Welcome to The Neighbourhood: Dropbox HQ is a City in Itself

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See inside the hub of the $10 billion start-up.

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

Working at Dropbox starts with a cupcake. Yep, when a job offer is made, the new employee is treated to a special home delivery of a beautifully designed pink box housing a DIY cupcake kit. It’s not surprising for an organisation whose fifth (and clearly cutest) company value is a picture of a cupcake, representing the importance of delight – one of the core elements Dropbox strives to offer their users. The kit contains all the ingredients to make your own gluten-free, vegan-friendly, make-in-a-microwave-because-I-want-to-eat-it-right-now cupcake.

It’s a clever and simple way to encourage prospective employees to accept a Dropbox job offer. And it’s just one example of the sweet (not to mention savoury) treats Dropbox has available on its San Francisco premises.

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

Planning for the new Brannan Street workplace started three years ago, with the move to the 300,000-square-foot space – HQ’s third move since the company began – marking the first time all 1500 San Francisco employees would be working under the same roof. The previous set up had staff split between two buildings blocks away from each other.

The undertaking was executed in collaboration with designers at California-based architecture firm Rapt Studio (whose clients include PayPal, YouTube, Fender and HBO), as well as Glara Ahn and Claire Pederson from Dropbox. They made sure they asked for input from the employees themselves.
“As part of the research to understand what Dropbox employees would need in their new office to maximise productivity, efficiency and collaboration, employees were asked to sketch out how they work at the office,” says Glara Ahn, Dropbox’s lead designer. “We found that employees like variety in both the work they [are] doing as well as where they [are] working.”

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

The result is like a mini city, made up of landmarks and distinct neighbourhoods that have ‘shared community values’ to cater to the work styles and needs of individual employees and groups. Each themed area, with peripheral meeting spaces, can house dozens of people who organically come together based on their working styles and personalities (lovers of quiet rejoice!). “The new headquarters truly reflects the Dropbox mission of collaboration by providing a multitude of options to work, as no one individual is productive in the same way.”

The concept was sparked in the discovery phase when the architects learnt a major source of frustration in the previous space was that most offices were tucked away down narrow hallways, which made collaborating difficult and disruptive.

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

“Just like a city plaza with roads that eventually lead to your home, the new office is designed to enable three types of human interaction,” says Glara. “Public, small groups, and completely private at the individual level. The office inspires creativity and collaboration, enabling employees to work anywhere – whether in a one-on-one huddle at the whiteboard, in team pods, or elsewhere.”

And, just like a city, it’s filled with places you want to explore. Stop by the sophisticated pink-carpeted library, all curving lines and modernist furniture, inspired by the interiors of Italian opera houses. Check out the ‘Deep Focus’ room with its futuristic lighting designed to appeal to solo programmers, lost in the worlds on their screens. How about the rooftop garden, where employees can take in the San Francisco skyline, while surrounded by native northern Californian plants?

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

Top of the exploration list is definitely the onsite cafeteria, The Tuck Shop, designed by Rapt Studio and run by Brian Mattingly. Before Dropbox, Brian worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in England and France, and was an executive chef at Google, Apple and the California Culinary Academy. Every day he creates a brand new menu – breakfast, lunch and dinner – never repeating a dish. It’s an approach that’s whimsical, yes, but not frivolous. Brian uses the Monterey Bay Aquarium watch list as a guide for sourcing sustainable fish. He sources hormone- and nitrate-free meat from nearby farmers, and works with local producers to support the community’s food system.

The 4000-square-foot food hall is divided into different stations including vegan, Asian and Mediterranean. And for dessert, ice-cream in a different flavour is created each day by pastry chef Laurie Moran, a former pastry chef for Le Bernardin and head chef at the Tokyo outpost of Dominique Ansel (the man who invented the cronut). Word is, some employees keep mini freezers under their desk to stash their favourite flavours.

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

The food is so good that there was some debate as to whether it was actually awarded a Michelin star. “The Tuck Shop doesn’t have a Michelin star, but the food is incredibly tasty,” says Glara. “[It] is our most popular area in the office.” Little wonder. Did we mention employees eat for free?

Offering further proof that you need to take the serious with the sweet, one of the first things CEO Drew Houston shows new employees at the company (now valued at US$10 billion) is a slideshow of logos belonging to failed tech companies such as Myspace, Netscape and Lotus. It’s a reminder that at any point you can be sideswiped by a disruptive new upstart and left spinning while they rocket past to success. Each of those failed companies was once young, new and fresh before disappearing into oblivion. The message is clear: it happened to them. It could happen to us. So let’s work together.

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

A sign erected in the new digs, next to a US$100,000 chrome statue of a panda (the company mascot) tells a cautionary tale: “Pandas have meant many things to Dropboxers over the years, and the idea here was to commemorate the original… it wasn’t the right call. When it comes to building a healthy and sustainable business, every dollar counts. And while it’s okay for us to have nice things, it’s important to remember to ask ourselves, ‘Would I spend my own money this way?’ We’re keeping the panda as a company-wide reminder of the importance of both our past and future in thoughtful spending – but it’s just one example. If you spot other ways we can help Dropbox save, please share them.”

Droppbox HQ May 2016 Photographed by Laure Joliet

Photo via Laure Joliet

And while Dropbox, with its half a billion users, does want employees to continue keeping an eye on costs, Drew still jokes that once you divide the panda by the 15,000 or so Dropbox staff it’s
not a “meaningful” expense. As he says: “every office needs a chrome panda.”
“Dropboxers tell us that, besides the perks,” says Glara, coming back to the office, “what keeps them here is the ability to work on interesting projects that scale and impact millions of people all over the world.”

And, just quietly, those cupcakes can’t hurt, either.

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