Box CEO Aaron Levie on the digital future of work after COVID-19

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 29, 2020
In a transatlantic Zoom call, Box CEO Aaron Levie spoke about the impact of COVID-19, the future of work - and the history of digital teamwork

Aaron Levie Box CEO in screengrab from Zoom call 2020-06
Aaron Levie, Box (Screengrab from Zoom call)

Box CEO Aaron Levie spoke to European media earlier, ahead of the company's CIOWorks Europe virtual event tomorrow, with an update on the future of work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year has seen a mode of work that Levie has been promoting for the past decade or so suddenly catapulted out of the fringe to become what everyone is doing. That has brought Box's proposition center stage for many of its customers, he explains:

This is the first time in history where there's a major macro event, in this case, a health crisis, that the exact corollary of this event is digital transformation. Because social distancing, by definition, means that we have to use digital interfaces as a means of communicating and transacting.

So when you imagine everybody goes remote and distributed, then they have to be able to move data around somehow. Box became one of the leading ways that enterprises were able to do that. We were glad to play that role for so many of our customers. It really proved to them how important, how critical that infrastructure is to helping them run their business.

The journey from nice-to-have collaboration tool to critical infrastructure is repeated across industries, says Levie. Activity among national and local government customers has shot up 140%, healthcare providers and life sciences firms have used Box to sustain critical business processes, banks have turned to Box to onboard new customers and collaborate with them, media and entertainment firms have kept vital processes operational on Box. The impact of the pandemic has been a fundamental shift in IT strategy, he concludes:

In a million years, we'd never thought [that] one of the biggest catalysts and one of the biggest use cases driving the growth of the cloud would be a pandemic, and the environment that we're in right now. But obviously, it's completely shifted everybody's IT strategy around the world. And the way that we think about work is just fundamentally different today, from what it was three months ago.

Future of work is digital-first

Levie doesn't see things going back to the way they were before. While he's as eager as anyone else to get back to meeting people face-to-face instead of over a video link, the future of work will stay digital-first, he believes.

Whether an office reopens tomorrow, or a year from now, I think the world is going to be shifting toward a digital-first way of working ...

We imagine a future where you still have offices — personally, I'd love to go back to an office and see people in person. But that doesn't mean I want to give up the flexibility of being able to work from anywhere, or be able to have more flexible hours of when I go into the office.

I think what we've learned from this experience is that there's a lot more that we can do virtually than anybody ever imagined.

The enforced separation of the pandemic has made the benefits of remote working clear, he adds.

I've had certain days where I've been on video calls with people in Japan, in London, and three time zones in the US, in the same day. That's just not possible in the typical business environment that you had before March ...

I think what's going to end up happening is, we're going to carry forward some of those ways of working into the future. I think we're going to want to have that flexibility of being able to just jump on a virtual video call. We're used to this in terms of how we can communicate and collaborate, even after offices reopen.

Having said, that, employers do need to be watchful of how their employees are faring in this new world of remote work. As Levie explains:

It's super important that companies think about the health and wellness of their employees right now. Make sure that you are creating the right atmosphere for people to take the time that they need to take breaks and be able to take care of their families.

This is why he believes there will be some return to social interaction:

I don't think the future of work is 14 hours a day from your home office, doing that for decades and decades. I think you've got to get out. You've got to see people, whether that's at an office or whether that's at conferences. I don't think that's going to go away.

Enterprise IT 'continues to move forward'

Box's own shift to remote sales and implementation has been such that the company has been able to carry on business with very little change. Its sales model is now almost entirely virtual, and Levie says the company has been able to "close multi-million dollar deals in this environment while the customers are remote from us." There's been little sign of a slowdown in IT spending, he says.

I've been very encouraged by the fact that corporate IT is continuing to move forward. People are continuing to implement software deployment technologies to go and transform their workplace. And we haven't missed a beat on that front overall.

Box's product roadmap for the coming months is going to focus on three pillars of security and compliance, workflow, and integration to other productivity players, he said. This will include new security features and more controls around data privacy, and doubling down on integration to best-of-breed vendors such as Slack and Zoom. Box wants to stay true to its mission of being the place where businesses store their valuable content in the cloud, says Levie:

Companies are still going to have a deep need to be able to manage their digital information and their digital content. But employees are going to work from tools like Slack, or Teams, or Zoom, or Gmail, or whatever app they want to work from. It's our job to make sure that we're building this secure content management layer that connects to all those applications.

My take

The constraints of a Zoom video call are no barrier to Aaron Levie's characteristic ebullience, connecting from California just after midnight with a band of European media and analysts for whom it was first thing Monday morning. One question prompted a trip down memory lane for those of us who've been following the digital teamwork space long enough, as Levie recalled the days when it used to be called 'Enterprise 2.0', and 'groupware' long before that:

If you go back a decade and look at when we were talking about enterprise 2.0, there were all these ideas of consumerization of IT and social enterprise.

The ideas were all there, but they had to manifest differently because the internet had to get faster, browsers had to get better, we needed technologies like Zoom that started to emerge. And so we're finally seeing the actual manifestation of the thing that this industry has been talking about for 15 years.

I mean, maybe even longer — groupware. I'm sure that Mitch Kapor [founder of Lotus] is somewhere saying, you know, [groupware pioneer] Lotus Notes was really the inventor of all this and we're now just actually having this play out finally, where we are working in this real-time, virtual way that I think we've all been imagining for so long. [Notes creator] Ray Ozzie is saying, 'I told you, guys'.

Now we finally have technology that makes this all possible.

I always enjoy seeing things in historical perspective. We certainly have come a long way.

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