Looking back into 2020, it looks like our world is in turmoil, from a global pandemic and climate disasters to the mundane details of what it means to go to work every day. But the bright side for most people in office jobs is that, in the long run, the rise of remote working might be the best thing that has happened to knowledge work for generations.
If you had heard what was going to happen a year ago, you wouldn’t have believed it. “The job as we know it is done. Let’s all come home, sit on our couches with our laptops and figure out what to do from there. “A new study by Dropbox and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) shows people work longer and feel more stressed since I left remotely. It can be hard to imagine anything good coming out of it.
But we have already gained a lot, such as the ability to work from anywhere and extra hours to spend as a family or as we wish. The vast majority of employees are already saying they don’t want to return to office work until the pandemic is over when it’s over. This is clear in Dropbox’s internal surveys and in our study with EIU; workers say the advantages of remote work far outweigh the disadvantages.
And the benefits will become clearer over time. Employees will escape heavy commutes and have more control over their lifestyle choices. Businesses will become stronger by integrating dispersed talents with diverse perspectives. The opportunity will extend far beyond exclusive urban clusters.
As the benefits of distributed work become the norm, employees will demand them. Companies that understand this and adapt will be the winners in this new world. They will attract the best talent, ship the best products, and gain the most market share. Those who do not evolve will be left behind.
But to make the most of this opportunity, we’ll have to fundamentally reinvent the experience of the job itself. Distributed work is a new medium. The processes and tools we currently use have been glued together in response to the pandemic. But what if we built them for the new world? How could we intentionally rethink the work to unlock the potential of this new distributed model?
Let’s start with the obvious: the offices. Knowledge work has gone beyond a physical framework where everyone spends the day working together. In our study with EIU, workers said they were able to concentrate better at home than before. But they also feel disconnected and say it’s harder to start new projects with multiple remote collaborators. Distributed Work allows us to redefine “the workplace” to mean “wherever work takes place” and get the best of both worlds. At Dropbox, we’ve decided that focused work should take place at home (or anywhere in private), while our offices will be refitted to foster human connection.
Next, let’s reinvent the work week. The 40-hour workweek in the office with a daily commute was an artefact of factory work. Back then, you had to be in a physical location with other people to do your job. Today more and more people are employed in a kind of knowledge work that can be done asynchronously.
We now have the possibility to rethink the working week in a flexible way according to individual needs. But this will require a new social contract at work. Businesses will need to trust employees to do their jobs without constantly monitoring attendance time, and people will need to take more responsibility for their bottom line.
Maybe you are a night owl or an early bird. Maybe babysitting means your best working hours turn daily. If “the workplace” now means the place where work takes place, “the work week” will mean when the work is best for each person. At Dropbox, we embrace non-linear work. We limit core collaboration hours and encourage employees to customize their own schedules beyond that.
Reinventing the workweek is as much a mind shift as planning. With this will come the ability to prioritize and create time to shut down. It will also make the work more durable. The antidote to burnout doesn’t have to be working fewer hours – it’s fully there for what matters most to you, both in your professional and personal life.
Finally, there is the technology we use at work. New digital experiences will make all of this possible. Machine learning and intelligent software platforms will make it easier to organize all of a company’s information so that employees can find what is relevant to them without asking colleagues in real time. Endless digital conference rooms will allow you to have a space for each workgroup where all your project material and meeting notes are always available, and no one but you ever erases your whiteboard.
These new experiences will go far beyond what physical spaces can accommodate, just like Google or Wikipedia search surpasses any physical library. They will allow businesses to go beyond rigid systems and real-time meetings for decision making. They will help us set priorities and devote more time to in-depth and focused work. We’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible when we design for a distributed workforce.
We went through a one-way door. The shift to distributed work is the greatest transformation to knowledge work since the term was invented in 1959. Its impact will be comparable to the rise of mobile and cloud. Distributed labor will unlock the potential of these technologies in the same way the road system unleashed the potential of cars and ultimately reconfigured modern life.
While it’s clear we won’t be looking back, much of how we experience work physically and digitally on the other side of that door is yet to be determined. It’s up to all of us – from business veterans to those new to the workforce – to seize the opportunity. We can decide how we want to work and reinvent it for the better.
Drew Houston is the co-founder and CEO of Dropbox.
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