Employer Branding

A Guide to the Future of Work, with Josh Bersin

We recently sat down with Josh Bersin, the Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, to discuss where he believes the future of work is heading towards, and what the most important aspects to consider within that would be.

Tell us about Bersin by Deloitte and what you do there.

We study all aspects of HR in the workplace, as well as leadership and HR technology from a research perspective. We talk to thousands of companies, we do interviews and surveys, and we try to figure out what are the best practices, and what is really working in companies to drive performance and employee engagement. Every year I do this and something new comes up. So there’s always something to talk about because of the impact of technology at work, the impact of business cycles and the way business is operated is changing. We were acquired by Deloitte in 2012, so we’re now a business inside of Deloitte Human Capital in the Deloitte Consulting Organization. But we’re still independent, so we do our research on our own, independent of the consulting organization.

Why is the future of work important?

Right now, there’s a huge conversation about this going on and a lot of it is driven by two things. First is the political issues around income inequality and low productivity, and people are saying, “Why is this happening?” At the same time, artificial intelligence, robotics, and technology is advancing at an almost exponential rate. So people are saying, “What is happening to the workforce and how does the workplace adapt to this new digital world that we live in? What will work look like over the next couple of years? Will we all be replaced by machines? Will we all be talking to our computers all day? Will we even have jobs?” That’s really kind of the discussion that’s going on.

I’ve been studying this very, very aggressively for the last year and a half. I had to give a couple of big talks on it. Jobs are going to change and organizations are getting much flatter and people are getting much more connected. We’re all becoming more augmented by technology, whether it be our phone or our computer, or some AI software. They are making our jobs different but they’re not necessarily making them go away. I mean, in the United States, we’re now reaching a fairly low unemployment rate and the jobs that are being created are actually more human jobs and less technical jobs.

You would think that with all this technology entering the workforce that we’re all going to become software engineers. But actually, the opposite is happening. The jobs that are being created are actually jobs that focus on the essential human skills: listening, convincing, selling, communicating, designing and curating. Actually, there are now jobs being created to monitor and train robots, for example, to help AI systems get smarter. Healthcare is requiring more jobs in the service industry.

We just did some research that shows that there is a really massive influx of technology; 45% of the companies we just surveyed said that they expect our company to be “fully automated” within the next 3 to 5 years, whatever that means. So there’s lots of technology being acquired. But as that happens, new jobs are created.

The one example I’ll leave you with on this one, and this is the one that’s been written about the most but it’s very relevant. In the 1980s, when I was young, entering the workforce, we had the beginning of the automatic teller machine and the branch bank was expected to go away. They were expected to shut down branches. There would be no more branches. We’d all be doing banking electronically. But what happened is as we learned how to use the automatic teller machine and we became more familiar with online banking, we all started doing many, many more transactions online to the degree that we do thousands of things online with our bank that we never dreamed we’d be doing, requiring us to go into a branch to ask people questions when we wanted to buy something, when we wanted to change something and when we had a problem.

So there are actually more branches by far than there were in the 1980s, and more tellers, and more jobs. Now they’re not the same jobs. They’re not transactional jobs, they’re human interface jobs. But that’s a perfect example of how technology in the future of work adapts to what the workplace is and how it changes jobs. There’s many, many examples of that. So it’s a big topic and consulting firms are concerned about it, big businesses are concerned about it. I’m getting lots of speeches and talking to lots of clients about it all the time.

Is there a way that people can future-proof their careers?

The big thing for us as individuals is we have to be comfortable with continuous reinvention and continuous learning. If you’re a Java programmer and you were a hot commodity in the year 2000, you’re not a hot commodity today. So you had to learn new programming languages, you probably had to become more of a full-stack engineer, you probably need to learn a little bit about AI. If you’re a designer and you haven’t learned about modern design and video, you’ve fallen behind.

So it doesn’t matter what your job is. You have to be comfortable continuously learning and reinventing yourself. So I think that’s the biggest issue. It’s scary for people because if you look at the earnings, the potential you have to make money, something that’s hot for a couple of years suddenly isn’t hot. You may find yourself in a job where somebody younger than you knows things you don’t know and suddenly all of your tenure isn’t worth as much as you thought.

So we’re really in a marketplace of continuous learning and continuous reinvention. The place where this is particularly hard is if you’re in a geographic location where a company moves or picks up shop and moves a manufacturing plant, maybe shuts it down or outsources it or moves to another city and you can’t move, you may find yourself going from being a manufacturing worker to a healthcare worker. That’s difficult to do. I mean, a lot of people are very uncomfortable with that.

But that would be my number one recommendation – don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself. I’ve reinvented myself at least five or six times in my career. It’s really like surfing. You catch a wave, you ride it into the shore, and then you’ve got to be able to paddle back up and catch the next one. We’re all going through that multiple times in our life now.

What should organizations be thinking about?

Well, we just wrote a big report on this at Deloitte Human Capital Trends but I would say that there are really two things to consider:

One is to redesign the organization around teams and networks, not around a hierarchy. In the world of work today, the digital world we live in, people interact in small teams and they can share information and collaborate instantaneously anywhere. So the idea that you have to go to your boss to get permission to do something and then you have to ask your boss all the time and that your boss actually knows what you’re supposed to be doing, that’s not actually the way the world works anymore. There’s been a radical change; 88% of the companies we survey, just three months ago, and this is more than 10,000 companies, said that they are trying to redesign their organization for the future, change the roles that people have, change the structure. Basically, what it comes down to is creating more of a networked organization.

The second issue is that we’re in a strange period of time where we haven’t all figured out how to use the technology we have productively. We’re happy to use it and we’re spending a lot of time on social media whatever it may be. But we’re not getting more work done. Productivity is only growing at about 1% to 1.5% a year. A lot of people are concerned about that in the U.S. and in Europe. So I think organizations have to do a lot of work to create a meaningful, productive employee experience. In HR, that means doing away with the once a year engagement survey and getting very, very close to all of the employees’ needs and focusing on the individual journeys and the individual obstacles we have to getting our jobs done.

We have a framework for that which we call ‘Simply Irresistible‘ that explains it. I think this is going to be a major theme for HR departments over the next couple of years – making the workplace more productive, simpler, and more meaningful to people. That also means focusing on wellness and health and not just business productivity, but human productivity. What can we do to be better, really aligned personally with work so that we don’t get fried out from our 24/7 always on work experience? So those are the two things that I think organizations really need to focus on right now.

What is the societal impact of the future of work?

There’s healthcare, minimum wage and income guarantees. A lot of interesting ideas, they’re floating from different sources: from economists, from politicians, and from business people.

So if you could think of thousands of examples of this. Somebody who has to change jobs, change roles, change careers and change cities. Will I have the health care to do that or will I be stuck with my old job because I can’t afford to get a new healthcare program? Will I be able to get educated and will I get credentials for my education? Will I be able to afford the education? If I need to go back to school and spend $50,000 on a degree, how am I possibly going to pay for that? Will I get paid a reasonable wage?

The fourth point is about inclusion. The future of work is a networked organization where many people work part time and many people work full-time. We all need to listen to each other as equals regardless of race, gender, age, political background, religion. So I think another part of the societal mission is to create an inclusive culture so that the work environment that we live in and work in and make money in supports us no matter who we are.

Things are changing very fast and many of the fastest growing economies are in Asia, India, China, and soon Africa. If we don’t have a sense of inclusion of people that are different from us, that will also impact our ability to evolve. So those are big topics on the political agenda. They’re not easy topics to address but I think many, many people are talking about them now.

What are some of the top implications for employers?

Well, I think number one is your organization. I hate to use the word ‘best place’ but is it a place to work where people feel that they can achieve their individual goals? Are you going to be able to achieve your goals in that role? Are you going to make enough money? Are you going to get some healthcare? Are you going to get some training? Is there some future? Is the environment going to fit your lifestyle? Is it flexible? That’s number one.

Number two is learning. I don’t think there are any companies that will be around for a long time that doesn’t provide online digital learning experiences for their employees. I mean, there’s the traditional learning of onboarding, learning how to do a new job, learning how to use the systems at work, learning the compliance rules at work. But then there’s the, “I don’t know how to do this job and I’d like to get better at it. Who will help me? Who are the people that will help me? Do I have a coaching environment at work to help me?” That’s number two.

Number three is leadership. Traditionally in many large companies, the way you became a leader was by paying your dues, by putting in the time and you eventually reached a point where you were promoted. That doesn’t work anymore. Things happen too fast. We need to promote people into leadership roles based on their expertise, based on their followership, based on their alignment with the culture. It doesn’t matter how old they are or how long they’ve been in the company. In fact, the way I like to think of it is your credibility is based on your experiences, not your experience. Just because you’ve been in the company a long time doesn’t mean you have the relevant experiences to make you good at the job you’re doing or to lead the project that you’re leading.

So we need to rethink leadership models and create what we call more of a digital leadership model. Digital not meaning technical but more agile, experimental leadership model to allow people who are maybe the subject matter experts or the spiritual leaders of the company to lead where necessary and not only give it to the people that have been around a long time. So those are the three things I think are very relevant right now.

What does it imply for employer brand management?

I mean, employment brand, even the word ‘brand’ is a little bit of a misleading term. It used to be that employment brand was building a nice website and building a career page and promoting how great you are. That’s still important but less important than ever. Your employment brand reflects how you treat people because your employees can go on websites like Glassdoor and they can talk about what it’s like to work at your company. If it’s not a good place to work, people can find out about it regardless if it’s on your website.

So I think the essence of a great employment brand is to seriously invest in your people and think about your people as your number one product. I don’t think there’s a business left where people are not the product. I mean, even if you’re an oil company and you’re drilling and pumping oil out of the ground, without the right people, without the right safety, without the right culture, you’re not going to be successful. It’s certainly true in airlines, healthcare, hospitality, retail, in technology industries. If you’re not creating a great employment experience, people won’t innovate, they won’t stay.

So employment brand is really a part of thinking about the entire employee experience and making a continuous investment in your people and staying in touch with people when they leave. We’re in a world now where 50% of millennials will live into their 100’s. So there is a good chance they’re going to leave your company and they’re going to talk about your company and they might come back later to work on a project or they might refer to your company. So part of employment brand today is taking a long-term strategy on the relationship you have with people who have left your company so that they continue to be brand advocates too.

Then there are all the wonderful things that we’ve done for years. Employment branding on your website and having a great employee experience and then promoting that. But I think that’s less important today than just being a good employer and making sure you’re taking the employee experience seriously.

Connect with Josh on LinkedIn.