Phil Simon on Tectonic Changes in the Workplace

Austrian economics recognizes change as a constant and provides guidance for adapting to it and managing it. Change is changing for business — it’s faster and more fundamental in the digital age. Austrian economics can help even more as a result of its practical and realist approach to adaptation and continuous adjustment.

Knowledge Capsule

Change is changing.

Change is a constant. You can think of the market in constant flux, as Mises did, You can think in terms of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. You can think of it in terms of complexity or of absolute uncertainty. However you tune your mind and your business processes, there are always going to be more things that can happen than you can predict or prepare for.

There are some ways to think better about ceaseless change, however. One is to bucket the major themes or corridors of change, to organize your thinking and make some judgments about where and how to act and adapt. By recognizing these multiple types of change, businesses will be better prepared for adaptive action.

Our E4B guest Phil Simon has studied change in the workplace and recently published a new book titled The Nine — about nine tectonic forces that are reshaping business and the workplace where we conduct business. He advises businesses to be alert to the changing nature of change in the digital age.

People are changing.

The people you hire today and the people already working at your firm are not the same people as they were just a couple of years ago. They’ve been through a new, different and challenging experience of working through the Covid-19 pandemic, and they’ve been working with new technologies, in new places (i.e., working remotely) and they’ve been questioning how they relate to work, to their colleagues, and to the firm. Don’t expect them to be unchanged in their mindsets, attitudes, and work practices. The nature of the employment relationship is different today — less formal, less rigid, less standardized. Phil Simon uses the term “empowered employees” — employers must be empathic in understanding their new mental model as it relates to work.

The workplace is changing.

The workplace is no longer a physical space where people congregate to collaborate on work tasks, but a digital space of networked people, machines and software. New software and new machines are evolving all the time in this space, changing our relationship to it and to work. People are not going to go back to the office as the standard method of getting business done. If you want to have a physical space for people to meet in person, it must be reconfigured to support those business activities that can only be done in person, and not just as a standard structure of cubicles, offices and wiring. People must feel that there is more or better productivity to be enjoyed in the physical shared space than can be realized elsewhere.

The structure of work is changing.

Phil’s book includes a section on fractions: the idea that firms no longer need full-time access to a necessary business skill — like finance and accounting — via contracting with individuals for 100% of their worktime. New organizational models are emerging that utilize fractional access to these skills as needed. There are fractional CFOs and CMOs and CTOs. There are highly qualified experts available via sharing platforms; they can be both the best at what they do and the best fit for your firm’s need, available for a percentage of their time, not all of it. This thinking about fractional talent and skill utilization is becoming a more integral part of organizational thinking.

Automation is universally available.

Some level of automation is coming to every workplace. It’s approaching with greater speed and intensity today. It’s best to think of automation in terms of outcomes: what needs to get done and can it be done in a more automated fashion? What needs to be produced (Phil cites automated pizza making machines)? What processes are taking up people’s time (Phil cites automation in payment systems)? What jobs can be totally automated (e.g., driving trucks)? What departmental functions can be fully automated (like content moderation at Twitter)? All businesses should be reviewing all their activities at all these levels and asking where automation can eliminate waste, save time and release resources for greater productivity. Whether it’s as simple as calendaring software or as complex as robotic process automation, it’s right to examine every opportunity and find an automated solution.

A.I. Is going to help.

The rapid adoption of ChatGPT has opened many eyes to the possibilities of getting smart assistance to change and improve the way work is done. ChatGPT can help develop content, make plans, find data, write code, make summaries of libraries of documents, and assist in many many more tasks — as exhibited by the many ChatGPT threads on twitter that are full of new ideas. The great breakthrough of ChatGPT lies in making available the vast majority of available knowledge on virtually all topics in a convenient, conversational way. Businesses are the results of their accumulated, shared and applied knowledge. ChatGPT and similar AI’s amplify knowledge and accelerate learning. Businesses that don’t utilize this availability will fall behind their competitors.

There will be new software environments.

Software and platforms are two parts of the work environment that are changing fast. Whether we work on Zoom or Slack or Teams or Github or Salesforce, we continuously encounter new upgrades and functions as well as new alternatives. There is no alternative to earning the skills to utilize these tools to their greatest productive effect, and to keep our learning updated.

One economic function that is not improving amidst content change is trust. We can’t be sure, sometimes, about the other party we’re talking to or collaborating with, we can’t be sure of trusting data, we can’t be sure that our privacy and property rights are protected. Phil made the prediction that blockchain, as a secure record of all transactions and un-hackable repository of data and information, will play a bigger role in our business future as an arbiter of trust. For example, this may be where our individual health records might reside, which individuals would own, and which they could share and use for their own benefit in navigating the regulated opacity of the healthcare system.

Subjectivism and empathy will always play important roles.

Phil made a reference to “unhealthy analytics”. His point was that we are now in a position to measure more and more human action and human behavior, but that measurement does not necessarily provide insight, and may even give rise to perverse incentives. For example, it’s possible to measure when employees checked in to the office and when they left, but it’s not equally possible to monitor their productivity or motivation. It’s possible to measure the number of hours they spend on Zoom, but a different problem to measure their remote contributions. Analytics have their place, but understanding and empathizing with employees, and carefully constructing their mental models in order to be able to appeal to them and stimulate them, remain subjective, emotionally-based skills which are still a critical component of management.

Steer into the skid.

How do founders, owners, and managers deal with these changes? Phil’s expression is to steer into the skid. Reimagine work, embrace the powerful new technologies that are available, and be willing to experiment — perhaps in ways that others aren’t — to generate the active learning that moves organizations forward. It might be messy, and even feel chaotic, but it’s the right response to tectonic change. Expect some turbulence, while being open to infinite new possibilities.

Additional Resources

The Nine: The Tectonic Forces Reshaping the Workplace by Phil Simon: — Expertise on workplace collaboration and technology

Phil Simon on LinkedIn:

What's your reaction?

In Love
Not Sure

You may also like

More in:News