings, and what Simpson calls "touch-down spots." Meeting rooms are outfitted with movable furniture, false walls, screens and other ways to make a single space accommodate a number of uses. (Don't want the big table in the middle of the room? Just drag it into the corner and sit on the couch instead.) Touch-down spots are cafes and libraries, meant as places for employees to sit and answer email or chat with co-workers for a few minutes between meetings.

A cafe at a Dropbox Studio Dropbox's Studios don't have dedicated desk space, but they do have "touch-down spots" for relaxing and working between meetings.Photo: Dropbox

"If an employee wanted to come to the Owens office in San Francisco five days a week and work at a desk," Simpson said, referring to Dropbox's longtime headquarters in one of his rare vocabulary slip-ups, "they could not do that. We don't have an affordance for that." Dropbox imagines Studios not as the primary place for any employee to work, but as a place for teams and co-workers to come together. In some ways, the work that happens in these buildings will be the least important factor; the company is more concerned with building culture and camaraderie. "We've got this mantra about when to come together," Simpson said. "'Keep it special.'"

Dropbox's Melanie Collins was also this week's guest on the Source Code podcast — you can listen to our full interview above.

Employees who want to use a Studio should ask themselves three questions before doing so, Simpson said: When do you plan to gather? Why do you plan to gather? And will everyone be able to be there? If there aren't good answers to the first two — and the answer to the third isn't yes — there's no reason to gather. Weekly status updates likely don't qualify, but quarterly planning might. Team offsites definitely do.

In some places, Simpson and his team have been retrofitting existing offices to make them work as Studios. In others, like a new building in Dublin, there's more freedom. Simpson was cagey about exactly how these ground-up designs will differ — in part because things aren't yet finalized — but he said that, essentially, when you can decide where the walls go, you simply put up fewer walls. "All the space is for in-person collaboration," he said, "and it's completely flexible."

A conference room in a Dropbox Studio Even in conference rooms, most things are on wheels or easily movable so rooms can rearrange to meet any need.Photo: Dropbox

The approach to physical space is part of Dropbox's Virtual First strategy, which it announced last fall and has been refining ever since. Remote work is the default setup for all Dropbox employees going forward. While Dropbox does have those physical spaces, it's deliberately not pursuing a hybrid work strategy. "We had reservations" about hybrid, said Melanie Collins, Dropbox's chief people officer. "We worried they might perpetuate two different employee experiences, for the remote employee versus the one that's in the office, which could result in issues with inclusion or inequities with respect to performance or career trajectory. And that was a non-starter for us." There's no such thing as "being in the office," in part because there's no such thing as an office anymore.

When CEO Drew Houston first announced the Virtual First plan, while the world was still in the throes of a pandemic with no clear end in sight, it made Dropbox one of the first companies to put an actual plan into motion. Houston said at the time that even amid the chaos, there was an opportunity to make big, positive change. "This promise has been around since the '80s, with telework and things like more flexibility, being able to work from anywhere, not being stuck in commutes all day," he also said. "Maybe we're actually on the cusp of delivering on that promise."

Since then, Simpson said he and his team have been trying to design Dropbox's future the way they might build a new product. They mapped out user journeys through a workday, and tried to figure out how to optimize them. They ran studies and surveys, and had 70 employees keep daily diaries of their work life. All the research made one thing clear: Employees loved the flexibility of remote work, and craved even more freedom in how they planned their days and did their jobs. But they still wanted to feel connected to their co-workers, and to Dropbox as a whole.

A cafe at a Dropbox Studio Some office perks aren't going away: Dropbox's Studios will still have cafes.Photo: Dropbox

The company's offices, like so many others, played a huge role in fostering that connection and culture. From Google's slides to Apple's carefully minimalist lobbies to Facebook's massively open loft on Hacker Way, tech's biggest players made sure you understood what they were about as soon as you opened the door. Dropbox's largest office in San Francisco had famously excellent food, a karaoke bar, a huge space for quiet work that was like a Kubrickian take on a college library and countless touches meant to make employees feel like the office was home.

Virtual First flipped all of that on its head. Instead of that fancy food and high-end desks, Dropbox employees now get an annual $7,000 perks allowance to spend on things like home-office gear, in-home care, food, a gym or any number of other things. Collins said the company is investing in more wellness and mental-health tools as well.

Still, Collins hopes the Studios can continue to do some of the work of communicating and fostering culture. There's still a cafe, there will still be fancy libraries. But "we want to move away from the idea of the office as the center of gravity for employees," Collins said, "and instead have the center of gravity be the holistic person."

A meeting room with a blow-up dinosaur at a Dropbox Studio Nobody will work from an office every day, but Dropbox is hoping its Studios can still be a source of fun and culture-building.Photo: Dropbox

The approach will frustrate some Dropbox employees, who have been desperate for months to get back to their fancy offices. Collins said that's OK. Rather than go the hybrid route — and risk adopting a strategy that sounds good for everybody but actually works for nobody — she said Dropbox had to draw a clear line: "It's the one principle that we just thought, we can't compromise on this."

Besides, for every employee who wants to work in downtown San Francisco, there are plenty of others who don't. The Virtual First plan has allowed Dropbox to expand its recruiting efforts in a big way; it's still looking to hire in clusters rather than "just throw darts at a map of the United States," Collins said, but has already found new hubs of talent in places like Florida, Raleigh, Portland and Chicago. The company is seeing three times as many job applicants as before, she said, while acceptance rates are up 10% and jobs are being filled faster than ever. Virtual First, at least for now, appears to be a perk people crave.

Everyone at Dropbox is quick to say that this reopening is just another experiment, a chance to learn what works and what doesn't about Virtual First. Simpson and his team will be conducting more surveys, following more workers and checking in at various intervals to see how (and whether) the Studios are actually being used. "We're all terrible predictors of the future, right?" he said. He's looking to see what kinds of rooms get booked, how many people are in them and what kind of work actually gets done. That's why flexibility has become such a pillar of Dropbox's design ethos and its future as a company. The company's leaders are trying to make guesses, try things, learn fast and move stuff around as needed. Sometimes even the walls.

Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.

The way we work has fundamentally changed. COVID-19 upended business dealings and office work processes, putting into hyperdrive a move towards digital collaboration platforms that allow teams to streamline processes and communicate from anywhere. According to the International Data Corporation, the revenue for worldwide collaboration applications increased 32.9 percent from 2019 to 2020, reaching $22.6 billion; it's expected to become a $50.7 billion industry by 2025.

"While consumers and early adopter businesses had widely embraced collaborative applications prior to the pandemic, the market saw five years' worth of new users in the first six months of 2020," said Wayne Kurtzman, research director of social and collaboration at IDC. "This has cemented collaboration, at least to some extent, for every business, large and small."

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Kate Silver is an award-winning reporter and editor with 15-plus years of journalism experience. Based in Chicago, she specializes in feature and business reporting. Kate's reporting has appeared in the Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlantic's CityLab, Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph and many other outlets.

Hirsh Chitkara
Hirsh Chitkara (@ChitkaraHirsh) is a researcher at Protocol, based out of New York City. Before joining Protocol, he worked for Business Insider Intelligence, where he wrote about Big Tech, telecoms, workplace privacy, smart cities, and geopolitics. He also worked on the Strategy & Analytics team at the Cleveland Indians.

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