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How to Support In-Person Interactions Within a Remote-First Workplace

publishedabout 1 month ago
4 min read

By now, it’s clear that remote work is here to stay. Gallup estimates that of the 125 million full-time jobs in the U.S., 60 million of these can be done from home. And according to numerous studies, the vast majority of companies that can offer remote or hybrid work arrangements are choosing to do so — and for good reason. Not only are employees just as productive working from home, they’re also increasingly demanding this type of flexibility in a bid to regain control over their work-life balance.

Despite the widespread appetite for remote work, organizations who have opted for a fully remote model have encountered some challenges along the way. Take Dropbox, for example. The company was one of the first to pledge that it would never return to an office-based environment, announcing in October of 2020 that it would become a “Virtual First” company.

As it turns out, however, shifting to a fully remote workplace had some unintended consequences for the file hosting company. In fact, Dropbox saw an unexpected increase in turnover in the fall of 2020, resulting in one of the highest attrition rates the company had ever experienced. A Business Insider article speculated that a lack of office perks might be one factor driving people to quit, noting that “the move to virtual first and an end to the kinds of perks that brought people together IRL shifted their loyalties and made leaving that bit easier.”

However, a TIME magazine article contradicted this thinking, describing how the vast majority of Dropbox employees preferred the flexibility to work remotely and felt they were more productive working from home. “Who needs free lunches, fancy gyms, and yoga studios?” the article states. “Turns out what most employees really want — at least at Dropbox — is the freedom to live and work where and when they want.”

So if Dropbox’s team members didn’t care that much about office perks, what was it, then, that led so many of them to leave? One hint comes from the TIME article, in which a Dropbox employee, when asked to describe what she misses about going into the office, reminisces about afternoon breaks where workers would spend time together. “I get energy connecting with people,” she said, “and that’s harder in a virtual environment.”

Now, a new piece in Fortune confirms that a lack of in-person interactions was largely the reason behind the company’s unexpected increase in turnover back in 2020. In the article, chief people officer Melanie Rosenwasser emphasizes that in transitioning to a virtual-first model, “We lost that in-person connection, which is required for shared identity and purpose.”

But things have come a long way in the two years since Dropbox’s employees first went remote. The company’s virtual-first strategy remains in full effect, but there’s been a renewed focus on in-person interactions. And the results speak for themselves: Dropbox’s record-high attrition rate has fallen to the lowest in company history, and employee engagement scores have increased by 12% since 2020.

Although the title of the Fortune article implies that offering in-person retreats was the primary way Dropbox achieved these results, in reality the company has taken a multi-pronged approach to bringing its team members together more often. Using their learnings and examples, in today’s article I’ll describe 3 ways that remote-first companies can support in-person interactions. Let’s take a look.

How to incorporate in-person interactions within a remote-first workplace

#1 – Create spaces for teams to get together

Assuming your company is remote-first, you’ll likely no longer have dedicated offices for solitary work. However, depending on your location, you may still want to provide spaces where employees can occasionally convene with their colleagues. Some organizations are leasing out co-working spaces for their team members, while others are redesigning their existing offices with socialization in mind.

At Dropbox, the company refitted its offices into what it calls Dropbox Studios. These spaces offer amenities like kitchens, conference rooms, and lounges with couches, and they’re used for everything from project kick-off meetings to team get-togethers. Permanent studies are located in San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, and Dublin. The company also rents “on-demand studios” in other cities where many employees live.

#2 – Bring workers togethers for regular retreats or off-sites

If your company’s workforce is widely dispersed, it probably won’t make sense to lease out group meeting spaces. However, it’s still a good idea to bring everyone together at least once or twice a year so your team members get some facetime with each other. Offering a retreat is also a great way to give your employees a break from the day-to-day stresses of work, and it can refresh their thinking.

The way most companies approach this is to select a different city or destination each time — one that employees are excited about, and which lends itself to fun, team-building activities. At Dropbox, managers are encouraged to host at least one offsite a quarter. Sometimes these take place at Dropbox Studios, while other times a more unique destination is selected. Check out this article for some top U.S. locations for corporate retreats.

#3 – Facilitate meet-ups for employees who live in the same area

My last suggestion is to help employees make connections with each other if they’re located in the same geographic area. Dropbox, for example, has created 32 Dropbox Neighborhoods in cities across the U.S. These “Neighborhoods” are actually dedicated Slack channels, which are overseen by community managers who plan events for employees who live nearby to each other.

The goal is to bring remote team members together in more casual settings, replacing some of the informal or impromptu interactions that they would’ve enjoyed back when everyone was in an office. Happy hours, volunteering days, coffee meet-ups, lunches, and game nights are a few ideas to bring people together outside of the context of work.

Don’t underestimate the importance of facetime for your remote team members

While no two companies are alike, I think that any remote-first organization could benefit from revisiting its strategy around virtual work. As Dropbox discovered, encouraging some facetime could be the key to retaining remote employees and keeping them engaged. And there are multiple ways to go about this — whether you provide group spaces, offer company retreats, or encourage local meet-ups, all of these approaches can go a long way toward creating a sense of connection for your people.

Thanks for reading — be sure to join the conversation on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts on this topic!