Aaron Levie, the cofounder and CEO of the cloud storage and collaboration service Box, has a theory about how workplaces are adapting to the coronavirus pandemic.
The explosive growth of services like Zoom and Slack, he says, were just the first wave in a larger transition. Once teams figure out the basics of videoconferencing and chatting from home, Levie anticipates a second wave as they take the rest of their work online.
“Phase two is: ‘Now that I’ve settled into this way of working, I need easy ways to collaborate with my partners, I need to be able to ship data around, I need to digitize certain businesses’ processes,'” Levie says. “That’s obviously where we play.”
To capitalize on the next wave, Box has just released a public beta for a major website redesign—the last one was in 2016—along with several new ways to manage files online. Later this month, Box will also start letting users launch Zoom video calls directly from its file viewer, and it will add annotation support for more than 100 file types in July.
Those updates were already in development before stay-at-home orders began, but Levie says the company fast-tracked several features and reshuffled its plans for 2020 after COVID-19 cases began to rise.
“We stepped back, and said, ‘Okay, we have to go back to the drawing board on our product road map and really just focus on the things that are most important in a work-from-home and remote work environment, and only invest in those features,'” Levie says.
New look, more features
The new Box doesn’t drastically shake up the interface, but its bolder fonts and larger headings bring it more in line with other modern productivity apps. The biggest visual change is to the left sidebar, which now uses Box’s blue background instead of light gray, while the top navigation bar has become white.
That left sidebar now hosts a “Collections” feature for gathering all of a project’s documents in one place. While that might just sound like a glorified folder, there is a subtle difference: A single file or folder can live inside multiple Collections, and deleting the Collection doesn’t remove the underlying documents from Box. Sales and marketing teams could have their own Collections that show the same slide deck without having to copy and paste.
“A folder obviously has to live within the hierarchy somewhere,” Levie says. “I could have 10 Collections that all have the same folder, but they’re different views into the content.”
One of the features Box accelerated, called “File Request,” lets users solicit documents from outside their organization. Anyone who receives a request link can upload files, even without a Box account, but they can’t otherwise view or edit the folder’s contents. (It’s similar to a feature that Dropbox has offered since 2015.) Levie says the feature should help address a spike in external collaboration that began alongside the pandemic.
“We know that a lot of customers were caught off guard by this event,” he says. “They didn’t have the right kind of paperless processes. They still were requiring faxes and FedEx and paper to be printed out and signed.”
Annotation, meanwhile, will build on Box’s long-standing ability to preview files directly within the website or mobile app. Users will be able to highlight and comment on any part of a document, so a team might use it to call out a specific image or chart for edits.
As for the Zoom integration coming later this month, it’s merely the inverse of a tie-in that arrived last year: Zoom users can already open files from Box directly within a conference call, and soon they’ll be able to launch a video call directly from Box’s file previews. Box will eventually support other videoconferencing services as well.
A bigger role for Box
Taken as a whole, these updates might seem like an attempt to encourage more work directly inside Box, in the same way that Dropbox has tried refashioning itself as a work hub. (Dropbox CEO Drew Houston has talked of “turning Dropbox from the filing cabinet to the conference room.”)
But while the broad strokes are similar—neither company wants to be a mere repository for online files—Levie pushes back against those comparisons. The goal, he says, isn’t to increase the proportion of time spent on Box’s website, but to accommodate users that might be working inside Box already. A company like General Electric, for instance, might choose to annotate files within Box for security or data governance reasons, but he doesn’t expect them to stop chatting elsewhere or using other applications.
“We know that work is going to happen across all these different applications,” Levie says. “I would distinguish that pretty aggressively versus a Dropbox, where they want the work to start happening more inside of that space.”
The distinction is probably subtler than Levie lets on, though, especially if workers are going to be spending more time inside digital applications in general. In talking to customers and analyzing Box’s own usage, Levie has observed that people seem to be working more and making decisions faster—a product, perhaps, of eliminating lengthy commutes and reducing face-to-face meetings.
“The clock speed of business is accelerating,” he says. “Where companies maybe used to operate in terms of quarters or annual plans, we’re seeing this notion of agility and speed of business ripple through all segments of the economy.”
He does acknowledge, with some prodding, that some of us are struggling to get work done, especially with children at home, but that might be hard to discern from Box’s perspective. The company says it works with 97,000 companies, up from 92,000 in early 2019, and Levie says the company is now interacting with customers more than it ever has. As he has observed on Twitter, years of digital transformation have now been compressed into months, as even typically slow-moving organizations move their processes online.
“We’re definitely preparing our business to make sure we can drive as much of that adoption as possible, and just make sure we’re there for our customers who fundamentally can’t run their business if they can’t run it in the cloud,” he says.