Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

How top companies are embracing a ‘virtual first’ approach to workplace culture during the pandemic

February 24, 2021, 11:47 PM UTC

The coronavirus pandemic has forced companies of all sizes and industries to recalibrate on the fly. For many, this challenge been felt most sharply in how they manage their people and preserve their culture in today’s largely remote work reality.

Four executives from a diverse array of industries joined Fortune’s Reimagine Work Summit on Wednesday for “Building the Future of Culture and Communication,” a panel discussion on how their firms have gone about meeting this challenge. While noting the formidable obstacles facing their companies, they also pointed out ways in which the pandemic has offered opportunities to develop corporate culture and collaboration in new, different ways.

Dropbox vice president of design Alastair Simpson experienced the pandemic’s disjointing impact on the workplace first hand, having joined the cloud storage giant last March amid stringent lockdown measures. To this day, Simpson has never been to Dropbox’s offices nor met any of his coworkers in person—circumstances that forced him “to think about how do I build up trust [with colleagues] in a remote environment?”

Simpson noted that Dropbox’s shift to a “Virtual First” approach has entailed several unorthodox ways of ensuring employees stay on the same page and have access to the kind of collaboration that’s been so sorely missed during the pandemic. That has included creating “core collaborative hours,” four-hour blocks in which Dropbox employees are all online at the same time, as well as recreating the firm’s offices into “studios” enabling the opportunity for in-person collaboration.

Dropbox’s efforts have been about “recogniz[ing] the importance of bringing people together for key interpersonal moments,” Simpson said. “We’ve created a set of really flexible practices that we’ve written up and shared in our ‘Virtual First’ toolkit—frameworks and guardrails for how to communicate with your teammates. I think it really helps create an inclusive environment.”

Likewise, investment firm Ariel Investments has taken steps to ease the onboarding process for new hires. The Chicago-based financial services company has created “interview loops” for prospective employees, which provide them with “points of connection with people they could be working with at a future date,” according to Marlo Gaal, Ariel’s senior vice president and chief talent officer.

And Grace Zuncic, chief people and culture officer at Chobani, noted how the yogurt brand has launched a regular “virtual living room” program as a means of bringing its employees together during a time of heightened isolation and loneliness for many. One positive of the pandemic, she added, is that it has “made many of our organizations more human” and has forced companies to focus more on their people.

“I think that employers will continue to invest in the individual experience, in connectivity, and a place where people can feel truly connected to the mission and purpose of the organization,” Zuncic said.

Other companies, meanwhile, have seen the pandemic transform how their clients operate, with an acceleration of tech-enabled systems and processes at the forefront. Taher Behbehani, head of electronics giant Samsung’s mobile B2B division in the U.S., cited New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s rapidly expanding telemedicine services as an example of one client that has adapted and thrived during the pandemic.

With customers like the health care provider increasingly relying on new technologies and applications to deliver services, it has given Samsung an opportunity to “put these solutions together” and “bundle them for different verticals,” Behbehani said.