Phil Simon is a frequent keynote speaker, recognized collaboration and technology authority, and college professor-for-hire. He is the award-winning author of eleven books, most recently Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work. He helps organizations communicate, collaborate, and use technology better. Harvard Business Review, the MIT Sloan Management Review, Wired, NBC, CNBC, BusinessWeek, and The New York Times have featured his contributions. He also hosts the podcast Conversations About Collaboration.
You are just scratching the surface of what collaboration hub-and-spokes like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, and Google Workspace can do. Award-winning author Phil Simon shares how to unleash the power of collaboration in his latest book Reimagining Collaboration.
Ceci Amador [00:00:16] Hello and welcome to the future of our podcast by Allwork.Space. My name is Ceci Amador De San Jose and today I’m looking forward to chatting with Phil Simon. He is an award-winning author of 11 books, most recently Reimagining Collaboration. Phil, welcome.
Phil Simon [00:00:36] Thanks for having me.
Ceci Amador [00:00:37] Thank you for joining us. And I’m really looking forward to this conversation. For everyone listening, we’re going to be focusing on remote collaboration in the post covid workplace. So, I’m going to start right away; there are a lot of surveys have found that workers want to go back to the office specifically because they miss in-person collaboration. Your book is all about reimagining collaboration so that we can better collaborate in the remote world. So why do you think people want to go back to the office to collaborate? I mean, the technology’s available for us to collaborate online.
Phil Simon [00:01:14] Sure. In a nutshell, at least from the surveys that I’ve seen, people want to go back, but only two or three days a week, in fact, a fairly high percentage of people will quit their jobs, they say, if they have to return five days a week, no one wants to go back to five days a week, 90-minute commute each way. Getting to your question, even though the collaboration tools that are described in the book Zoom, Microsoft teams as hubs, and then I’m sure we’ll talk about the spokes, later on, are certainly more advanced than they were even five years ago, there still are things that I would argue are better suited for an in-person type of environment. And we see this with some companies saying that they’re going to be retiring the term office and be building satellite centers.
Phil Simon [00:02:02] Right. In which people will collaborate. They’ll specifically go there to brainstorm or for a performance review or for employee orientation. Those are the types of things that don’t necessarily lend themselves, if possible, to a strictly digital world. Ditto for things like collision. I mean, there are apps like Donut. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that one, know that you can install it in Slack or I think is in teams as well. It’s tough to keep track. There are so many tools that effectively simulate a random collision. So, if you work in finance and I work in marketing, you might run into each other in the elevator in the real world, but maybe not so much on one of these collaboration hubs. But those tools are better than nothing, and they’ve come a long way. But they can’t necessarily replicate the experience of running into someone in the hallway or seeing someone wearing a shirt and all of a sudden you make a connection. So, the point is, though, that, yes, remote work is important and maybe that goes down a bit from its current highs. But there are plenty of people that don’t want to return and we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to work with this new type of technology. And to me, this book is less about remote work and this particular trend and more about a whole new way of working, which I’m sure we’ll talk about.
Ceci Amado [00:03:26] Oh, yeah, we will. I have to say, well, with reading your book, there were so many things that you were talking about, like, well, that kind of sounds like me a little bit and not necessarily in the good sense. So, one of them was using like making the switch from one platform to the other and we recently made that switch and it wasn’t easy.
[00:03:52] I mean, I got so used to reading an email from one platform, and then and this happened to someone else that I work with, the delete button in the new platform is like right where I would usually click to open it. So, it’s been a lot of delete and then no undo, undoes, go fetch them in the trash and so I can see why. And we’ll talk about this a little bit later on, why people are so reluctant sometimes to embrace new platforms. This brings me to my next point, which is what are, in your experience, the top three things that prevent people from effectively collaborating, remotely, hybrid, whatever you want to call it.
Phil Simon [00:04:32] Before I answer that, Ceci, you were just switching from one email client service to another?
Ceci Amador [00:04:38] No. Yeah, well, I mean, email included, but then a bunch of other stuff as well, but.
Phil Simon [00:04:43] Oh OK. Because if you think about it, we do get used to working in a certain way and about why people hate change. It’s tough. People are busy. People have a lot going on in general, much less when there’s a pandemic when your kids aren’t in school or you have to take care of a loved one or all these things are happening. So, people get used to working a certain way and look at our smartphones. By some estimates, we touch our smartphones one hundred and fifty times per day. That doesn’t mean that if our iOS we can’t learn Android or vice versa. It just it’s going to take a while and we get stuck. I’d also say that in many instances, companies have been reluctant to invest in truly collaborative technology. They say, well, if we’re just going to use teams as email, then who cares when in fact there are some big differences.
Phil Simon [00:05:36] In fact, when the pandemic broke, I wrote about this in the book, there were lots of companies that did immediately move towards implementing new collaboration tech, but move towards employee surveillance tech. Oh, yeah. And there are yeah. I mean, it’s understandable. And especially if you pay attention to the news these days, ransomware and hacking and bad actors, we weren’t really set up to work from home. And most I shouldn’t say most, but quite a few people don’t really do much when it comes to home security. And you don’t have to be a Black Cat to break into their networks. But that’s a whole discussion in many instances, answering your question as well: you’ve got senior executives who set terrible examples. They say we need to collaborate more, OK? And yes, we should all be using Microsoft teams, but then they use email for critical communication. And that sets an example that trickles down to the other layers of the organization that these other tools are optional. So, these tools are around and they’re better. But if your CEO or CXO is using email, then that is really the default mechanism of communicating. And most people aren’t going to tell the person running the company, hey, you’re doing it wrong. So, I do want people with this book to have, like you said, an uncomfortable reaction saying, oh, yeah, we do that here. We can do a lot better. And I’m hopeful that this book will force people to think about the way that they’re working and also legacy business processes. There are lots of examples in the book about how people created a business process 20 years ago. And even though the technology has drastically changed the way that they do something, whether it’s payroll or publishing content, remains the same.
Phil Simon [00:07:28] So by definition, you are trying to implement a new tool, but it’s not as far-reaching or powerful as it could be. And there’s a chapter in the book about business process that I really hope people will read and say it’s been 15 years. Is there a way for us to maybe do this in a better, more efficient, more automated way when it’s got fewer points, one that’s got less of a chance for error? So, this is a very holistic book and I’m hoping that people will read it and really think about what they’re doing and hopefully some key questions.
Ceci Amador [00:08:05] Speaking about change and some people resisting change, and you mentioned this a little bit in the book, why should company’s youth, obviously, if it’s the owner, the CEO or whatever, it’s not like they can say, oh, yeah, you can just go ahead and walk away. But if you have specific employees, what do you suggest companies do if they’re refusing to start using more fully adopting technology collaboration platforms?
Phil Simon [00:08:31] I’ve been wrestling Ceci with an aversion to change for 20 years in different capacities. So, I’ve seen this movie many times before. And ideally, you start with the carrot. You say, look, there are a lot of benefits to using hubs and spokes, embracing the model that I advance in the book. You’ll spend less time searching for documents, you’ll customize your notifications, you’ll get better context around your message. You’ll be less overwhelmed with one click of a button. You can have an actual conversation with someone versus going back and forth with asynchronous messages. So, the carrots tend to be better or say to someone, look, you know, appeal to their vanity, right? You got this right. Slack is really just a souped-up version of a tool.
Phil Simon [00:09:17] That’s probably older than your relay chat. Or if you’re using Zoom and you don’t like it, say, well, it’s kind of like Skype, but it’s better. So, appeal to their vanity. And if they’re not willing to play ball, then I do think it’s time to bring out the sticks and say to them, look, we need you to collaborate using this tool, right? Every time you send an email, you derail the conversation. You lessen the power of these networks. And let’s make no mistake here. These collaboration hubs benefit from network effects, just like Twitter, just like Facebook, just like Google. Right. And I know when I lived in Las Vegas, I talked to a startup founder and it was two thousand fourteen or so. And I was working on my book about communication, message not received. And I got into a discussion with a founder of a startup who said, yeah, we had to let somebody go because we used to insert name of collaboration tool and they just wouldn’t use it. So, think the fundamental recognition Ceci is that these tools should not be optional. And no using Slack or Teams or Zoom or Google Allwork.Space or Workplace by Facebook or whatever does not obviate sending an email. Right. But internally, why would you go back and forth with a bunch of emails? It doesn’t make any sense. And there’s a whole chapter on the email that I rant on, but I’ll shut them. Yeah.
Ceci Amador [00:10:47] Yeah. And you know, it’s funny because a few when I was reading that I was going through your emails and you mentioned several times we should use this and I’m like, well, I already have email. So, I mean, yeah, guilty. But yeah, I feel like people I mean, no one likes to change.
Ceci Amador [00:11:05] That much is clear. But I do think that it’s important, especially now that you see a lot of companies saying that one of the top skills that they’re looking for in candidates is the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively. And so, it would naturally follow that if you have one or two people that are not collaborating with the tools and platforms available, and that’s hindering the process and the progress of everyone else. And I mean, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they’re if they are let go.
Phil Simon [00:11:37] You think about the word collaborate in chapter two of the book. I define collaboration against a number of adjacent terms, and I’m very persnickety when it comes to terms. I think that a lot of times we get off on the wrong foot because when talking about the same thing, whereas productivity is getting something done right, you can be individually very productive. Collaboration by definition means getting something done with other people. So, you can’t just say I like email, therefore I will use email. You’re working with other people and other people need to have some skin in the game. So, it gets tricky because in the past there are a couple of examples towards the back half of the book in which I explain some of the challenges of communicating with people over the years or collaborating with people. And sometimes you never are on the same page and it doesn’t end well, especially when you have all these tools out there. Right. You could say, well, I want to use Stream Yard, right. Well, I want to use Zoom or I want to use WebEx and then nobody wants to back down.
Phil Simon [00:12:38] So what do you do?
Ceci Amador [00:12:39] OK, so that’s another thing. There are so many options available and how you can’t expect everyone I mean, you have employees, not freelancers and contractors, and then people that just come in and not for specific projects. And how can companies decide which platforms to use? Because it’s overwhelming. I mean, I love that we have options today, but then that makes it. Decision-making analysis, paralysis and how are some things that companies should keep in mind when they’re evaluating a platform where a hub or spoke?
Phil Simon [00:13:16] Lots of things, but to your point, before I answer the question, decision fatigue is a real thing. There’s no coincidence that I think about two weeks ago Netflix introduced it now, which effectively was their attempt to eliminate that. And by hitting a button, it would find something good for you to watch because people got overwhelmed. And I’m not on Netflix now, but I have been many times over my life and sometimes I spend an hour trying to find the perfect show and you get the frustrated effect. Barry Schwartz wrote a really good book, references a great study of the name of the book Off the Top of my head. But and he’s written a couple. But how? In a famous experiment at a mall maybe 20 years ago, I think it was in the United States, they put out it was 20 different types of jam and they said to people, please try the Jo and buy whatever one you liked. And it was something like 10 percent of people bought. But then they reduced that to about I think it was six a percentage of people lined up buying. It was something like 40 or 50, if memory serves me correctly because people didn’t want to make the wrong choice, if you minimize the number of choices, then they felt better and more confident about their decision.
[00:14:31] Now, against that backdrop, let me answer your question. There are lots of factors, but here are one many people use Microsoft Office three sixty-five or office three sixty-five. They keep rebranding it. And as part of that suite of tools, Microsoft includes IPPs. And if your company doesn’t want to pay for Slack and It’s understandable there is a free version, but some companies don’t want that check. Then your decisions made for you. In some instances, you already are using a hub, but you don’t know it. Many companies think something like three hundred million people, you zoom on a regular basis. Well, Zoom, and I know this from writing for ZEW for Dummies is so much more than video. Zoom has channels and the ability to share files and install apps. So, you could say I read your book. A lot of people don’t. In fact, one of my theories about Slack for Dummies is selling reasonably well. But a lot of the reviews have said so much stuff in here. I don’t need it because if you’re just using it for video, then, yeah, you don’t need four hundred pages. But there is in that actually, along with writing Slack for Dummies with sort of the genesis of this book, I knew that there was a bigger message was getting lost in the Dummies books other times. Ceci to answer your question, a particular feature may drive paying for a tool. For example, you call them to share channels. Now it’s called Connect effectively. It’s a private pipeline that connects your Allwork.Space to my Allwork.Space said, don’t get me wrong, Microsoft is currently working on AD and it’s only a matter of time before all these companies basically steal from each other. But one of the examples that I like to use is that if you work at the University of Guadalajara and I work at the University of Arizona, we set up basically a tunnel between our two workspaces.
Phil Simon [00:16:26] But you’re right, there is a lot of fatigue. And again, people don’t know the power of these tools. Let’s say that you’re applying for a job at my company. I don’t have to do it over email. I can invite you as a guest in Teams, in Zoom, in Slack. And that’s how we can communicate. That’s how you could upload a resume. That’s how you could fill out a form. So hopefully the book provides some guidance around that. And I’ll be the first to say that another factor would be the number of spokes to which the hubs can connect. It’s never been easier to connect them. I know Zoom is kind of a trailer and when it comes to that, but they just crossed a thousand third-party apps, I think it was the last month. So, there are a lot of factors involved.
Ceci Amador [00:17:14] And then, OK, so you’re talking about how there’s a lot it’s easier now than ever to integrate different spokes. Do you think there is such a thing as too many spokes for one team to use? Do you think like is there such a thing as too much? Like the less the better? Or do you think that having the options on limited?
Phil Simon [00:17:38] That’s a tough question to answer because just in case we haven’t done it, one of these collaboration hubs, Microsoft team Zoom itself, is very powerful. But those tools Ceci don’t obviate the need for us to use project management tools like Azana or Trello or content management systems like WordPress or ERP systems or CRM systems like Salesforce. So, it’s great that you have this choice, but I’m a big believer in picking a lane if we use Asana to manage our project throughout the organization.
Phil Simon [00:18:12] It largely does the same things that Trello does if you use Oracle as your ERP, then why are you using Workday? So, it’s great that there’s this choice, but the short answer is yes, things can get very confusing if people are using multiple polling apps for Slack. You’ve got a simple poll. You’ve got Polli. Right. And some people might say, oh, I couldn’t figure out Ali. Well, that’s because you’re used to using a simple poll. So, again, it’s great to have this choice, but it’s important to pick a lane and stick with it. I’m going to go back to people not knowing the full capacity that hubristic offers. Do you think that’s one of the main reasons why sometimes collaboration helps failed to deliver? Or absolutely or something else behind that mean systems fail for all sorts of reasons, Ceci we talked earlier about change management and people being stubborn and executive, being involved in clinging to antiquated business processes. But you’re right. People often conflate email with Microsoft. And yes, you can send text messages and Microsoft teams and attachments. But to borrow a joke that I like from the comedian Gary Goldman, that’s kind of like saying that my phone lets me make phone calls. That is absolutely true. But it does a few things more or is part of the same joke that says I’ve got a Lexus convertible and it holds my coffee. Right. While it does a little bit more than hold your coffee. And I do think that this book, the straights, the power of these collaboration hubs, particularly tied to spokes, and my hope is that it will spark a conversation among people who read it. There’s so much more that they can do here. And hopefully, they’ll look back two or three years and say, wow, I’m glad that we did this, because, towards the end of the book, I talk about the future of collaboration, some of the things are going to be able to do with machine learning and artificial intelligence. And the sooner that you get on board with hubs and spokes, all things being equal, the better off you’ll be.
Ceci Amador [00:20:27] And then in your book, you mentioned that a big part of getting employees motivated and familiarized with these hubs and spokes is to provide training in your experience to companies, do offer that training or is that something that they just kind of like say, OK, so here is the new platform, go ahead and start playing with it. Have fun?
Phil Simon [00:20:47] Yeah, I’d love to see some data on this. And there certainly are companies that will put people through training. But my sense is that people say, go online, find something. Here’s a webinar. In fact, story. After the book came out, the company reached out to me to do some training and they wanted to cover it in one hour. Are you ready for this? Zoom, Microsoft teams think it was one note and then how computers work. All four of those things that an hour. Right. And then when I said that’s not really feasible unless you really want to talk super-fast, I said, that’s just not going to work. And then the response came back from the executive, oh, we’ll just let them do it on their own or we’ll buy a few copies of his book. This is a health care organization. If you think that a bunch of nurses in a pandemic working 12 hours a day, are they going to come home and read my book and process it? I don’t think you’re a sane individual. So, unfortunately, I think people do put the onus on employers to pick this up. And as a result, they get some of the same reactions that I got from you earlier.
Phil Simon [00:21:59] Oh, I didn’t know that Zoom could do this. And a lot of people said that, or a lot of people say that about Slack teams. So hopefully, again, this book will make them ask questions about the true power of these tools and hopefully use more of them, because right now it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
Ceci Amador [00:22:16] And then moving on to a different subject in the book, you talk about the importance of trust for effective collaboration, and a lot of people that are collaborating remotely are people that are well, in some cases, a lot of teams, a lot of companies are fully embracing remote work, allowing people to work from anywhere. And that will increase the number of people that are working together from different countries, from different cultures. So how do you build trust? What are some of the suggestions they might have to help employees build trust with each other? If you want to account for cultural differences in how you build trust and time zone differences. I just I feel like it just complicates matters a whole lot.
Phil Simon [00:23:00] Absolutely. There’s a sidebar in the book from a friend of mine, Jason Horowitz, who’s done a lot of traveling in software development with different teams. In fact, in the sidebar in the book, you mentioned how there was there were coders and Bellerose trying to work with a company based in Manhattan, and the company, Minhad would frequently call for meetings at noon, which was something like 5:00 a.m. this time, which, you know, most people are awake, much less cogent. I mean, I tried to write a holistic book and I’m no expert on organizational trust, but hopefully, people will get to know themselves and others a little bit better using these tools, because, again, you would never send an email with an emoji.
Phil Simon [00:23:40] You would never send an email with an animated gif or Jeff, depending on how you want to pronounce it, then Slack teams are Zoom. That’s very easy to do. And in fact, because it’s a little less formal. Imagine if you say something and I find it amusing and I play in an animated gif of, I don’t know, Schitt’s Creek or take the movie or something. Oh, I didn’t know you like that movie again. That’s might seem like a silly example, but there are ways, I think, to make things less formal using these hubs. And if things are less formal, then we’re going to be friendly. If we’re going to be friendly, hopefully, we trust each other.
Ceci Amador [00:24:18] You know, that’s funny, because a few years back, I was asked to please use emoji, even gifts and stuff like that, and my instant messages because people were complaining that I was too short and curt and I’m like, one time, yes, no, OK. Like for now, I write “YES” Smiley face, happy face. I mean,
Phil Simon [00:24:41] It’s funny that you mention that because I remember giving a talkback when people gave talks in Austin, Texas in 2015 and someone asked me the question about using emojis. And I said to myself, well, what’s the context? Because if you and I have known each other for two years and I put an emoji that’s a lot different than if the CEO sends me a message. And my response is an emoji for first impressions. Right. I might always be an emoji person, but as I researched slang for dummies, I realized that emojis were actually really useful, especially ones with a particular meaning, like, say, looking into it with the eyes. I love that because imagine sending a message with I’m looking into it versus if you post it in a channel and you see for people with the eyes that they’re looking into, it’s you know that, right? You don’t have to send someone a message.
Phil Simon [00:25:35] So I’ve actually done a 180 on emojis. Yes, there’s a time and a place, but I think they can be in the right context, very valuable. And of course, all of these hubs and spokes support them. OK, and then so this is like a direct quote from your book. It says that reimagining collaboration requires more than just using new tools. It also requires adopting a new mindset. And this reminds me, start by that.
Ceci Amador [00:26:02] And this reminded me of a conversation I had with Tony Sheldon a few years back. He does a lot of digital transformation talks and talks a lot about future of work. And he says that one of the main reasons why digital transformation efforts fail within companies is company culture. And so, what are some tips that you can give to companies and to employees so that they encourage and they nurture a company culture that creates an open mindset, that encourages people to explore new stuff?
Phil Simon [00:26:41] Gosh, I’d start off by hiring well, and that’s easier to do when you’re a startup or a small company. In fact, in the book, I describe three different types of fields. You’ve got greenfield, so nothing’s ever grown there before. It’s fairly easy. All things considered, higher well, build technology and collaboration into the culture. And then you’ve got a brownfield. So, you might have a larger company that’s tried some things before but has struggled like a lot of companies do. And then you have a Blackfield, a company that’s just totally dysfunctional. Basically, nothing will grow there. Avoid being a Blackfield if at all possible. But hiring? Well, again, you can do things like that through Slack, through teams. If someone says I am super collaborative, OK, great, we’re going to do this hiring process over Zoom or teams and we’re going to make you a guest.
Phil Simon [00:27:35] So no, no. And the purpose is, oh no, I only use email. Well, there you go. Right. Well, you still might hire that person, but that that person is effectively showing you a particularly valuable piece of data because if you ask the person that question, are you what are you supposed to say? OK, so know. And then I mean, hiring isn’t the only thing in the book I mentioned things like performance reviews, performance management companies will say collaboration is really important. But then really, if you are collaborative but you only sell one hundred thousand dollars worth of widgets, you’re probably going to get rated lower than if you are collaborative or you’re a jerk, but you sell a million dollars worth of widgets. So and this is a holistic look at my own career. I know sometimes people have called me not being collaborative because when you said you had to be Kurt on some messages, that resonated with me because a couple of times on projects we were way behind schedule over budget. People said you’re so direct, folks. And I said, I understand that, but we don’t have time. Right. We were supposed to be live on the system six months ago. So hopefully the organization looks at performance management and views collaboration not as nice to have, but as a social. And Netflix is a great example of this. Reed Hastings famously said we don’t hire talent, talented jerks. So if someone is really talented in whatever capacity, but it isn’t collaborative. You have to ask yourself, is that person really worth having, especially to your point, with remote work, the labor pool is so much bigger. If you’re comfortable with remote work, you’re not limited to the people who are in your 50-mile radius.
Phil Simon [00:29:22] You might find someone who lives on the other side of the country and say, we’re just going to pay that person once a month to fly out here to quarter.
Ceci Amador [00:29:33] So we’re running out of time a little bit, so to close off our conversation, where do you see the future of collaboration going and the post covid workplace as more people start going back to the office, even if on a limited basis, where do you see the use of these hubs and spokes going?
Phil Simon [00:29:52] They’re only going to increase. Since the book has come out, Microsoft has announced Project Viva, which is basically their name for what I’ll call hubs and spokes. Salesforce announced plans to acquire. It was in early December of last year, CELAC for twenty-eight billion dollars. They’re not going to do that if they don’t believe in the future of hubs. Zuman Hochstein mentioned that they had crossed it was a thousand apps. Citrix bought the project management tool for two billion dollars, which is a phenomenal amount of brass tacks. Ceci, hubs and looks aren’t going anywhere. They’re only going to be more powerful. And the advice I give to my clients when I talk to people, this is going to happen whether you like it or not. And the sooner you embrace it, the better off you’ll be.
Ceci Amador [00:30:38] Perfect. So thank you so much for joining us today. If people want to look you up and find out more about you and your books, what can they find you?
Phil Simon [00:30:47] Philsimon.com.
Ceci Amador [00:30:48] So thank you again so much for chatting with us. And thank you, everyone, for tuning in to the Future of Work podcast by Allwork.Space.