Next to a carefully positioned guitar, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston logs onto yet another video meeting, this time to talk about his cloud software company’s experiences during Covid-19 and in the months to come. “We’ve experienced the most dramatic possible shift to remote work that you could imagine,” he starts things off.
Houston, like many business leaders, tech employees and knowledge workers worldwide, has grown accustomed to the virtual grind. “It’s pretty easy for your day to turn into 19 half-hour meetings and for you not to physically move in 10 hours,” he tells Forbes in an exclusive interview. “All while all these different tools are blinking, and you’re in meetings back to back, but then your Slack’s blowing up, your email — just the level of overwhelmed you experience, we think has big room for improvement.”
Cofounded by Houston and Arash Ferdowsi in 2007 and a public company for the past two years, Dropbox has long looked to improve office productivity, blurring the lines of work and home, its CEO says. That’s taken on heightened importance in the age of the coronavirus, when workers around the world have, or still are, working from home full-time.
For $9 billion-market-cap Dropbox, which Houston says isn’t going back to the office itself until at least after September 1, that’s meant rethinking its products altogether. “For a lot of our customers, Dropbox is not just some folder on their desktop, it’s the place where all work happens. And we’re like, okay, that’s awesome,” Houston says. “One little issue – we never designed the product to do that.”
So in what its CEO calls “the first inning of distributed work,” Dropbox has looked to “wipe the slate clean.” The company has launched several new features built for the work-from-anywhere era, including a new passwords tool that stores and syncs passwords across devices with zero-knowledge encryption, a Vault tool that can secure more important information and grant family members emergency access for a fee – think wills and trusts, or other key documents, says Houston – as well as a backup feature that can automatically backup computer files to Dropbox, making the end device you use interchangeable, and a family billing plan of up to six accounts, intended for photos and other shared files.
The goal, Houston says, is a flexible work environment future in which workers don’t have to serve as amateur archaeologists, sifting through chat and video transcripts, texts and email threads, to remember what just happened or what objective comes next. “This is going to be a permanent shift. Many of us are excited to go back to the office. Many of us are excited to maybe not have to. That’s going to be the dynamic that continues; that’s going to be a permanent shift. So we’ve gone through a one-way door,” says Houston. “And I can’t think of a bigger shift in terms of our working life, certainly not one that’s that sudden.”
Cloud companies, and tech businesses in general, have proven integral in that moment. But from the use of facial recognition software by police to controversial decisions whether to fact-check — or leave up — social media posts by President Trump, the tech industry has also found itself under more scrutiny, too, as its decisions have wide societal effects.
“I think we all know that tech has an important influence on our lives,” says Houston about Dropbox’s stance. “The world needs leadership in general, and tech leaders are just one group, but I think being able to apply a constructive mentality like, how do we solve these problems? How do we contribute to these issues? We’ve got incredibly motivated and talented workforces – how do we activate them?”
Houston has donated $500,000 to Black Lives Matter and is matching all employee donations to that movement and other causes, he says. “We’re encouraging employees to get involved and make a positive impact on communities,” Houston adds. “We’re focused on making Dropbox and making tech in general the best and most inclusive possible place for all communities.”