Reimagining Collaboration: Interview with Phil Simon

Interview with Phil Simon

Since COVID-19 made its way around the world, work-from-home has become the new normal.

For virtual companies like ours, it was an easy transition. There are only two differences: (1) all my in-person speaking events are now virtual and (2) those of us with school-aged children are usually working alongside them now.

But with most companies having adopted at least a partial virtual work environment for the short term, and even for the long term, there comes with it the question: what are the best ways to communicate and collaborate?

To find out, I tapped the incredibly smart Phil Simon, collaboration guru and author of the new-bookReimagining Collaboration: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and the Post-COVID World of Work.

Let’s dive in now to my 10-question interview with Phil on reimagining collaboration.

Of course, the pandemic has made work from home and virtual collaboration a requirement, but these trends were already under way, right?

Yes. COVID-19 accelerated trends that were already in place. Tens of millions of people used contemporary collaboration tools and worked remotely well before anyone ever heard the term coronavirus.

What about cohorts? Do certain generations prefer asynchronous vs. synchronous interaction with their colleagues?

Absolutely. One size certainly doesn’t fit all. Mary Donohue details these differences in her new book Message Received: 7 Steps to Break Down Communication Barriers at Work.

I address that topic in Chapter 2 of my book. TL;DR: some people are more comfortable with synchronous, in-person communication than others. Some folks are more used to its asynchronous counterpart.

In truth, both have always existed—and always will. The trick is to recognize when each is appropriate. You don’t want to conduct a performance review via Slack DMs or a Zoom meeting.

When the pandemic is (hopefully) over, what will we STOP doing with regard to online collaboration?

A few things. Ideally, we’ll stop relying upon email for internal communication and “collaboration.” People often think that all text-based communication is equal. They’re wrong. The medium truly matters.

Second, we’ll disabuse ourselves of the notion that all work needs to take place in an office. For instance, some companies are reimagining traditional offices. In their stead, they envision collaboration centers. Much like healthcare and higher education, the future of work is decidedly hybrid.

What’s more important, the tool(s) your organization uses, or the policies/procedures for how your organization uses?

Both. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s folly to think that you can separate them.

I can envision the most sophisticated business process ever. If the technology doesn’t exist and/or employees won’t use the tool(s), then you might as well be following an antediluvian business process. As I write in the book, new collaborative technologies allow for far more efficient and simple business processes—but only if we embrace new tools.

Do most organizations have too many collaboration tools, or too few?

It depends. Mio found that 91 percent of businesses use at least two messaging apps. Slack and Microsoft Teams were present in two-thirds of the organizations surveyed. I’m a fan of picking a lane and sticking in it. Using more than one internal collaboration hub bifurcates knowledge.

91 percent of businesses use at least two messaging apps. Click To Tweet

On the other hand, some companies have refused to embrace Slack, Zoom, Teams, or another internal collaboration hub. As a result, they are rudderless. They mistakenly believe that email suffices for internal communication when it just doesn’t.

When seeking to adopt a tool, what questions should organizations be asking?

In the book and to my clients, I start with the following:

  • What business problem does this software application attempt to solve?
  • What business problem does this software application not solve?
  • Does our company already use a similar tool that addresses the same problem?
  • If so, is the new tool appreciably better or less expensive than the incumbent?
  • Does this app or feature make employees’ lives easier?
  • Is the juice worth the squeeze?

You talk in your outstanding book about “ditching internal email for good” Is that possible? How? Aren’t most organizations scared to lose the archival nature of email?

Yes. I researched this in 2014 when writing Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It. Some companies have even banned internal email.

Let me get to your second question. Sure, some people are scared of leaving email behind. People generally hate change—especially at work.

The success of Teams, Slack, Zoom, and other collaborative technologies indicates that organizations can survive and even thrive without everyone hitting “Reply All.” There’s a reason that Microsoft allows IT departments to remove that dreaded button from Outlook.

You also recommend an “internal communications hub.” What is that, and what does it replace?

Ah, now we’re talking.

In the book, I define it an internal collaboration hub as follows:

General-use software application designed to promote effective communication and collaboration. Ideally, all organizational conversations, decisions, documents, and institutional knowledge exist in a hub. Critically, hubs connect to different spokes. They enable automation with little-to-no technical skill required. Examples of today’s popular hubs include Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom.

Put differently, many people think of Slack and Microsoft Teams as Email 2.0 and Zoom as a video-conferencing tool. That’s tantamount to saying that I can only use my iPhone to make phone calls. Yes, internal collaboration hubs replace email—but they can do so much more. When you connect them to third-party apps and systems, you can fundamentally change how you work—for the better. That’s the big idea at the center of Reimagining Collaboration.

It seems like in our new “all Zoom, all the time” world, there’s never an opportunity to have a conversation that’s just audio, without having to have a camera on you. Is that a net positive, or a net negative?

I did some research on this subject for my previous book Zoom For Dummies. Long story short: we weren’t meant to stare at our screens to this extent. Zoom fatigue is a real thing. I’m no neurologist, but I do know this: It’s folly to equate in-person communication with videoconferences.

Being able to speak to someone sans video can be beneficial, but you also have to remember what’s lost. No, 93 percent of communication is not non-verbal. Still, when I talk to possible clients and podcast guests, I want to see their expressions and I want them to see min. Brass tacks: It depends. There are pros and cons with all types of communications and collaborations.

In terms of collaboration and adopting/optimizing it in an organization, who should be in charge of that?

In the book, I argue that it’s a shared responsibility because collaboration transcends any one business function. We all need to collaborate at work. The security guard, the HR rep, the salesperson, and the CXO all need to play nice with others. I can’t think of a single job that requires zero collaboration. I’d hate to grant a single individual or department that responsibility. Collaboration is not akin to performing research for a CPG company or creating clever ads in a marketing agency. It affects everyone.

Interestingly, some companies are creating roles for a Head of Remote Work. While the jury is still out, it’s a hybrid position that requires knowledge of traditional HR, technology, real estate, and other functions.

About Phil Simon

Phil Simon is a recognized technology and collaboration authority. 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 consults organizations on analytics, communications, strategy, data, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, The New York Times, and many other prominent media outlets. He also hosts the podcast Conversations About Collaboration.

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