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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.

Protocol | Fintech

Amazon wants a crypto play. Its history in payments is not encouraging.

It missed chances to be PayPal, Square and Stripe — so is this its chance to miss being Coinbase, too?

Amazon wants to be a crypto player.

Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

The news that Amazon was hiring a lead for a new digital currency and blockchain initiative sent the price of bitcoin soaring. But there's another way to look at the news that's less bullish on bitcoin and bearish on Amazon: 13 years after Satoshi Nakamoto's whitepaper appeared on the internet, Amazon is just discovering cryptocurrency?

That may be a bit unkind, but the truth is sometimes unkind. And the reality is that Amazon has a long history of stumbles and missed opportunities in payments, which goes back more than two decades to the company's purchase of internet payments startup Accept.com.

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Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a senior editor at Protocol overseeing venture capital and financial technology coverage. He was previously business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and before that editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, a technology news site. You're probably going to remind him that he was managing editor at Valleywag, Gawker Media's Silicon Valley gossip rag. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and Ramona the Love Terrier, whom you should follow on Instagram.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

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Caitlin Barnett, Chainanalysis
Caitlin’s legal and compliance experience encompasses both cryptocurrency and traditional finance. As Director of Regulation and Compliance at Chainalysis, she helps leading financial institutions strategize and build compliance programs in order to adopt cryptocurrencies and offer new products to their customers. In addition, Caitlin helps facilitate dialogue with regulators and the industry on key policy issues within the cryptocurrency industry.
Protocol | Enterprise

How Google Cloud plans to kill its ‘Killed By Google’ reputation

Under the new Google Enterprise APIs policy, the company is making a promise that its services will remain available and stable far into the future.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has promised to make the company more customer-friendly.

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images 2019

Google Cloud issued a promise Monday to current and potential customers that it's safe to build a business around its core technologies, another step in its transformation from an engineering playground to a true enterprise tech vendor.

Starting Monday, Google will designate a subset of APIs across the company as Google Enterprise APIs, including APIs from Google Cloud, Google Workspace and Google Maps. APIs selected for this category — which will include "a majority" of Google Cloud APIs according to Kripa Krishnan, vice president at Google Cloud — will be subject to strict guidelines regarding any changes that could affect customer software built around those APIs.

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Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is Protocol's enterprise editor, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire, and served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure.

Amazon job opening points to plan to accept crypto payments

The news sparked a rally in the values of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Amazon may be planning to let customers pay for orders with cryptocurrencies.

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Amazon is looking to hire a digital currency and blockchain expert suggesting a plan to let customers accept cryptocurrencies as payments.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Protocol | Policy

Big Tech tried to redefine terrorism online. It got messy fast.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism announced a series of narrow steps it's taking that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

Erin Saltman is GIFCT's director of programming.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Flickr

A little over a month after the Jan. 6 riot, the tech industry's leading anti-terrorism alliance — a group founded by Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter — announced it was seeking ideas for how it could expand its definition of terrorism, which had for years been more or less synonymous with Islamic terrorism. The group, called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism or GIFCT, had been considering such a shift for at least a year, but the rising threat of domestic extremism, punctuated by the Capitol uprising, made it all the more clear something needed to change.

But after months of interviewing member companies, months of considering academic proposals and months spent mulling the impact of tech platforms on this and other violent events around the world, the group's policies have barely budged. On Monday, in a 177-page report, GIFCT released the first details of its plan, and, well, a radical rethinking of online extremism it is not. Instead, the report lays out a series of narrow steps that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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