Brian Solis

Technology, adaptation & the future of employee experience

Today I speak with the inimitable Brian Solis, a world-renowned digital anthropologist and futurist. An award-winning author and global keynote speaker, Brian’s research, advisory and presentations humanise the relationship between disruptive innovation and its impact on institutions, markets and societies.

He not only helps audiences understand what’s happening and why, he also visualises future trends and inspires people to take leading roles in defining the future they want to see. Brian serves as Global Innovation Evangelist at Salesforce, and his work focuses on thought leadership and research that explores digital transformation, innovation and disruption, customer experience, commerce, and the cognitive enterprise.

He has advised leading brands, celebrities, and startups, and his ideas and work are consistently featured in the press. A regular contributor to leading business and industry publications including Forbes, Harvard Business Review, CMO.com, Adweek and others, Brian is also an official LinkedIn Influencer. His work is followed by over 700,000 people across social media.

Key themes

Success, decision-making, future, technology, behaviours, somatic marker, attention, AI, robots, innovation, customer service, employee experience, empathy, leadership, inclusion, HR

Reflection prompt

“We’re essentially grooming a generation of students, and have been actually, for a world that doesn’t exist when they are ready to work. And it is actually happening to today’s workforce, where they are becoming irrelevant in real time.”


Books & recommended reading


Nathalie: Brian, it’s a great pleasure to be speaking with you today on the show.

Brian: Oh my goodness. The pleasure is all mine. It absolutely is. And I miss seeing you out there on the circuit.

Nathalie: I know. I passed it across virtually somewhat at the Social Bakers Engage, but it’s just not the same as reaching out our hand and saying hello.

Brian: Oh, I was so excited for that to happen in real life. So hopefully, we get re invited back.

Nathalie: So I’d like to start by asking you what I typically invite my guests to answer. We’re living through a very unusual point in history right now, and I’d love to ask what you think is happening in the global human psyche.

Brian: So, we’re just going to start basically with a small question? Okay. I believe that this is fundamentally a hard reset on the human operating system. And for those who are open to possibilities that we have already been reprogrammed, rewired over the last year, going back to March 2020, and shortly before, depending on where you were in the world, to essentially reset everything from our values and our processes of decision-making to reassessing how we may define success, rewiring our daily behaviors consciously and subconsciously. And also learning to rethink our relationship with time and technology. So we essentially have been fundamentally transforming for better and worse. And that has yet to see its true impact in what I’m calling the reemergence, when the vaccine has established enough herd immunity where people feel safe to start venturing out to do the things that they did so seamlessly before. For example, like traveling. 

Nathalie: It’s interesting hearing you speak to those layers of rewiring. So one of the things I’m curious to hear a little more about is what you feel might have changed in terms of what we prioritize, whether at work or in our values. What are some of the things that you’re perceiving right now?

Brian: There are many, many sides to this reset, one being on the positive, because I’m an optimist. And when you have such a powerful transformation that is placed upon you, so you have no choice in the matter, you have then the layers of sort of stoicism where you can embrace that these events will happen to you, but while you’re not in control of them, you can be in control of how you react to them, and how you choose then to move forward.

And you can see then that this will be temporary, that there will be hardships, that there will be new lessons to be learned along the way. And you can take them with what they are and define where you see yourself in increments, three months within this pandemic, six months within this pandemic, at the reemergence, a year past the reemergence. And you could even go through a fun mental exercise of, what’s the 2022 Brian going to tell the 2021 Brian?

What’s 2021 Brian going to tell the 2020 Brian of what he should have done to smile along the way, learn along the way, and also be a better self for those around him? Because not everybody is going to go through those mental exercises. That’s the ultimate way. And then peeling back that layer is to then understand the other side of the equation where, well, people are hopeful, but at the same time, people are scared. People are fearful.

They’re worried about the economy, their health, the health of their loved ones. They’re seeing these incredible new cycles of just cases of infections and deaths soaring all around the world. Then the anger and the jealousy of countries that have managed the disease very well, like New Zealand and Australia. You have Singapore and Taiwan. And then you have the United States hitting 500,000 and you can’t help.

But no matter where you are on the optimism or the skepticism or the negativity spectrum, you feel this desire, this anger, this frustration of wanting to be like everybody else and just move past this. So the emotional component of this is the one that I think is most difficult to manage, because of the somatic marker that is this once in a lifetime pandemic. And that’s where the transformation I think, is really taking place because essentially, deep down, we forged this emotional bookmark, this visceral, this deep, this triggerable emotional thing that we might embrace or we might suppress within each of us.

But it’s the one thing that we all share. And like our family and ancestors who went through World War II, it’s going to change us. So this is where our values are changing, for example, how we spend money, how we don’t, where we spend it and why, what we choose to do with our time, who we want to spend it with, why we may look more inwardly at, for example, if I was going to buy this sports car, but instead I’m going to buy a Peloton and an RV.

And so essentially, it’s this moment now where we’re going to have a new center of reference for how we make decisions about our lives moving forward. We might change careers. We might finally indulge those passions that we’ve long repressed because of being “busy” over the years, and starting to make time for what might be really important in our lives. And that somatic marker becomes that deep, emotional reference point where we’re going to then see it in a new light. Oh yes, I guess I could have made time for this before. Or yes, I see now how important that is, where I couldn’t before. So that’s the one side of it.

The other side is, you still that somatic marker, but now all of this is going to move towards anger rather than hope. And when you force an entire world to essentially become more and more digital, and essentially digital-first in many cases, you do so without a manual or a playbook, or a mentor, or a teacher, or a coach, or instructor who’s going to teach you digital literacy. You don’t have a psychologist or a psychiatrist, or medical professionals who are going to explain here’s what happens to your brain and your body the more time you spend on TikTok.

I understand that you’re using it as a form of escapism and as a form of coping through all of this craziness that’s happening, but here’s what’s happening every time you scroll on Instagram, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Here’s what’s happening every time you share a selfie, here’s what’s happening every time you participate in whatever challenge you’re doing on TikTok. And essentially, that starts to rewire your brain, body, and biology into a very negative and dangerous place where then suddenly you feel like you don’t matter in life unless you have these likes, these followers, these connections.

And it starts to erode slowly and then quickly, your self-confidence, your self-esteem, your mental health, a lot of things that aren’t good. And then at the same time, on both fronts, sorry to throw so much at you, but at the same time on both fronts, you have the optimist and the pessimist who then meet in the middle where everybody has been thrust into this digital-first economy without any of those lessons in life, who are going to then have to track through these things very differently.

The one thing, for example, on the negative side, you might see news and information in your own inflamed biases, that are now activated fully. So if you believe that Bill Gates is trying to place a microchip within you, then the vaccine has suddenly become that mechanism to do it. And now you’re up in arms that the world is being taken over by the global elite. It’s the same thing that people believe in QAnon, the reason why Trump was able to essentially mind-control so many evangelicals and radical rights, the reason why we believe all of these things online that most sane people would not believe. But that’s actually growing and growing, and growing, and growing because there’s nothing there to counter it on the other side.

Then the optimist side who’s spending more and more time in digital, the danger to them is that, well, they’re spending more and more time in digital. And part of what happens to us in using all of these applications and networks is that we then get fooled into believing that we have to move at internet speed, and that our brain and our body has to learn how to react at that speed and scale in order to do our work every day, but also manage all of the notifications, while also managing all of the different presences that we have, to one of the reasons that you’ll see in a symptom that we’ll have 50,000 tabs open because we can’t close and finish out one thing in the moment.

While we have so many files on our digital desktops, because we can’t just file them and organize them and put them away and move on. And that in of itself, whereas the other side, it erodes your brain and also your self-esteem, this side starts to erode your gray matter. It starts to erode your capability to tap into deep creativity in flow and thinking. It makes you move faster. It makes you more prone to mistakes. It makes you more prone to more distractions, which perpetuates more and more problems. So this is all happening to society right now without a counterbalance. And it’s affecting all of the spectrums.

Nathalie: Here’s a curious one. So I think one of the things that I’ve seen a sudden swell of texts and podcasts and books about, are some of these old ways to contain and give form to discrete pockets of time. So for instance, the use of ritual, where there seem to be some threads that we’ve dropped along the way in our haste to follow this internet speed we’re so now accustomed to, that actually, people are starting to pick back up.

But that being said, actually, one of the things I wanted to ask you, especially in your role as a digital anthropologist, it touches on your work in humanizing the relationship between disruptive innovation and its impact on everything from institutions and markets to societies. I’d like to ask what you think may be some of the most significant innovations that emerge from this pandemic period, or as you might say, the reemergence, what you might see coming there.

Brian: The interesting thing about the pandemic is that it’s opened a door and also accelerated all kinds of things that we might have at every level or whatever position we’re in, put off mentally, because we just couldn’t see or feel, or embrace what those applications could be at the moment, because we were so busy iterating in life. And this is one of the greatest lessons in life that shows that there are two moments for true innovation.

One is the aha moment. For example, all of the things that you just said in terms of AI capabilities, we have edge computing of things that personalization of the edge is now possible. We have an incredible AR that’s been here for many years, but no real killer apps. AI that’s been here, but we settled for things like RPA and automation. So when we have this aha moment, it’s because we can see a clearer future that most people cannot.

For example, we have robotics and AI. We can teach it to do virtual restocking of shelves like we see happening in Japan now. That technology has actually been here for a long time, but nobody’s really made that killer app for it because, well, we had human beings who could just do that and it’s cheap labor. And we don’t have to think that way yet. But then suddenly when you didn’t have access to that labor, accelerated that need to do it. Otherwise, you perish. Adapt or die. And it comes back to that digital Darwinism concept that I’ve been talking about for a long time.

And so the visionary will say, “Aha, this is what we can do.” And then you have the other side of innovation, which is, “Oh, oh, we need to do something quickly.” And that’s why we saw things like remote working, for example, has been long … We used to call it telecommuting. But the human side of it found everything wrong with it. We need you in the office. We don’t trust you. We need that team comradery that you can only get in an analog world. And then suddenly within weeks, everybody was working from home.

We’ve been telling businesses all around the world, you as well, you have to become more digital. Your customers are becoming more digital. You have to cater to their digital needs. You have to set up commerce and all kinds of hybrids between digital and analog. Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah. Well, E-commerce is only this such percentage now and blah, blah, blah. And then suddenly in the first 90 days of the pandemic, 10 years of the E-commerce adoption accelerates in 90 days. And okay, we need E-commerce. We need all of these things.

And so when you get to that point, I guess my point is when you react like that, you’re not giving innovation and all of these incredible technologies, its truest opportunity to excel. You’re essentially adapting what you did before in this new world. And so then what ends up happening is as we move, and the more time we spend in this pandemic, the more time then you get locked into this iteration mode where you’re just going to build upon now what you’ve built in the pandemic. And then post pandemic, you’re going to be stuck iterating upon that, and still not seeing the vision for what you can do that’s different, that’s creating new value for yourself and the world.

And so this is an incredible moment in time, I call it the novel economy, where you actually have to be much more mindful in two fronts. What do we need to iterate so that we can get by? For example, we can’t scale human beings on customer service, so we are going to need chat bots. And we’re going to have to deploy quickly. So let’s do that in a way that is the best we can with the time we have. But we have to set a parallel track. How are we going to use this technology to create better value for customers so that they see that this technology is actually a better move?

So you need an iteration track and an innovation track. And so it essentially then starts to tell everybody the technology is here, but you need a different operating model in how you’re going to adopt it, implement it, and then mature it over time. And that’s essentially then telling everybody, all businesses, all organizations are operating on 50, 60, 70 year-old models that are dated. The pandemic gave you a control, alt, delete moment. A gift, if you want to see it as such where yes, it’s painful, yes, it’s going to suck, yes, you’re going to have to move people around.

Yes, not everybody’s going to want to come along with it, but it’s that one once in a lifetime moment where you get to innovate forward. You get to do all the things you never did, or you long pushed away, to compete for a new economy, because there are businesses, there are startups, there are people right now who are going to come out of this and create essentially what’s going to be the Roaring Twenties of our era.

And you’re going to deal with a whole nother global disruption if you don’t start to think this way right now, because that reemergence, it’s technically months away. It may be 11 months, 10 months, but it’s months away.

Nathalie: So if I were to ask you what you might imagine the future of work to look like, and obviously that has so many different components to it, and it depends on the industry and whether we can connect remotely to work from wherever we are, but if I were to ask you to envision your wildest dream of what the future of work could look like, how might you begin to answer that?

Brian: Oh, wildest dreams? Hmm.

Nathalie: Playtime.

Brian: Well, I don’t think we’re going to go back to a nine to five, just like the basic constructs. The company that I work for, Salesforce, we just announced that we’re never going back to requiring everybody to be in the office, that we’re going to give employees a choice. I do think though, that … Let me come at it at a different angle.

Nathalie: Sure.

Brian: Because I’m sure you’ve got some really smart people telling you about the hybrid work models that exist, the different time constraints. I want to focus on the thing that we’re not talking about so much, which is none of us are great self-managers, just because we’re all human beings. Very few of us are very rigid. And as I’m bringing this up though, there’s this notion of wellness that we’ve long ignored in business. The concept of, to give it a word or a term, employee experience.

And if you think about what experience is, it’s a series of just reactions, emotional and intellectual to moments, to work, to applications that you have to use, to customers that you talk to, or coworkers. And so we don’t spend enough time really thinking about what those experiences should be. And then you add a pandemic to this and you have to then deal with somebody who is having to now learn new tools, having to work from home. Maybe somebody who doesn’t have a desk or a place or a spot to work, great internet connection. Maybe they have noise outside or neighbors.

And this then becomes a whole new realm that we weren’t prepared to deal with. If you think about the idea of human resources and how we train people, how we manage people, we’re rarely checking in on, how are you doing? How are you feeling? What can we do to make that better? And then applying budget and resources to solving that, or contending with that. Because we know that one person who feels that way is probably represented by a greater majority who are not saying something, or we didn’t ask. And now, suddenly, thrust everybody into their home, working.

So the thing was you’re not working from home. You’re actually working at home during a crisis, trying to work. And we’re all learning how to do that. We’re all then, everything that we just talked about, thrusting ourselves into more digital, coping through all of these other networks as a form of entertainment, binging every single Netflix episode just to keep our minds off of all the other things, and so we’re essentially reprogramming ourselves without intent. So there’s no one on the other side saying, how are you feeling? What can I do? And then bringing this level of expertise of knowing that people are rewiring themselves, and probably rewiring themselves into multitasking. And I’ll give you a scenario.

The more you multitask, the more you fly at this higher level. The more you fly at this higher level, the more you’re prone to essentially moving from distraction to distraction, to distraction. When you indulge in a distraction and you break away from something that you’re involved in, like say deeper work, it takes 23 minutes to get back to that state of that depth of work. And so if you entertain every single distraction that comes at your way, before the pandemic it was upwards of 200 per day, you are completely imploding your ability to be productive and creative. And so you’re not your best self, even though you’re just checking the box on the to-do list.

So the more you’re distracted, the more time it takes to actually do one thing. And the more time it takes to do that one thing, you still want to get it done, so you spend more time trying to do it. So you end up working longer hours. And the longer hours that you do, it starts to take away from the things that matter to you, like your kids, your loved ones, breaks for mental health walks, what have you. And so you get thrust into this vicious cycle that isn’t going to improve without some type of intervention. And the more and the longer this happens, the more serious that intervention is going to become in need.

So look at, for example, fake news, QAnon, you name it. These are people who are going in a full-blown detox. Not detox, actually deprogramming. That’s going to take a long time. And it’s not just okay, hey, turn off the internet. It’s rewiring people to be in a better place and then to move forward in a better direction. So that’s the future of work that I think we’re going to have to contend with is reprogramming a society to be healthier, happier, and more creative as we become more and more digital.

Nathalie: It’s so interesting hearing you speak about the impact of unintentionally engaging with technology, to lift us out of what are probably for many of us, uncomfortable or dysphoric states. And I think when you put that alongside the advances that we’re seeing, and what you mentioned there about one’s intention, how to use these things, how to interact with them, there’s a really big question mark as to how we want to organize our time and our work rhythm going forward, if we are the ones who are going to be in charge and not as part of some larger organization that says, “Okay, well, we want you at the desk at this time,” et cetera.

Given all of the increased technology that we’ve seen, the adoption that’s happened at a rapid pace in the last period of time over the pandemic and the lockdowns, and probably the increased automation of jobs that has been accelerated off the back of this, and then a growing reliance on machine intelligence and what have you, what do you think are some of the human qualities that we might come to value more as time goes on?

Brian: It’s funny you should ask. I’m giving a presentation on this today. And a lot of it developed from the last book that I wrote, which was a complete departure of where my work was focused, because I had noticed over the last several years, that when you take any one of these popular networks, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, the latest Clubhouse, they all trade on the same currency, which is your attention. Netflix is in the same camp, Facebook. And so the more of the attention of yours that they have, the more of it that they can monetize.

But you weren’t born inherently capable of knowing how to do a TikTok. You had to learn it. And not only did you have to learn it, you had to then see or feel that it was valuable for your time. And as a result, you then spent more and more time consuming and creating. So essentially how these networks work is that it’s a form of social engineering and then also persuasive design that its intention is to change your behavior today in its favor. And that is true for every single one of those networks. And there’s all kinds of really awesome techniques. And this is also used in gaming. This is using casinos.

It’s just become more and more sophisticated on the digital and mobile side of things where its goal is to hook you. And essentially, to make you micro or macro addicted to each of the platforms where you can’t put it down. Reed Hastings famously said in a shareholder call, when asked about his biggest competition, he said it was sleep. And he said that we’re winning. And he’s right. And so the same could be true for all other networks. And so the reason why I say this is because we’re not …

I spent three years understanding one, how persuasive design works, and then also what it does to you. And that when you know that, then you can start to understand what you do about it. And we’re not having those conversations. And yet, we’re thrusting all of this upon our employees and ourselves, without essentially doing this. We might wake up every day and do our amazing rituals like yoga, meditation. We’ll take our favorite apps like Calm and Headspace. We’ll go read a book. But you’re still reprogramming yourself every single time you go back to this stuff.

And you can’t necessarily live in a world without all of this stuff. So what we’re doing at best, is treating these symptoms and preventing it from becoming worse and worse, and worse. But we’re not getting better and better, and better. We might tell ourselves that we are, but really deep down, the skills then that we’re robbing ourselves as a result of this is things like critical thinking or analytical thinking. And then that’s where you enter QAnon and all these crazy conspiracy theories. Active learning and learning, so that mean you create sort of like Dunning-Kruger syndrome where people feel like, or you foster ignorance or arrogance because people feel like they’ve learned enough. Because they’re on their own path of development and experience.

You take away things like complex problem-solving, because people are moving much more superficially and quicker. And then believing that they’re smarter because of what they’re doing and what they know. So that means that the skills that are much more important moving forward, especially in an era of automation and artificial intelligence, it means that, well, human intelligence has to become an in-demand skillset as well, but not in the way that it was before the pandemic.

So somebody has got to train the bots, somebody has got to program, especially as we move into these low-code scenarios. So things like analytical and innovation, creativity, active learning and learning strategies, complex problem-solving, critical thinking and analysis, originality, initiative, grit, leadership, this concept of social-capital technology literacy, digital literacy, resilience, stress tolerance, these things, or problem-solving, reasoning, design thinking, these things are not taught in school today.

And we’re essentially grooming a generation of students, and have been actually, for a world that doesn’t exist when they’re ready to work. And it’s actually happening to today’s workforce where they’re becoming irrelevant in real-time. And very little is happening at the management level to change this. And very little is happening at the career or the worker level, because they’re so busy with everything else that they’re doing that that’s when they get blindsided when they’re not needed anymore.

So these soft skills that are critical, become rather hard skills that we have. They’re not easy. Empathy is actually another skill that’s going to need to be much more important, especially at the leadership level. Collaboration, working with people, self-management, self-government, self-drive, self-determination, these things are going to be much, much more critical moving forward. And then you add to it just at the more basic level, like inclusion, adaptability. These things also become hard skills that we’re going to have to train and retrain, unlearn existing employees, and also students of tomorrow.

And that’s going to, I think, help people then start to see the new opportunities that they can’t today, because they’re so caught up in keeping up with everything that exists today. And I’ll give you one last example. And then I got to run. The more you spend on things like TikTok and Instagram, you feel like you are creative because you have access to these tools and filters and things that actually, in some cases, some of the most brilliant people in the world are making these videos that blow your mind.

But if they limit themselves to those platforms, and they think that the only thing that they can get out of that is being an influencer and getting some free tips, trips, and merch, that’s not a highly marketable skill for the world. But if you take that same determination and creativity and willingness to learn new tools that become a much more of a high commodity or a precious commodity in the real world, like programming bots, then you have a career and longevity.

But there’s no one really having those conversations today, so that’s where I see teachers, leaders, HR, that we have to start pushing these soft/hard skills into our employees, and training them for the future that’s actually unfolding now.