About the Episode
You’ve heard it a hundred times: Life will never go back to how it was before the pandemic. We’re in a “new normal,” from the way we work to how we get our groceries. On this special Future of Work episode, Phil Simon digs into how remote communication and collaboration are evolving thanks to technology and changing work environments. The author of the new book, “Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work,” shares more on how we can all learn to communicate and collaborate better in a mostly digital world.
Meet Our Guest
Phil Simon is an established speaker, podcast host, and writer who has contributed to Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, and more. The Carnegie Mellon University graduate has authored 11 books, including his 2021 release “Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work.” Phil’s specialty is advising all types of organizations on communication, collaboration, management, data, and technology. He has a passion for teaching, which led him to become a professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University for four years.
Chris Byers: The future of work is being shaped by the advancement of technology and the evolving demands of talent. What changes could be in store for the workplace, the workforce and the nature of work itself? And this season of Ripple Effect. We're continuing our series on the future of work, exploring the answers to these questions. I'm Chris Byers, a former SEC. And joining us is Phil Simon, the impressive author of 11 books. He most recently published, Reimagining Collaboration Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post covered World of Work. If that's not enough, Phil's a speaker, a podcast host or writer contributing to Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal and more. Our conversation is going to focus on reimagining collaboration and the tools needed to succeed in this remote first world. Phil, welcome. Looking forward to this conversation and just to dove in, would love to pick up on something you've actually talked about before. And one thing you're known to say is that today the cost of inaction almost always exceeds the cost of action. Tell us where you've seen that kind of ring. Most true.
Phil Simon: Oh, gosh. And so many aspects. I remember even going back to, say, 2011 when I was thinking about a book about platforms and there were publishers interested, but some of them wanted to put it out in two years. And I'm really not that smart. And everyone was talking about Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. And it's funny, 10 years later, they still are. So I thought that if with that particular book, if I waited ran the risk of being just another social media book. So I took steps to get that book out much faster. And even the book I'm reading now, working backwards, I actually had one of the coauthors, Bill Carr, on my iPod and he worked with Jeff Bezos in one of Amazon's core values is bias for action. And just using Amazon as an example, they've certainly made mistakes. I don't know if you remember the fire phone.
Chris Byers: Barely. Yeah, right.
Phil Simon: OK, but they've also hit a few home runs. In fact, there's a great Jeff Bezos quote. Sometimes you get to the plate and you can hit a thousand run home run. And that's what was responsible for something like 90 percent of Amazon's profits. Or if you take a look at Echo and Alexa, you may be wrong. In fact, was it the Mario Andretti quote, if you're totally in control, you're not going fast enough. But I tend to think that if you get something out there and you're on to something big, you don't want to wait three or four years until everyone's talking about it. You could still do well, but you run the risk of it being old hat. And with the new book, even though everyone was writing a book about the future of work, to my knowledge, no one had taken the tack that these collaboration hubs could do so much more than effectively supplant email or service email 2.0. They can do so much more.
Chris Byers: There's something really interesting about that, actually. If I even look back at the founding of our company, our founder, he actually started I think it was like five different effectively software applications at the same time. And it was a year and a half into that that one of them, which turned out to be form stack, was the one that survived. And I think that speaks to a little bit of that idea that as we move forward in action, you're right, we're going to try some things that are going to work and then we're going to try some things that don't. But it's something about the volume kind of gets you learning faster and allows you to succeed in the long term. The title of your recent book starts with Reimagining Collaboration. Why is that something that needs to happen?
Phil Simon: After a lot of thought, it just occurred to me that we don't need to just replicate in person experiences virtually. We might have had a pointless Friday meeting in person and schlep to the office and we could still have that pointless Friday meeting. We'll resume. But now is an opportunity with the pandemic to really reevaluate what we're doing, taking a look at business processes and seeing if we can improve them. Given the tools and the fact that people have been using them, we also waste a tremendous amount of time at work. Is an oft cited McKinsey study from 2012 that employees wasted one point eight hours every day searching and gathering for information. Now that's dated. But researching the book, I also discovered a report from IDC sponsored by all Torex think it was called The State of Data Science and Analytics. And from that report, forty four percent of the time that data workers spent was basically around corralling data. It wasn't terribly productive. So when you factor in these powerful collaboration hubs like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google workspace, they really represent an opportunity to rethink or reimagine legacy business processes and how we get things done and where we get things done. So in a nutshell, I thought that just a generic book about the future work didn't quite capture it. This really is a massive opportunity, Churchill said. Never waste a good crisis. And there's a lot of negativity to come out of this, God knows. But there's also, I think, an opportunity for organizations to reevaluate what they're doing, how they're doing it, where they're doing it, and make some pretty big changes.
Chris Byers: When we weren't remote, actually, a long time ago, back in twenty, twelve. And funny enough, I had that same attitude in the very beginning. How do I basically create an office experience as closely as I can in a virtual or remote world? And some things that makes a lot of sense, like we're very relational as a group. And as you know, you can have remote organizations that basically don't talk to each other. And that was not a culture we wanted to build. But let's take one particular challenge right now. I think going remote is actually fairly straightforward. Get your resume, whatever your video is, get your back or something like that and you're there. What people aren't talking about it. I think it's what you're starting to try to describe to people is take that whiteboarding moment, though. How. You replicate that, how do you replicate real collaboration when some of those basic tools just aren't at our disposal? How do you think about that?
Phil Simon: It's a fascinating subject, another one that I like to think about our collisions. So how do we replicate the water cooler? And there are tools I don't know if you've heard of Donut. There's a story in the book from an offer up employee, and she mentions how Donut is an indispensable way to try to simulate that culture now. Will that replace the serendipity of running into someone in an elevator? And that person has on a t shirt and you start talking about your favorite band? Possibly, maybe not. So that's why in this, what I think will be hybrid future of work, there's this tremendous opportunity to reimagine how we're working and make some pretty big changes. I do think that some things will go back to normal ish, but the way that some of the slack folks describe their tool, it's a digital headquarters. We're going to need some type of glue because if I work for you, Chris, and typically it was Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00. And if I missed you Thursday at five thirty because you left, then I could say I'll catch you tomorrow. Well, that's not necessarily true now because you may be off the next week and not off on vacation, but off working or at a conference or something. So how are we going to communicate and collaborate, given the fact that people won't necessarily be at the desk all the time? I think it's a fascinating question.
Chris Byers: It reminds me of back when we went remote. One of the things we tried early on was I think it was like we'd say maybe Tuesdays and Thursdays be in the office. And then every other day you could work remote or something along those lines. And that worked for a little while. And then you quickly figured out everybody's all of a sudden shoving all their meetings on two days. And to your point, if they miss each other, it's been this long delay to get to the next meeting day. And so ultimately we had to say, no, we are a remote first organization. And until we made that mental leap to say basically you need to adjust to a remote life. Now, if you go in the office, that's cool. If you want to work at home, that's cool, too. But you're just going to interact with the person that you need to. However, they happen to be with you at that point, whether online or in real life. What do you think are some challenges that technology still has not solved in terms of collaboration in this new world?
Phil Simon: I'd say at a high level we need better filtering and discovery. So let's say that I join form stack. Right. And let's say I'm in marketing and I doing the marketing channel and there's three or four years of information. How do I absorb that information without getting overwhelmed, whether it's black or Microsoft with their diva announcement, I think it was last month. They're working on tools that will help people get their arms around what's going on and also tools to assess things like employee engagement. Because if you think about it, someone may be engaged at work or not engaged and there might be some telltale signs, but you might be hiding it. And I've seen statistics that employees or burned out even before the pandemic and now Zoome fatigue and all that. So I know that there are companies that are working on tools that will identify the warm and fuzzy type things and potentially address not just of employees are burned out, but even from just a diversity and inclusion perspective. And to the extent that organizations like yours embrace slack and most of the internal collaboration and communication takes place within the hub, then fast forward two or three years. When there are these advancements in machine learning, analytics and artificial intelligence, you'll be able to ascertain problems a lot faster than the organization that just decided last month. OK, we're going to do slack now.
Chris Byers: You brought up a really interesting topic, too, around, especially as you think about diversity and inclusion. One of the things that happens when you go into a remote world is all of a sudden this very high elevation of the written word. And there are people who obviously don't read as fast or they don't process words as well as they do live or in-person interaction. And so all of a sudden, you've potentially created a divide you had no idea you were creating. And yet I think it creates some challenges that we probably haven't even seen surface yet. Are you seeing that
Phil Simon: as an independent? I'm a part of so many different workspaces and I use the you name the collaboration hub, and I use it when I talk to people in the industry when I read articles. It is a legitimate issue. And I was just responding to, I don't know, Cal Newport. He was the he wrote a new book called World Without Email. He also wrote Deep Work. He's mentioning how email and slack are basically the same. And we weren't designed to be working with constant interruptions. And I do agree with that. It's very tough to get any kind of quality work done if you are constantly being pinged. The human brain just wasn't designed for that. But I think that there's a potential misconception about some of these tools, like, for example, slack. If I want to work, I don't have to respond to messages. I can use, channels I can view, conversations I can view people. I could leave channels, I can quit slack. I can set up different notifications on my. Four different channels, so I think there's still a ways to go when it comes to understanding the power of these tools and that they're not just email 2.0. Yes, you can configure your inbox with those sorts of rules. And if it comes from the CEO, then I want to make sure that I read that one. But it's still primitive. And the email clients don't really have the same notification settings as teams or zoom or slack. So there's so many ways to use these things. I think that to your point earlier, if we just look at them as ways to replicate what we were doing before, then that might be more comfortable for us. But we're missing out on their true power.
Chris Byers: So if somebody is listening right now and they're thinking, man, last year was tough, but we made it through and so we are actually embracing a more remote world. What's the warning you might give them like, hey, that's great. Embrace it. But here's the thing you need to be looking at in your organization to make sure it's still successful.
Chris Byers: I'm curious when you write your books, whose who's the audience that you most want to engage with?
Phil Simon: So I think about people who are trying to get their arms around these tools. People who have maybe heard of Slack or Microsoft teams are Zouma. They maybe use it, but they're not using it as well as they could. In fact, what I was getting back to one of your earlier questions, Chris, about the title of the book. I struggled with the subtitle because I didn't want to potentially date it. And soon enough, as I was going to press sales force dropped twenty eight billion dollars on Slack. Slack is still, I think, going to be a standalone brand. But from an SEO or search engine optimization perspective, teams has, I think, one hundred and fifty million users now give or take. So that's a big audience. I'll bet you a Coke that ninety five percent of those users aren't doing anything when it comes to, say, the form stack automation with power automate or any number of even just office. Three sixty five automation's are still spending a tremendous amount of time just locating stuff or doing duplicate data entry. And I can excuse that I'm old enough to remember nineteen ninety six and nineteen seven the nascent days of the web. But we've had collaborative tools now for a long time and particularly the latest batch. And with the APIs and the low code tools, there's just really no excuse. So to the extent that I am a geek and I like playing with the stuff and like to think I'm not a terrible writer, hopefully someone reads the book and goes, so I didn't know you can do that. So hopefully that will give people pause and let them really unleash the power of these tools.
Chris Byers: It's interesting is, I think what you're talking about and even the fact that you've got an audience you're trying to reach out there is that there's almost this new space that hasn't yet been filled. So it filled the space of we go help source by run course systems for the organization. But we're talking about the space where it's yet technically some of these are core systems, but it's more like lots and lots of hub and spoke concept. There's these pieces that run smaller bits of the organization, but there's still time intensive, money intensive, and where you can automate or put a piece of software in place, you're going to really help. What do you think that space is five years from now? Ten years from now? Do you think there's a department that comes out of that, a job title?
Phil Simon: Yeah. It's funny that you mentioned that. In fact, a couple of the other podcasts that have either hosted or been a guest upon, people have asked me flat out who should be responsible for collaboration? Now I'll cop the. My own bias here, I think there's a tremendous amount of title inflation, even going back to some of my previous books on analytics or big data, there is no last time I checked on LinkedIn chief data officer at companies that do data pretty well. I'm talking about Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and Google it. They're not lacking for interpreting information and making database decisions. So I'm hard pressed to say it should be one departments responsibility. Kind of like communication. Your sales folks need to communicate, your developers need to communicate. Everyone in an organization needs to communicate even if you're at home coding all day. If you can't communicate well, that's going to impede your progress and potentially really hurt you inside an organization. So where do I see this going? I hope hopefully they read the book and ask themselves some really profound questions about what they're doing, how they're doing it and how they can do it better, because I don't have all the answers, but hopefully I've got some good questions in the book.
Chris Byers: Let me give you a quick example, and I'm curious how you would tell someone to think about tackling this. I'll say we had a collaboration failure, especially when attempting to do it in this remote world. So last year had a challenging strategic problem. We're trying to pull data together from multiple departments and pull together a single strategy across the two departments. Just really we're struggling back and forth. And after weeks of it, finally, it was like, you know what, a handful of us got tested for covid. And we're clear. And we're like, we're physically getting together and we'll create plenty of space, but we need a whiteboard and some conversation together. Three seconds with somebody whiteboard together. It was like, oh, we just started unlocking these challenges. I'm curious, how could we have prevented that, what I'll call failure, the failure to keep operating collaboratively, what are some ways people can get started and overcoming the fact that there is some barrier when you're not physically together?
Phil Simon: I think you hit the nail on the head, Chris. I think that these collaboration tools are great. And when I think about some of the I don't know if you've seen these sort of VR office type tools, I think Skoko is one of them and there are a few others. So it's almost like a video game. I could like an eight bit Donkey Kong walk over to your office online and knock on your door, which the geek in me thinks is cool. How will that ever supplant the need for in-person communication? I don't think so. Even going back to my twenty fifteen book message not received by business communication is broken and how to fix it. I advocated the three message rule and if the third email doesn't bring people together, what are the odds that the fifth or the seventh? So does it make sense to at least escalate it to assume, caller, in your case, you recognize that there are going to be times in which it makes sense to get together before you reach that level of frustration and you bring people together. So if people are going to be remote first and they can live wherever financially, just in terms of real estate costs and office space, it might make sense. But they're going to be times in which, OK, we need to get everyone together for a once a month meeting, or even if to the extent that many companies have hired people during the pandemic, we've never met their colleagues in person. I think that the meetings and the business travel I was reading on LinkedIn is going to be more purposeful. There'll be less of an emphasis on face time and more of an emphasis on, look, we really need to be here for your performance review. I don't want to tell you all of the ways that you're not working out over Skype or Zoom. So I think that there'll be this demarcation. Certain things. Yeah, you can do it wherever certain things. No, we really need to do it in person. And then they're going to be some judgment calls. If I've worked with you for fifteen years and you and I can complete each other's sentences, you know what we might be able to get away with breaking that three email rule. But if it's a new employee and you want to make an impression or you feel like someone struggling, use all the emojis you want. I fail to see how your facial expressions, even on Zoom, could get picked up in the same way that they could in person.
Chris Byers: One way I think about that is even with a remote organization once a year, we'd get the entire organization together. And one of the messages was, this is all about relationship time. Yeah, we'll cast a little bit of vision, but we're not going to do team projects. We're not going to do we're going to try not to do much work, frankly. And I think what you're seeing is probably right as we do get together, whereas in the old days when I traveled, I think about how many people can I pack into my schedule, because this is when I could just throw everything into travel. When we did make that trip late last year, it was actually wonderful to say, you know what, I'm going for this one thing. I'm just going to spend time in relationship with people. We're going to talk through these problems. But I'm not going to have the added stress of doing seventy three other things, which I normally would do. And I think you're right, being more purposeful about our time together is probably a really valuable way to think about it.
Phil Simon: Yeah, I was just doing a podcast with Brian Elliott. He's of the Future Forum, which is a think tank about the future work. And Brian described Aslak senior executive who made twenty three trips from his home in Colorado to the office in San Francisco. Imagine if you can cut that in half, forget just the costs and the savings to the employees travel, because I think the employee, Brian, mentioned that five kids and being away from them can't be easy. What if there are fewer trips and they are OK? You're going to have a couple of in-person meetings, but it is around that bonding because I think, yes, we've done well in terms of replicating meetings over zoom, zoom fatigue aside. But even with some of those apps like donuts, I just I don't know, with five, seven years down the road, we ever get to the point in which the hologram, Chris, is as good as the real person. Chris, maybe I could be wrong. And I know Microsoft's working on some really cool stuff with holograms. And there are of startups. I know Facebook is doing a lot with virtual reality, but I don't know, call me old school. You wouldn't be the first, but it would be great to get to know my boss by playing ping pong or talking about The Big Lebowski in person or whatever comes up.
Chris Byers: Absolutely. Those are spectacular moments to build some camaraderie. Well, what do you think the future of collaboration looks like?
Phil Simon: It's funny because in Chapter 15 of the book I lay out, but the work place in twenty twenty eight looks and it's a lot like we might have talked about this when you were in my pod. The movie with Joaquin Phenix heard about the guy who falls in love with the operating system. Yeah, I think these hubs are going to become much more intelligent. So for example, let's say that it learns your habits and it would never schedule a meeting at seven o'clock in the morning because you're not a morning person or you tend to work from home Tuesdays, Thursdays and after lunch like I do, I get a big food coma. And even though I'm a high energy guy, around two o'clock I shut down monosyllabic grunts, but not just finding the connections within the organization, but also potentially looking outside. And Microsoft with Devah as this really bold ambition to rap just about everything and the Microsoft umbrella around teams and then do things with external system through APIs and Web hooks. So imagine you I'm sitting down with a direct report, a millennial and doing a performance review. And there's new research out from such and such a journal about the best way to do that. And rather than doing a Google search, it finds me because it knows my role and it doesn't treat every request for a meeting as equal. And it notifies me when I don't want to be notified because there is an actual crisis and not just because someone put urgent in the message. So I think these hubs are going to become central to how we work, whether we're in person or remote or hybrid. I think they're going to become really interesting in terms of how they can gauge employee sentiment. And I think the low code tools are going to play a big role in that. Again, they're going to be certain instances in which case you have to hire proper developers to build some custom bridge from system to system B. I was just reading something. The Wall Street Journal is doing a really interesting series on the future of work. And I think it was by twenty twenty four. Twenty twenty five. They envision in the future the managers are going to be much more of a coach because 40 to 70 percent of managers work right now is effectively moving data from systems to copying and pasting messages or doing very administrative things that could be automated.
Chris Byers: One of the things I've seen happen in a remote world is what you do need to do is build a lot more hours have risen because you're trying to give people the ability to set their own goals and you need some visibility into that. But you do want to give them more autonomy and in fact, be non autonomous workers. Not going to survive really well in a remote world. They need autonomy. And so that manager definitely becomes much more of a how do I just encourage people? How do I get them moving in the right direction? But it's definitely not micromanagement work because it's almost impossible to do in that environment. I'm curious, who do you think are the kind of trailblazers that we can start to look to say how do we operate in this new world?
Phil Simon: Gosh. Tech companies have done a lot of good things and a lot of bad things with respect to the pandemic. Companies like Base Camp Automatic, which is the company behind WordPress, were pioneers, right? They were remote first before distributed companies had entered the zeitgeist, so to speak. And then other companies like Lab, which I know has been getting a lot of press. I was listening to a podcast with Dustin Murphy, who's their head of Remote, and I guess they've open sourced their manual for how to work online. And even a guy like Jay Baer, who was on my podcast, his company is Convince and Convert and Jay's a Hall of Fame speaker. And yes, that's a thing and a hell of a snappy dresser, a nice guy. I've actually broke bread with him. His company, Convince and Convert started in two thousand eight, not a huge company by any stretch, but they were remote first. So when things broke bad and we had to start working from home and scrambling, those companies had an innate advantage to. Right, because it was built into their DNA. They didn't have to learn new tools. They had that muscle memory. By way of contrast, a year ago I was working at Arizona State University as a college professor and when the president of the school called it and said, we're not coming back from spring break. We're going to be remote, even though Asou brands itself as the most innovative school in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report, for five or six straight years. And they had an enterprise grade license for Slack and they had Zoom, it was just too much too soon. And they didn't have that muscle memory. And professors insisted on using email. And it's very difficult for them to redefine a course over two days when people will tell you develop online courses that it usually takes about two years to do it effectively. So there was really a stark contrast, in my view, the companies that were able to manage this crisis well, because for them it wasn't much of a change. And companies or organizations that didn't.
Chris Byers: What's your advice to the leader who's saying right now? Unfortunately, about too many leaders are not really making a decision. What do you think are the decisions they need to be making about being remote, not being remote, being hybrid? Talk about that.
Phil Simon: Oh, gosh, where do you start? Do they have and not just the software, because I'm not a solution ist. I'm particularly proud in this book, Chris, that even though I'm a geek at heart and I went to Carnegie Mellon, so there even the poets know how to code. I don't just say install slack and you'll be fine because there are cultural issues are a business process issues. There are leadership issues. Right. If your CEO doesn't do slacker teams and copies everyone on an email, then what kind of message are you sending to everyone in the organization? The rules don't apply to me. And then how do you find the information if it's split among all these different sources? I think we could have an entirely different discussion about the future of the office and what that looks like. Will it be adjustable? I think from what I understand, covid-19 is never going to go away. It'll be like the flu. They're talking about it being around in some capacity indefinitely from the articles I've read from epidemiologists. So what does that mean for the OpenOffice? I've never been a fan and all the research around open offices indicates that it actually inhibits productivity. People call in sick more or they can't get privacy or they zone out of their headphones so they don't engage with people. So what does the future office look like? Or even if you might have been Salesforce or another company? But I think some companies are even getting away from the word office and they want to call them collaboration centers. So instead of have everyone schlep into a main office in Oklahoma or in San Francisco or Boston, could there be satellite offices? And what does that mean for employee wages? Are you going to pay someone living in Iowa the same as they were making when you were in San Francisco? There's so many things you could have a separate show just on that question.
Chris Byers: What do you think are some wrong decisions that people are making right now or going to make when they think about the future of work or even technology or talent?
Phil Simon: We can start with needing as much office space, although I know Facebook isn't backing down from I think it's two million square feet in Manhattan, but I know that Pinterest in August of twenty twenty canceled the lease and paid an eighty nine and a half million dollar cancelation fee. Wrong decision. Just assuming that things will go back to normal and we can use email and we don't have to have these things, these applications talking to each other because things will go back to normal. I just, I don't see that happening. Like maybe movie theaters come back, maybe not. But you've probably heard that some. What was it? Wonderwoman was the first one they released directly to the Biomax. So because people may not be coming back to theaters, there are all these opportunities to really question some of the fundamental tenets of a business. I think the worst thing you could say is all things will just go back to normal and we can have cube farms and office space type environments. Hopefully there will be purposeful travel and the boys will see this is a benefit. If you're CEO of a company, could you argue that it's a competitive advantage to say maybe you've already done this with your employees? Yeah, we're remote first. Couldn't that potentially help you attract, retain and motivate people? Let's say you're a single mother and you can't be in the office at two thirty because you have to pick up get up from school. I think there's a tremendous opportunity and saying things will go back to normal. I just I don't see that at all.
Chris Byers: As we wrap up the conversation today, in the future of work, what is one thing you wish was solved for business communication?
Phil Simon: I wish we could put people in a penalty box for jargon or breaking the norms, whether it's using large words or is. I wish I wrote better. That's a whole rant with my in fact, as I read about Amazon in their six page memo rule, they banned PowerPoint. So I wish everyone could communicate better. But I guess there's an opportunity, right?
Chris Byers: Yeah, I love that. What would you say is the number one soft skill people need in this new future of work?
Phil Simon: Empathy because we might see someone as an avatar and not a person. I know at ASU my last semester, I was pretty strict. In some instances, students said Coronavirus ate my homework and I said, no, it didn't. But there were instances in which, for example, a single mother had to watch her kids because school was canceled. So I'd have to make exceptions for her. And I was more than willing to do that. And I think it's easier if I can see the look on your. That you're going through something versus the emoji that you used.
Chris Byers: Thank you for joining us on this special episode of Ripple Effect on the Future of Work, to learn more about how people are reimagining the world of work. Head over to form Secombe forward slash, practically deaf genius, also linked.