Q&A: Box CEO Aaron Levie looks at the future of remote work

Once a company focused on cloud-based file-sharing, Box now offers features to support remote productivity and teamwork. CEO Aaron Levie talks about his company's evolution – and how the workplace continues to change.

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Businesses have had to adapt quickly to remote working during the COVID-19  pandemic, but this year's shifts are only the start, says Box CEO Aaron Levie. The next phase will see office work processes digitized and automated to support workers – wherever they are – as a decade of workplace transformation takes place in the next two years.

Since launching as a simple cloud file-sharing app in 2005, Box has attracted 97,000 businesses to its content collaboration suite. It’s been building a wider range of enterprise features in recent years, and just last month unveiled a major UI update to support remote productivity and teamwork. That move followed the launch last year of Box Shield, for security, and Box Relay for workflow automation.

Box is not just supporting customers as they go remote – it is among many large companies now embracing a flexible approach to remote working; Box’s 2,000 employees will be allowed to work anywhere until at least January 2021. And while  Levie foresees a “hybrid” approach in the years ahead, with office locations continuing to play an important role, the proportion of remote workers who stay remote is likely to double.

Box CEO Aaron Levie Box

Box CEO Aaron Levie.

Following a strong financial quarter buoyed by demand for cloud apps, Levie spoke to Computerworld about Box’s roadmap and why the future of work will be “digital-first” whether employees are in the office or at home.

How has Box evolved from a file-sharing tool to support wider enterprise productivity and collaboration use cases? "We've doubled down on our investments in areas like workflow automation on our collaboration features, and our integrations with third-party tools like Zoom, Slack, WebEx and Office 365.

"Our platform is really about helping people be able to work from anywhere, work with anyone and then automate more and more of the critical business processes that that are going on in the organization."

As Box has evolved, has that changed how you see your competition? And where do you see your main competition now? "Well, I think most of our competition is legacy companies; on-premises systems like network file shares and document management tools. What we're really focused on is helping companies be able to move their data to the cloud, secure their information, automate their business processes and integrate with every app that they're using.

"The really powerful thing about Box is that we do that all in one place, as opposed to having lots of different applications that you have to kind of cobble together to manage different user experiences."

Remote work has increased significantly in response to the pandemic. How have you adapted Box's product strategy to deal with the situation that many businesses are facing? "Initially, we pivoted our product strategy to help customers securely access and share files from anywhere by improving functionality around our data security, threat detection, document classification and malware detection. That was our product Box Shield. We wanted to very quickly update the Box Shield product to help with data security.

"Then we have focused on making sure that we can improve the collaboration and integration experiences with Box, partnering with companies like Zoom and Slack and deepening our integrations with those platforms in a very seamless way. Those three areas - data security, collaboration and workflow - are the big bets right now as a platform.

"We pivoted the product roadmap very, very quickly in March to be able to respond to companies being able to work from anywhere. And now we're in execution mode as a company to help our customers with this environment."

You announced last month that your workforce will be remote until at least January 2021. What has your experience been with remote working and how has the shift affected productivity? "So far, it's been a pretty smooth experience. We are a company that already runs almost completely in the cloud. We use technology like Zoom, Slack and Okta to run our business, so we've been able to very quickly move to a cloud environment in terms of how we work.

"We've actually seen productivity really be the highest, I think, that we've ever seen it as a company. We are shipping software faster than we ever have before, and we are able to get in front of customers way more efficiently right now, because we can do [meetings] entirely over video. We are able to make decisions more quickly as a business.

"The way we're iterating on our business is faster than it ever has been. I'm incredibly happy and satisfied with the smoothness in which our organization has responded to this event, and we're just focused on making sure that we can continue to deliver for customers and make sure that we build the best platform right now.

"What we're seeing is that there are many ways we used to work when we went to the office that ended up just being very inefficient or very slow. When we move to remote work, what is really important is that we move to a 'digital-first' way of working. And when you move to a digital-first way of working, you get a lot of benefits because you can start to collaborate across time zones, across departments, across all layers of the organization.

"You're not just working with people that you happen to sit next to, or that you happen to go to a whiteboard and collaborate [with] in person. Instead, you can collaborate across the entire organization, with people all around the world in a very seamless and digital way.

"What's really exciting right now is the fact that we've been able to move to a digital-first way of working. That has made our ability to move quickly and innovate rapidly even more successful right now."

How are your customers - and businesses generally - adapting as these office-based work processes move into digital environments? "We get to be at the front lines of this because of our customer base, which is super exciting. What we've seen is a pretty smooth change for a lot of our customers. Right now, the debate is: 'Do people go back to the offices like we used to work, or do they stay remote way more?'

"Our vision is that the future is probably going to be a hybrid one, where you're still going to have offices for large corporations, because you're going to have a part of your workforce that wants to come into the office and see people and use better internet and be able to collaborate in real-time. But you're also going to want to have more choice and more flexibility with you for your employees.

"We think the future is this idea of being able to work from anywhere and have a digital-first workplace that bridges the physical office in the virtual office. That's really where we see this new hybrid way of working, where everything that can be made digital will be made digital, and you'll be able to pull up a device and chat with people all around the world, and collaborate instantly whether you're in an office or you work from home. But fundamentally, it's a digital-first workplace."

What will that mean for Box internally? Do you have targets in terms of proportion of the workforce that will be entirely remote? "We already have about 15% of our employees that already worked from home previously. I expect that number to increase, to maybe 25%, maybe 30%. I don't know the ultimate number, but we are going to introduce more flexibility for employees and I think more people will take advantage of that flexibility.

"But I think what's going to happen is that even when you come back to the office, the office is going to look different. We're not going to be in conference rooms and really long, in-person meetings as much. We're going to be working from our workstation, we'll be doing a video conference from our computer, even if we come into the office. And so I think the way that we work within an office environment is still going to be a digital-first way of working."

Can you talk about the decision to add new features last month aimed at supporting remote workers? "We had a bunch of areas where we wanted to improve the user experience around remote work very quickly. We think this environment has two phases.

"The first phase is the immediate move to remote work, so people needing to respond to, effectively, almost a crisis – companies in the Fortune 500 moving to remote work mode instantaneously. We've been focused on building a lot of features that help companies work in a remote work-context rapidly....

"The second phase is really going to be companies going and digitizing more and more of their manual or physical business processes. So, digitizing their supply chain, digitizing their client engagements and client experiences. It might be a hospital that's digitizing their telemedicine experience. In that case, we want to have functionality that helps our customers transform their business processes, be able to move to more digital platforms, be able to work in a more digital-first way.

"That's now the second phase of what our strategy and our roadmap is really focused on; things like workflow automation, our platform APIs. That's really where a lot of investment is going to be going."

How important is workflow automation specifically as more businesses move to the cloud and support remote workers? "Workflow automation is fundamental. If you're in a physical office, you have a lot of business processes where somebody would just talk to the person next to them, and they would kick off the process by literally physically communicating with their colleagues.

"When you're in a remote environment, or if you're in a distributed environment, you have to find better ways of automating those workflows so you don't rely on that person-to-person collaboration and communication that is so often required.

"Our workflow suite, Box Relay is really, really fundamental to being able to help customers go and automate and drive that workflow process within their enterprise."

You mentioned the second phase of organizations starting to digitise processes. Obviously this is going to vary from company to company, but how far along were many businesses with this prior to the pandemic? Is it a big leap for a lot of customers to digitize on a wider scale like that? "I think it is. It's been easier for companies to move into a remote work mode, [but] it's going to take still quite some time, the next couple of years, to fully digitize the underlying business processes of many organization.

"We think that you’re going to have about a decade of transformation that gets accelerated into a one- to two-year period. But it still will take some time, because this is really about companies fundamentally reimagining their underlying business processes for the digital age. And that will take some work to go in and rethink how these businesses operate."

I know there's a lot of talk about the digital transformation, with two years’ worth going into a couple of months. But I see that there's also this longer term and deeper transformation going on as well. "That's exactly right, I think we saw two years of digital transformation happen in two months, and we're about to see 10 years happen in probably one to two years. Okay, so we're going to pull in a full decade of transformation in the next 18 to 24 months, where you're going to see every single industry, every single business, go digital, first retail, healthcare, life sciences, the federal government – all of these organizations, all of these industries will be going into a digital-first way of operating."

What else can tell me about Box's product roadmap or priorities going forwards?  "We've never been more excited about our product roadmap and our product strategy. We think that as companies move to the cloud, they're going to need to reimagine how they work with their content, how they share their data, how they secure their information. And we want to be at the centre of how businesses are working with their data in the cloud. So that's, that's going to be our focus."

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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