Dropbox's CEO says managers mandating returns to the office are just 'mashing the go-back-to-2019 button’ and creating toxic relationships with staff

Chief executives have spent the last year shaking off pandemic-era habits of working from home and permanently abandoning their fully remote work policies. Even Zoom, the company that helped to usher in the age of remote work, ordered its employees back to HQ for at least two days a week.

And for a growing number of companies, including Nike and Deutsche Bank, it seems like even the happy medium of hybrid working was a fake compromise—they’ve been slowly increasing the number of days staff are required to show face. 

But not all CEOs agree that the push to return to office is a smart move.

“They keep mashing the go-back-to-2019 button, and they see it’s not working,” Dropbox’s cofounder and CEO Drew Houston said as he slammed the trend in an interview with The Verge. “Then they just push harder and then you have this really toxic relationship.”

But Houston has some stern words of warning for those doubling down on rigid return-to-office mandates: Flexible firms will steal your talent no matter what perks you attempt to sweeten the sour deal with.

“People have voted with their feet that they value flexibility a lot more than snacks in the office,” he insisted. “At home, you can set up your environment exactly how you want it and not just have snacks but your dog and something that’s totally purpose-built for you.”

Ultimately, he said that “the market will tell us” if forcing workers back to the office is actually a good way to recruit and retain talent—or “profitable”.

In-office working is as outdated as movie theatres

Some CEOs seem perplexed by the resistance to working day-in, day-out in an office. After all, we did it for generations before the pandemic. But Houston highlights that’s because workers then “didn’t have an option”.

Now, the cat’s out of the bag and workers today know that they can be equally—if not more—productive from home, all the while saving time and money on commuting and childcare. 

“That’s what a lot of CEOs today misunderstand,” he said, before comparing RTO mandates to trying to force people to go back to watching films at movie theaters instead of on TV.

“Maybe you can do it for Top Gun once,” he added, “But the world has moved on.”

It’s why Dropbox is subletting “a lot” of its empty office space in San Francisco and rebranding how it views its 2,600-strong workforce. 

“We see our employees as our customers,” Houston explained. That means offering collaborative propositions that staffers actually want to buy into. 

“We’re finding that these retreats and off-sites and things like that are often a lot more effective than asking people to commute.”

Since implementing a “virtual first” model in April 2020, 90% of workers have gone fully remote—and it’s enabled the company to compete in the big leagues with “folks like Microsoft and Google” for talent, the CEO said.

CEOs are backtracking on RTO

Tech companies like Meta declared 2023 that was going to be the “Year of Efficiency” and demanded workers return to work in the name of productivity, while simultaneously scaring staff into complying with mass layoffs. 

Although tech CEO’s mandates received the most attention—probably because entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg previously championed fully remote work—they weren’t alone in their thinking.

In fact, at the time, 63% of CEOs predicted that working from home would end by 2026, according to KPMG’s Global CEO Outlook.

What’s more, 90% of CEOs were so steadfast on summoning staff back to their vertical towers that they were linking salary raises, promotions, and favorable assignments to those who showed face more.

But after experiencing more resistance to mandates than perhaps expected, bosses are backtracking and thinking more in line with Houston.

KPMG once again surveyed CEOs of companies turning over at least $500 million and found that just one-third expect a full return to the office in the next three years.

Now, leaders who believe that office workers will be back at their desks five days a week are actually in the small minority: Nearly half of CEOs have conceded that the future of work is hybrid.

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