Aaron Levie, CoFounder of Box, explores why a hybrid workplace is the future of innovative companies.
Twelve Weeks ago, we sat down with Adam Grant, leading organizational psychologist, to discuss what the rapid shift to work from home might mean for businesses around the world and whether it was here to stay.
Having lived with the new model for nearly three months, we can finally move past educated speculation and say with confidence and conviction:
“We still don’t know!”
Businesses everywhere are still stuck in the middle as to whether or not remote work should be ‘the new normal’, so we decided to bring in an expert when it comes to helping companies transform the way they work.
Aaron Levie is the CEO, Cofounder, and Chairman at Box, which he launched in 2005. He leads the company in its mission to change how people and businesses operate so they can achieve their highest ambitions, which makes him uniquely positioned to talk about the next steps for companies that are looking at having a fully dispersed workforce.
Here are a few of the factors Aaron thinks you may want to consider when deciding whether or not your organization should adopt a permanent work from home model.
#1: Workers Won’t Give Up Flexibility
Think back to your pre-COVID life. We know you had 6% more muscle mass and about half the wine budget. Not that stuff – the other stuff. The work stuff.
Let’s start with your morning routine. We’re willing to bet it looked something like this:
6:15 AM: Gym (or snooze button + really, seriously planning to do it tomorrow)
7:15 AM: Shower
7:45 AM: Breakfast (often on the go and frequently a granola bar)
8:00 AM: Leave for work
8:25 AM: Drop the kids off at school
9 AM: Arrive at the office and drink as much caffeine as is medically permissible
No matter your circadian rhythm, network of support, favourite hot yoga class schedule, or how late you worked last night, odds are that you are looking at a pretty cookie-cutter program, give or take an hour.
But now, things are different. Hours and work location are truly flexible, and workers are enjoying a sense of agency and freedom that’s unprecedented in history.
Night owls, cottage owners, and caregivers rejoice!
It’s reasonable to expect that people, even senior leadership, won’t want to give up that sense of agency and ownership overnight.
“This massive shift has caused people to, I think, have a very different view of what work can be like,” says Aaron. “You go from the typical nine to five office-based work, where you spend 30 minutes or an hour and a half on a commute each way to the office. We might fit in some sort of productivity from nine to five, and then we go back. You may come into the workplace with, let’s say, eight hours of raw energy and time to be productive.”
In Aaron’s mind, this is not an effective way to run a team, and they’ve seen evidence of that with the increased performance on his own since moving to remote work.
#2: Productivity is Up, Up, Up
“In our remote work environment, we’ve probably shipped software faster than we ever have,” says Aaron. “We’ve been able to serve more customers than ever. We’ve been able to improve the velocity of our core business programs. As an organization, we’re quite excited about the potential of being distributed and being able to work remotely.”
The Box team has moved more product and spent more time with customers across the board since moving to remote work. Without the resources required to travel, they’re able to have one on one conversations with more clients, rather than merely the top few who get in-person visits.
And it’s not just the clients that are benefitting. Since moving to remote work, Aaron’s team has seen a pickup in collaboration and transparency.
“People are sharing more; they’re working together more. There’s a major increase, and I mean, very clearly, in virtual meetings and virtual conferences. And what we’re seeing is those virtual meetings aren’t just replicating what we used to do in the office. They’re starting to actually change the way that we work.”
For years, the business and innovation community has been talking about a few key ideas:
- Flat Organizations
According to Aaron, we’re seeing a dramatic acceleration of these as a result of the current crisis. An evolution that may have taken a decade organically has been completed in merely weeks and, he’s confident, this model is here to stay.
#3: In-Person Meetings Are Overrated
Put your hands in the air and back away from the conference table.
What is it about conference rooms? As a species, we treat them as a force at the helm of every great decision. Whether it’s Michael Scott calling endless futile meetings, or the Hooli campus on Silicon valley replicating the setup on a moving bicycle, the iconic image of a conference room has become prolific enough to earn a place in pop culture.
But now we know the secret – conference rooms are totally and utterly overrated.
“When you move to a virtual approach, you can include more people in the conversation. If you think about your typical office meeting, where you go into a conference room that can fit six to ten people, that’s an arbitrary but finite limit on the number of people who can participate in that conversation.”
Aaron’s group has been able to increase transparency and welcome more voices from all areas of the company to conversations that would once have taken place behind closed doors.
“It’s really changing the dialogue. It’s changing the strategy by letting more people with voices from throughout the organization to contribute to whatever that project is. We’re running a project now where, previously, we would have included eight to ten people. Now we have a Slack channel with a hundred, and they all contribute ideas. They pass ideas back and forth, and that’s actually helping create new levels of innovation.”
#4: Cyber Security Can Handle It
Data security is a top priority for any company dealing with sensitive information, particularly cloud companies and FinTechs. In the past, the ability to keep data safe would have posed a significant threat to the ability to move to a dispersed model.
“All of a sudden people are working on their personal laptops, on their own private wifi, and data security is really front and center in this environment. The protection of critical file assets and data in your databases and how people are accessing and communicating around the information are so unbelievably important.”
Fortunately, with the innovation in the tech sector over the past decade, Aaron is confident the industry is up to the challenge. Here are a few of the companies and products that Aaron thinks are worth looking at:
- Palo Alto Networks
And, of course, Box, which is focused on assisting people to securely access and share their files while they’re in that remote work environment.
To learn more about cybersecurity in remote work, check out this guide!
#5: It May Boost the Global Economy
According to Aaron, moving to a digital-first model could even compel companies to outsource more of their needs to international innovation ecosystems. Check out his explanation of how this might play out:
#6: But…Some People Like Going to the Office
We’ve listed only one counterweight to the many factors in favour of a fully remote workforce. We only need one, because it is exceptionally and immovably weighty: we are human, and humans like communities.
For every employee that wants to stay at home and embrace their new remote lifestyle, there’s one that just can’t wait to get back to their old routine, and another that wants something in the middle.
On Aaron’s team, they have a lot of employees that say, ‘I miss the office. I miss coming into work and seeing my friends, the colleagues that I built relationships with for many years!’
And those people are not alone. Aaron makes the excellent point that, in the 21st-century, companies are not just places where you punch in at the beginning of the day and keep your head down at your desk.
“It’s a community of people that, hopefully, you want to be around and learn from, and build your career with.”
So, if we have data and experts telling us that remote work is the best thing for businesses, but some teams miss their colleagues and routines, how in the hell are companies supposed to choose a path?
Simple – they don’t.
Conclusion: The Future is a Digital-First Hybrid
Despite the persistent trend of companies committing to remote work permanently, the Box team isn’t planning on staying fully digital. Instead, they’re looking at a digital-first hybrid model, which will allow them to retain the freedom and flexibility allotted by the fully dispersed routine to which people have become accustomed while offering the community feel of an as-needed workplace hub.
“We know that offices are still going to be important because they become a convening environment for the organization. At the same time, we have a lot of employees say, ‘this is going pretty well. Maybe even when offices do open, I want more flexibility of when I have to come into the office, what days I have to come in’, or ‘I want to move to a different state because my family’s there, but I don’t want to have to leave the organization to do that.’”
Winning at a Hybrid Model
Aaron imagines a future where people have complete flexibility about where they work and how they operate. Here are a few of the elements that Aaron thinks are essential to make this possible:
- Give employees physical hubs to access when they want to connect face to face.
- Let employees choose whether they want to come into the office or not. If they do decide to go in, let them do it on days and during hours that suit them with no judgment.
- Bridge the physical and digital work experiences with a fully digital workplace.
- Shift to a digital-first way of thinking, where video chats are always the de-facto option, and conference rooms are no longer where discussions happen. Don’t assume people will be there in person.
“Even when we go back to offices, we’re going to work in a digital-first mode of operating, which is going to mean being on video calls more. We’re going to be in Slack and other digital collaboration tools more. That’s what’s going to stitch together the physical office and the virtual sort of work from anywhere approach that we see today.”
The key here? It’s the employee’s choice. Successful companies will have the mindset, tools, and policies to empower people to make it, and stand by their decisions long after the health concerns of today have faded into the past.