The Future of Work (Hint: There’s Less)

If we want to talk about the future of work, we need to first assess the present. In 2019, and certainly in Silicon Valley, work involves tools galore. We have platforms for emailing, messaging across teams, tracking projects and productivity, as well as generating, searching, and storing content (“the work”). Now, how often are you jockeying from one to the next and back around again on any given workday?

“The tools we are using have made it impossible to focus,” Drew Houston, co-founder and CEO of Dropbox, said to the crowd gathered at the company’s inaugural Work in Progress conference on September 25 in San Francisco, where he announced the launch of Dropbox Spaces, an integrated platform that brings you and your work into, well, focus. By consolidating where you send an email, Slack a colleague, or start a Zoom videoconference, to name a few, the predominant aim of Dropbox Spaces is to create a calmer, de-cluttered workspace, both for individuals as well as the teams they comprise. (Dropbox has deep integrations with Extensions, Zoom, Slack, Atlassian’s tool Trello, Adobe Sign, DocuSign, Gmail, Vimeo, and Google DSS, among others.)

With this “evolution” of Dropbox from a “shared folder into a collaborative workspace,” as the company puts forth, Dropbox Spaces inverts a timeless adage: more is not necessarily better. It’s a direction various sectors are heading in thanks to smart tech. Houston pointed to smart shopping as a cultural example of how we’ve shifted from wanting a lot of options to personalized, curated options, before positing: “What if your workspace was actually smart?”

From Dropbox’s new desktop app, the “For you” tab uses DBXi, Dropbox’s machine intelligence platform, to surface more of what you need and less of what you don’t as it gets to know you better, including files, emails, calendar events, meeting notes, team highlights, and search queries (you can now search image files based on content rather than file name). At a press Q&A later, Houston, refreshingly with nothing more than a folder of handwritten paper notes and a pen in hand, told reporters he’s most excited that a key benefit of machines getting smarter, including his own, is the amount of manual day-to-day work it might save us, be it cutting and pasting or looking up something—in other words, the work that slows us down.

But first, on a transformed Pier 48, jutting east of the new Chase Center and Oracle Park, Houston took to the main stage to deliver the opening keynote to the full-day event. Houston both called on personal experience watching his father work a job where he funneled five emails a day instead of 500, and pointed to the data: collectively we are spending 40% of our time on the actual work that might comprise our job descriptions and a shocking 60% on the distracting daily apparatus. “Take Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of the work week and light them on fire,” Houston said to drive the point home. What’s more, he cited that two-thirds of workers now report being disengaged at work and just plain exhausted, and the World Health Organization has now designated “occupational burnout” a diagnosable condition. This was the broader outcome Houston hopes his product will deliver on: a worker who—in part thanks to an organized, in-sync, and smart workspace—can become happier, more fulfilled, well rested, and connected to others. “That’s what this conference is about,” he said of what will be an annual event.



Indeed, the ensuing lineup of executives, writers, musicians, designers, and breakout sessions delved into themes larger than one product. Houston sat down with Open AI Chairman and CTO Greg Brockman to discuss solving problems beyond human capacity. New York Times reporter Nellie Bowles interviewed Oakland-based Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking—which is now a documentary series on Netflix—about craft, creativity, and collaboration (as shown above). Pop-Up Magazine performed stories from near and far. And UC Berkeley Professor Dr. Alison Gopnik talked “modern work” with Vox Editor-at-Large and Co-founder Ezra Klein, the two landing on the unfortunate disappearance yet profound importance of “exploratory time” when it comes to flow and idea generation. (A prime example: Houston started Dropbox in 2007 because he “never wanted to carry a thumb drive again,” and he had the time to explore a solution while riding the bus to MIT.)

All of which led to a closing keynote by none other than Former First Lady Michelle Obama, who spoke with Houston about balancing work and family, including advocating for working parents.

In the end, the overall tone about “the future of work” was a hopeful one. After all, with a little less chaos, what might we see, discover, or create next?

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