The Evolving Workplace: Navigating decision-making on how and where we work

July 12, 2021

Over the past 18 months, the ICONIQ Growth Analytics team has published a series of studies related to the impact of COVID. Through various forms of data-driven analysis, our aim has been to illuminate trends across financial performance, business operations, and the employee experience from the time the pandemic began to unfurl through today, as it  recedes in some parts of the world. Our most recent study was focused on supporting decision making related to the return to office and the future of work more broadly—aggregating both quantitative findings and qualitative insights across several surveys and expert interviews.

On June 29, ICONIQ also had the pleasure of hosting an ICONIQ Ideas online conversation with Melanie Collins, chief people officer at Dropbox, and AJ Josephson, head of people at Miro, to discuss what they’ve learned from the pandemic and their perspectives on the future of work.

Both Miro and Dropbox have fundamentally changed the way in which we are able to virtually collaborate, regardless of our location. However, building critical products for a virtual world does not necessarily mean that defaulting to an entirely virtual workforce is the best option.

Dropbox has made the move towards a virtual-first environment, rolling out new trainings, technologies, and toolkits to support the transition, while preserving the means to gather in person across new Dropbox Studio spaces. Miro has chosen to return to their previous model, with a baseline of three days in office per week to create “thriving hubs” in each of their key geographies.

Below are some of the key themes that emerged from our insightful conversation on this topic with Melanie and AJ, coupled with several of the survey-based findings from our most recent COVID Impact analysis.

You can find a recording of the entire discussion here. For a copy of our full study, please reach out to:

1. Optimize for intentional decision-making over universal flexibility.

While Dropbox and Miro may have landed in different places, their approach shares many similarities behind the scenes—most notably the intensity of the strategic thought that went into making an intentional, proactive decision over defaulting to infinite flexibility resulting in neither of them selecting a hybrid model.

Most internal and external surveys of employees point to a common desire for continued flexibility. Our own survey data suggests that over 90% of employees have a stated preference for a hybrid model of some form.

However, it can be incredibly tricky to disaggregate our personal experiences and challenges of living through a pandemic with those related to virtual work. In our recent survey of people leaders, most estimated that, on average, employees’ mental health has been most severely impacted over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, while productivity has slightly benefited from a remote environment.

So then, for employees who prefer to remain remote even as their colleagues begin to return to physical office space, shouldn’t that optionality remain intact?

“So much of leading people is being responsive, listening, empathizing, and helping remove pain points,” AJ explained. “The tough thing about [a hybrid] choice was there were systemic effects. If we give people what they want, they don’t actually want what they end up getting… you find remote employees get massively undervalued, no one caters to the remote experience, people come to work and there’s not really enough people there to get the critical mass to make it worthwhile so they leave anyway… It is so easy to change jobs in 2021… we want people who really want to be here and are active and invested members of their communities.”

Melanie echoed the importance of intentional decision-making when it comes to culture, rather than simply allowing inertia to carry organizations forward.

 “Any shift in the way we work requires a total revamp of the employee experience and the way in which we support our employees,” she said. “We deliberately moved away from a culture of in office entitlements and towards flexibility and the notion of work-life harmony—the opportunity to evolve our culture to focus on people over places… But we recognize that virtual work isn’t a universal preference and that most employees that joined Dropbox didn’t join a remote-first workforce so it’s not going to be for everyone.”

2. Hybrid models can be tough to pull off.

While both Miro and Dropbox concluded that a mixed virtual/in-office workforce was not aligned with the cultures they are focused on building, Melanie and AJ outlined a few pointers for leaders navigating a hybrid model:

Melanie suggests investing in manager capabilities, by providing coaching on “how to communicate more effectively, how to build teams with equity and inclusion in mind, and how to engage teams virtually.” Melanie adds that “establishing success metrics from the outset is really important around things like performance outcomes, promotion velocity, engagement, and belonging for in-office vs. remote employees to get ahead of any unfavorable trends or risk factors.”

In order to ensure remote employees don’t get deprioritized, AJ suggests “having dedicated resources to support each of the distinct employee experiences—one for in-office employees, one for remote” and to ensure that “within a team or functional group, you have a single model.”

3. In-person connection remains paramount, and where these interactions take place may be changing.

Even in Dropbox’s virtual-first strategy, there is recognition that nothing can replicate in-person connectivity and serendipity. This is the basis for the creation of Dropbox Studios where employees will be able to gather for team meetings, learning and development classes, and culture building.

“We’ve increased our travel budgets to ensure that all teams—no matter how—can come together in person, at least every quarter for things like strategic planning, and team events, and learning and development,” Melanie explains

Our recent survey of anonymous employees across technology companies found that despite a strong preference for flexibility, 100% of respondents were looking for at least some amount of in-person time in their ideal future work situation. Additionally, the vast majority of respondents expressed excitement to regain greater connectivity with their coworkers and reap the benefits of more effective team meetings and collaboration in an in-person environment.

At the same time, our survey indicated that over 60% of decision-makers plan to rework their office layout in some way.

AJ says that at Miro, “We need to build offices that are worth the commute. We’ve invested in some great architects and designers to think through the physical space. And on the cultural ritual side, we’ve got community managers who are thinking through things on that front…  I would rather our spaces feel like plywood, but with the ability to move the plywood around so we can find out what works because one will get to a better answer by making people feel like they are building this together.”

4. This is an ongoing experiment. As such, treat these new models as prototypes and invite employees to be co-creators in their experience.

After over a year of forced remote work, it should come as no surprise that what was novel has become familiar for some; for others, what was mundane has become precious. But for almost all employees that have been remote for over 16 months, forced adaptation has led to a new crop of apprehensions related to ‘returning’ to what was once so familiar.

Beyond lingering concerns related to health and safety, the dread of commuting and the accompanying loss of time efficiencies afforded by working-from-home are top among all employee apprehensions related to return to office.

But what if we reframed this not as a return at all, but rather a continued evolution, co-created by employees, towards a better way of working?

AJ explained the importance of employee participation in the roll-out of their new office-first culture: “We want to use this transition phase as a prototyping experience—experimenting with different physical layouts, meeting schedules, etc. Treating it like a product and getting to a model that works through iteration and by building a sense of agency in being a co-creator to increase buy-in.”

Melanie mirrored much of this sentiment in emphasizing that they are retaining a learning mindset throughout their entire approach.

“We don’t know what the future of the future of work will look like,” Melanie said. She also highlights the opportunity to challenge the status quo along the way: “Do we really need to be meeting for 8 or 9 straight hours every day? How do we use asynchronous collaboration and leverage our new tools in decision making?” Finally, she reminds all leaders of the importance of not just regularly soliciting feedback from employees throughout this learning phase, but also ensuring it is “actively and publicly” incorporated.

If nothing else, COVID-19 has been a visceral reminder that we are both far more interconnected than we could have ever imagined. Our ability to adapt is greater than we often realize and is only further bolstered by our sense of community.

As leaders, we must remember this as we design (and re-design) how and where we will work. There are no perfect solutions, no universal preferences, and no easy answers. But with the right balance of empathy and intent, we have the ability to seize this opportunity to continue to innovate, adapt, and build workplaces that optimize for both flexibility, and humanity.

Watch the full ICONIQ Ideas event recording here for additional topics such as salary adjustments for remote workers, in-office vaccination requirements, team and experience budget updates, and more.