DeMagSign
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Designing A Virtual First Culture That Supports Creativity

Dropbox is one of the first companies to go Virtual First. Executive Editorial Director Tiffani Jones Brown shares insights and tips on staying effective, healthy, and creatively energized in this new era of work.

  • Clear problems to solve. Design schools teach that healthy constraints are essential to creativity. I think the same is true in organizations. Without a clear problem to solve, it’s easy to get stuck in tactics (so zoomed in, you forget to be creative) or blue sky thinking (so zoomed out, you forget what the goal is). So one thing we’re working at Dropbox is to frame problems more clearly. What are we here to do, really? Who are we doing it for, and why? Where do we want to take them from, to? What pain are we alleviating for people? I’ve noticed that when teams have a just-right mandate — a clear goal, but flexibility in how they approach it — they come up with more creative ideas.
  • Space to focus. When the pandemic hit, many companies noticed a big increase in meetings and messages, as employees struggled to stay connected and feel relevant. With that came more after-hours work, and increased reports of burnout. Anyone who invents things will tell you they need uninterrupted blocks of time to do their best work — and yet many company cultures (not to mention technologies) seem designed to interrupt our flow. At Dropbox, we’re trying to combat this with “core collaboration hours” (CCH), a daily four-hour block of time where everyone is available for synchronous work. When we limit real-time work to CCH, we all get back four hours in the day to focus deeply, and think creatively. I’ve noticed a big shift in the quality of my thinking and writing since getting back more focus time — I have more ideas, and I’m able to dig into them more.
Virtual First Toolkit: How to manage your time
  • A culture of creative experimentation. When the stakes are high or the people are stressed, it can be easy to latch on to the first sure-fire solution. But in my experience, companies that encourage a try-and-learn approach are more inventive, long-term. During the pandemic, we were all suddenly forced into a remote work setup. This meant we needed to rapidly prototype new ways of working in order to stay effective and maintain a sense of togetherness. At Dropbox, this messy experimentation produced all sorts of cultural innovations — Virtual First toolkits, monthly Fridays off to combat pandemic burnout, and enormous changes in our company habits (including drastically cutting down meeting time).
  • An inspiring purpose. I worked with a co-founder once who was an incredible storyteller. He was able to express our company’s mission in an authentic and inspiring way that sparked imagination. I think teams benefit from a “why” that they connect to emotionally — one that’s true, but bigger than a tactical mandate. The why could be about the change you want to make in the world, or it could be something simple, like aspiring to greater beauty and craft. I think that when employees feel deeply connected to your purpose, they’re more likely to break out of work ruts, and put more heart and soul into the work, which is great for creativity.
Illustration for Dropbox by Justin Tran

Tools

  • Digital whiteboarding tools like Miro, which let teams collaborate and brainstorm when they don’t have real whiteboards available
  • Plain old-fashioned docs like Dropbox Paper, for drafting ideas, reviewing design, or having async 1:1s

Practices

  • Burstiness. When teams agree to go online at the same time, they can use tools like Slack to bat ideas back and forth in short bursts (versus having to wait all day for a proper email response, or getting interrupted when they’re trying to focus).
  • Writing 101. Virtual First means reading and writing alllll day long. So it’s a good idea to brush up on writing best practices, like keeping things concise (seriously, try cutting your docs in half!), putting your bottom line up top (BLOT) rather than burying it in a hard-to-read wall of text, and paying extra attention to your tone, since it’s harder to know what someone intends when you can’t read their facial expressions.
Illustration for Dropbox by Justin Tran
Image: Virtual First Onboarding Game, Dropbox
Illustration for Dropbox by Justin Tran
Illustration for Dropbox by Justin Tran
  • From all-day syncs → async by default
  • From busyness → impact
  • From overload → focus
  • From disconnection → belonging
  • From consensus-driven → conflict mastery
Virtual First Toolkit: How to shift your mindset

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Giorgia Lombardo

Editor of DeMagSign, Head of Brand & Comms at Design Matters. Interested in design, society, and culture.