Collaboration and the post-COVID world of work - a Q&A with author Phil Simon

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer March 4, 2021
Summary:
Phil Simon is author of a new book - Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work. Here's what he told me about what he's learned.

book

My colleague Phil Simon, a prolific tech writer and speaker, has penned an interesting book on collaboration (Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work).

And while I (like many of you) use many collaboration and other ‘office productivity’ tools, I never really thought about how we should re-imagine collaboration. I should have. 

As to why you need to read his book - you’ll soon have scores of people coming back to the office in the coming months. Let’s start getting ahead of the learning curve so that productivity is enhanced in the new world of work…

Here’s my conversation with Phil.

The idea of a collaboration platform and all of its interoperability was a new one for me. Put some color on this for our readers. How powerful can these be and what might they look like?

Phil: 

Short answer: It’s hard for me to overstate the power of internal collaboration hubs. Researching Zoom For Dummies and Slack For Dummies, I discovered that relatively few people were taking advantage of these tools’ true power. Ditto for Microsoft Teams for that matter. For example, they were using them in lieu of email or Skype. In truth, they can do so much more with little-to-no technical chops. Non-technical users can easily connect them to a wide array of third-party apps. That’s the essence of the Hub-Spoke Model of Collaboration described in the book.

I’ve travelled a gazillion air miles in my career and fully understand the hub and spoke model. You used that same concept regarding collaboration technology. Talk about that a bit.

Phil: 

For instance, say that your firm uses Slack for internal communication. That’s great, but employees can do so much more with it. Internal collaboration hubs are so much more than Email 2.0. 

With a few clicks of a mouse, you can easily stitch together Slack with a CRM such as salesforce or an ERP like Workday. This means receiving application- and system-specific notifications right within Slack. You can even perform some tasks without leaving the hub. 

The same holds true for project-management tools such as Asana, Wrike, or Trello. I could do the same for Zendesk, Google Docs, and tons more. Brass tacks: Most if not all internal communication and collaboration takes place in the hub. 

Make no mistake: The Hub-Spoke Model of Collaboration is a very big deal. In no particular order, benefits to employees include:

If there’s no native integration between a particular spoke and the internal collaboration hub, then employees are in luck. They can use a connector. Examples include Workato, Zapier, and IFTTT. Failing that, they can build custom bridges using webhooks and vendors’ APIs. Employees benefit by being able to use best-of-breed tech in an integrated way—a far cry from the 1990s to be sure. 

Talk about collaboration inside and outside the workplace. Work From Home (WFH) is big at the moment and may wane some in coming months. What do you see in your crystal ball in this new work world?

Phil: 

The future of work and the office is hybrid. Case in point: Salesforce’s recent announcement. As I write in Reimagining Collaboration, the genie is not going back in the bottle. Against that backdrop, the question becomes: How can we work effectively in this new environment? It’s not like I’ll always be able to tap you on the shoulder or ask you a question on Tuesday if I missed you on Monday. You may not be in the office for weeks or months at a time.

This is why internal collaboration hubs are so essential. They serve as digital headquarters. Think of them as permanent knowledge repositories. Contrast them to ephemeral communication mechanisms such as inboxes. The difference is profound.  

I hear people bemoaning their always-on Zoom world of today with some people logging entire days on Zoom calls. That’s not sustainable or advisable. What’s the real issue here and what advice would you proffer to people and the firms they work for? 

Phil - 

Zoom fatigue is real. I was on seven hours of Zoom calls a few weeks ago and it took me a few days to fully recover. 

There’s a deeper issue at play here: People frequently attempt to replicate in-person experiences using new tools because “we always done it this way.” Big mistake. 

We need to ask ourselves more profound questions about collaboration and how we work:

  • Should we even be having this meeting in the first place? 
  • Should we attempt to replicate all steps of a legacy business process with new tech? 
  • Do all meetings need to be synchronous?

Merely asking these questions will doubtless make some folks uncomfortable. Double that for some of the answers. 

Now is precisely the time for organizations to reimagine collaboration—hence the title of the book. 

As you were researching this book, what surprises really jumped out at you? What’s an unexpected ‘a-ha’ that surprised even you?

Phil:

Like you, I have been paying attention to enterprise tech for a really long time. I’m no spring chicken. I have known for decades that enterprise vendors often borrow—or, er, steal—from each other. 

When it comes to collaboration, the extent to which all of the major vendors are essentially moving in the same direction surprised me. 

Case in point: Microsoft Viva. The company’s leadership is betting big on Teams being the de facto operating system for the future of work. I watched that announcement with great interest. 

Now consider the other major vendors of collaboration wares through the lens of the Hub-Spoke Model of Collaboration. Slack, Google, and Zoom are on remarkably similar trajectories. Zoom’s recent apps announcement is further evidence of this trend. I’d argue that the same holds true for Citrix’s Wrike acquisition. Citrix management realizes that it needs to become more hub-like if it wants to survive—and that means offering more functionality than mere screen-sharing and chatting. Those are table stakes. 

Let’s talk generational differences. A colleague of mine still uses his facsimile machine. I’ve still got an active AOL email account (that’s mostly good for attracting spam). And younger generation folks prefer everything via a smartphone. How does collaboration work in a mixed generation workforce?

Phil: 

Now we’re getting to the heart of the book, Brian. You know as well as anyone that the tech landscape is littered with IT project failures—a movie that I’ve seen many times before. I joke that if I didn’t write my first book, then I would have had to see a shrink.

I advise my clients that they must recognize that true differences exist among their employees. That’s neither a problem nor a situation that’s changing anytime soon. To be sure, some employees invariably pick up new tchotchkes quicker and easier than others. Expect a learning curve with new tools. 

By the same token, though, you can’t give employees an infinite get-out-of-jail card if they routinely fail to use internal collaboration hubs. Say that Jerry refuses to use Slack or Teams and reverts to email. What’s the harm, right? 

Quite a bit, actually. Organizational knowledge and decisions become bifurcated. Employees wonder why he’s so special. Beyond that, the firm loses many of the network effects that hubs can confer.  

Communication and training are essential. Leaders can’t have it both ways. They can’t say that learning Slack or Teams is essential while failing to provide the requisite time and resources for successful adoption. Something has to give. 

Last word. What counsel do you offer people who want to get collaboration better working in their firms? What’s the first or best step forward for them?

Phil: 

Beyond that, recognize that effective collaboration is multidimensional. It most certainly is not simply a matter of rolling out a shiny new tool. Effective collaboration is a function of many things: employee skills, organizational culture, business processes, performance management, and leadership. They are all cogs in the collaboration machine. Ignore them at your own peril. 

As for the first step, buy the book, of course!

Reimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work , is available on Amazon.