Employee experience and productivity need to be viewed holistically: Josh Bersin
Josh Bersin is an analyst, author, educator, and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He studies the world of work, HR and leadership practices, and the broad talent technology market.
As dynamic changes reshape business priorities the world over, how can companies refocus on their most important talent priorities? Josh Bersin’s latest book “Irresistible” offers a framework for companies to think about the challenges they have ahead of them. We spoke to Josh Bersin about the changing work environment, leadership qualities and more. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Could you talk about the origins of this book? The world of work has shifted more permanently in the last few years than ever before. In your book, you refer to the paradoxes that animate the world of work today – companies becoming more employee-centric and yet employees feeling isolated. What is causing this disconnect?
Bersin: The book “Irresistible: The Seven Secrets of the World's Most Enduring, Employee-Focused Organization" took eight years to develop and is based on numerous research studies, client engagements, and interviews conducted with companies over many years.
The book's ideas and the seven secrets it contains reflect on how work, companies, and organizations are changing. It started with an employee engagement model called Simply Irresistible, which was built around the idea that engagement is a much bigger topic than simply a survey that goes out once a year.
The engagement market was missing the huge, complicated issue of how to make employees healthy, safe, and productive in a variety of jobs in a company that is not as hierarchical as it used to be, where the managers are not as well trained as they should be.
Starbucks is an example of a company that has struggled with these issues. According to one report, there are 170,000 ways of making Starbucks coffee. And there’s the added pressure of the performance management system that tracks how quickly people are making their way through the store. With people waiting in long lines and blenders that couldn’t blend fast enough, it led to the company having a Glassdoor rating that’s lower than the Bank of America.
The pandemic has highlighted these engagement focus areas. As most employees had personal issues, health issues, family issues, and lifestyle issues, companies didn't know how to manage highly distributed, high-stress workers in this kind of environment. So a lot of employees feel underappreciated and undervalued. So, experience has become more complex.
In “Irresistible”, you share a number of principles that companies could use to build a new world of work. Among the companies that are successfully implementing these strategies – at which level are they able to drive the most change – management, individual, or organisational culture?
Bersin: I think that's a really important question. Management and leadership are the key factors in promoting employee well-being, productivity, and engagement.
While companies often focus on providing individual support, such as benefits and training, the real solution lies in ensuring that managers and leaders are properly trained and equipped to support their employees.
When employees experience burnout or dissatisfaction, it is not solely their responsibility to address it, but rather the responsibility of the managers and ultimately the company. In fact, issues with job safety, inadequate resources, lack of teamwork, and insufficient training for managers can all contribute to employee burnout and should be addressed by the company. These ideas are discussed in the book, "Irresistible”.
Great companies prioritize the development and alignment of their leaders and managers through their HR departments. While providing benefits and support to employees can be helpful, it is ultimately management culture, practices, and reward systems that have the most significant impact on employee well-being, productivity, and engagement.
There’s a lot of emphasis on the free flow of communication and high autonomy for teams to be successful. Where do you see companies falter the most when empowering teams?
Bersin: In most companies, the biggest gap in prioritization is in management, particularly at the middle management level. With the many changes that have occurred in the workplace, such as hybrid work, new technologies, and the pandemic, the role of managers has changed significantly.
I would tell companies to start with a diagnostic assessment of employee experience that's built around the Simply Irresistible model, which allows managers and individuals to assess themselves on the factors that contribute to a great company culture.
It's also important to actively listen to employees through surveys, focus groups, and crowdsourcing to identify problems that may not be immediately apparent to senior executives. By not listening, companies may miss underlying issues that lead to turnover and low performance.
The last company we just assessed for it was a big, professional services company. When the CEO looked at the results. He was completely flabbergasted. He was just shocked that there were so many issues that his senior management team was not paying attention to. And it wasn't because they didn't want to, they just didn't have the data. They weren't listening. They weren't, they didn't set up a system to find out.
You note an urgent need to move from a ‘jobs’ outlook to a ‘work’ outlook. This shift has also been framed as “Skills, not jobs”, when navigating issues like experience bias and education bias – what tools do companies rely on to assess the right candidate and ‘proof of work’?
Bersin: There’s a chapter in the book that talks about jobs not working out because companies don't consider all the changes that happen around a job, like selection, development, and growth. This is because the job architecture doesn't keep up with the changes that happen in the company.
For instance, a sales manager may want someone who has sold a specific product and achieved a quota for the past three years, but it's unlikely to find such a candidate. Instead, they may find someone who has sold something similar and had some success, but who also needs to fit with the team, know how to use Salesforce, understand industry marketing, work with engineering and professional services, etc. All of those are skills-related assessment questions that effectively measure whether somebody is going to be a success in this job or not. And they may not be written down in the job description. But they're implicit in the work.
By focusing on the actual work performed by high performers instead of relying on outdated job descriptions, companies can better select the right candidates for the job. This approach involves breaking down jobs into tasks and capabilities needed and can be done by a recruiter, organisational design consultant, or line manager. Simply giving a job description to a recruiter is unlikely to succeed. Many companies are currently working on this approach at different levels.
In the book, you’ve repeatedly outlined how older paradigms of work and management no longer work. And how purpose needs to be central to businesses today. While DEI and ESG are important components in purpose but cannot be the sole driving factors, how do you weave this into the actual business purpose?
Bersin: I think something interesting is going on. ESG has brought sustainability to the forefront of discussions in different parts of a company, and pay equity and belonging have also emerged as important topics. However, these topics are currently owned by different individuals and departments within an organisation. The head of DEI owns the diversity program, then the head of compensation looks at pay equity, and the manager is responsible for issues of teamwork, collaboration and belonging. The employee experience and productivity are looked at separately.
To truly address them, they need to be viewed holistically and integrated into a single group that focuses on the non-technical aspects of the employee experience.
More and more companies are integrating different disciplines and looking at the employee experience holistically. Heineken has created a new role for the Head of People Sustainability to address issues such as diversity, equity, inclusion, health and safety, collective bargaining, social justice, and workforce initiatives for contractors.
Last year, we conducted a study named "The Healthy Organization" and discovered that successful companies take a comprehensive approach to these issues rather than focusing on just one or two. They have an individual responsible for overseeing all of these aspects and view it as an essential part of the company's management infrastructure and strategy. These companies do not view these issues as just HR programs, and they review them regularly. The term "people sustainability" is an intriguing way to describe this and may become more prevalent in the future.
What are you most excited about, in the year FY 2023-24?
Bersin: I find the slowing economy to be the most intriguing aspect. Companies will have to reduce staff and become more efficient with their resources. Therefore, redesigning work for productivity will be crucial.
Our model called the forearm model, includes four elements - recruit, retain, reskill, and redesign - as every talent gap requires a combination of these factors.
It's not always feasible to hire new employees, so companies must find ways to boost productivity, such as reducing the number of meetings, adopting new technological platforms, restructuring job roles, and enabling employees to work at the top of their licenses, where they can use their skills more effectively.
I believe that there will be a lot of exciting design and consulting opportunities for HR professionals in 2023-24.