In a dinner conversation last week in New York with a small group of tech journalists, the CEOs of MongoDB and Box shared their thoughts on software, the future of work and how the return to the office is going. While individual companies make their own decisions amid evolving responses to the pandemic, there are important leverage points that could influence such trends.

“Two people on the planet will define Silicon Valley’s return to office — it will be Sundar and Tim,” said Box CEO Aaron Levy, referring to Alphabet and Apple CEOs Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook, respectively. “Whatever happens, it’s going to drag on eventually.” Levy explained that smaller tech companies may stick to telecommuting or going back to the office as a competitive advantage in response to the moves the market giants are taking on a full return to the office.

Many organizations may be deciding how to navigate the way forward, just as employees are kicking their own paths. Looking back on the early days of the pandemic until now, Levy said he’s seen several people leave more established companies to try to get back into the startup scene.

“The office is just a place”

It also demystifies some notions that surround the office, such as it being the only place where teams can brainstorm ideas, rather than enabling hybrid operations. “Every company is going to have to figure out how to operate in this hybrid way, and digital is going to be how everything is ultimately going to be mediated,” Levy said. “The office is just a place where you can choose to do some of it, or you can choose to do it from the beach or your house or your apartment. Companies will need to figure out how to ensure that work can continue regardless of where the actual physical location is.

A common refrain heard since the early days of the pandemic has been the rapid shift by many companies to cloud and remote operations, accelerating previous schedules. But pandemic aside, major changes in infrastructure and technological operations seem to take extended periods to materialize. When asked about the speed of technological change, with some changes remaining in the “early days” phase for years, Levy pointed to the scope of creating innovation on a massive scale. He also noted the time needed to develop the infrastructure to transition to something new. “AI as an example, we’re probably like the first innings of something relevant of what AI actually drives,” Levy said. “These are multi-trillion dollar market changes. Things that change are on the edge of what happens.

More immediate changes, he said, may be overlooked because of their seeming banality, such as how data models in databases evolve.

Still, companies are exploring what technology options make sense for their operations—even if change may seem slow. MongdoDB CEO Dev Ittycheria said his customers care about cost reduction and efficiency, and in terms of overall enterprise migration to the cloud and digitization, he said it’s still early days. For example, Iticheria said his company has seen some banks struggle to move workloads to the cloud, which involves sorting through legacy technologies. However, he also sees more outliers looking to take advantage of the cloud for flexibility and agility. “When I talk to my sales guys, girls and customers,” Iticheria said, “there’s an increased appetite for greater efficiency.”

Determining performance for MongoDB means exploring a mix of options. Ittycheria said his company was fully remote until last year, when MongoDB introduced work models for some of the team to remain fully remote, others back in the office full-time, and another segment working under a hybrid of working in the office for two or three days together with remote work.

In office benefits

Iticheria spoke positively of the return of the post, which he said could offer workers feedback or guidance more easily than other employees who are also present. He also cited the societal and social benefits of team members communicating face-to-face in the office – although such claims have raised questions about why this should matter to a worker who admits his employer does not maintain the same type of relationship with them as a friend. Ittycheria posits that office work provides opportunities for skill and career development. “We can offer a lot of growth roles,” he said. “People stay because of it.”

Still, many companies trying to get back up to speed face a shortage of engineers and other technical talent essential to developing the software and applications that drive many businesses. Low-code/no-code platforms and resources continue to be explored to help fill some gaps in the software development cycle. “People want to automate almost everything in the process,” Iticheria said.

After the dinner, Levy shared his thoughts with InformationWeek on the questions asked about other issues, namely the rise of a data-driven, software-driven world. “We have the data; have we been able to use it effectively to create a better customer experience, a more efficient business model, a better employee experience? I think we’re actually entering an era where ‘So what’ … is the big thing now,” he said. “Can you, as an insurance provider, lower the cost of insurance for your customers to get more customers?”

At a time when data privacy regulations have either gone into effect in states like California, or legislation is being debated in other states and at the national level, the data-hungry marketplace is facing new challenges that could spark other kinds of transformation among companies . “That’s the wrench thrown into gear,” Levy said, “which is at a time when you have to generate more data, your workflows and experiences are powered by the data, you also have data privacy challenges — that can it’s different by industry, by geography — so building software that allows you to simultaneously meet all of those needs and deliver a great experience, that’s hard. It’s harder than ever.”

What to read next:

The moment of returning to the office leads to disagreements

Getting your IT staff back in the office

How remote workers can keep their careers on track in a back-to-the-office world

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