Building a better workplace

An interview with HR tech guru Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin

Josh Bersin knows firsthand that work can be unpleasant. In his first 20 years in the workforce, he struggled through recessions, got laid off, and endured clueless bosses at companies that were, in his words, “just no fun.”

Today, his work life is much more satisfying because he’s doing what he loves—researching and analyzing global business trends and advising major global companies on HR strategies and practices, talent acquisition and retention, and the role of emerging technology in all of it. The founder of Bersin by Deloitte, he is widely cited as one of the leading HR and workplace industry experts in the world.

In a recent interview with Workflow, Bersin talked about the challenges of employee engagement and how emerging automation and AI tools can improve the employee experience.

A Gallup survey found that 85% of employees are not engaged at work. Why is disengagement so high? What role can AI play to help improve engagement?

A variety of things contribute to an employee’s job satisfaction: their relationship with their manager, their work environment, their career development, their trust in the organization. All of those things are complicated.

For years, companies have surveyed people to identify which factors are negative. Then they go to managers and say, “Change your behavior. Here’s some training. Here are some tips.” That’s had some impact over the years, but obviously not much because we still have this giant problem.

It’s very early, but what AI is beginning to do is look at employee data—survey data, anecdotal data and email data—and find patterns that can be addressed prescriptively. That in turn will give business leaders better action plans.

If I’m a CEO or CHRO, what emerging AI tools should I keep my eye on in terms of improving employee experience?

First, look at tools that can collect feedback on how managers are treating their employees, their communication styles and behaviors. One is called ADP Compass and there’s also Kanjoya and Humu. They analyze feedback from employees and give managers subtle nudges or tips on what they could do differently. Humu also gives tips to employees on things they can do to improve their work experience.

The second area is what I would call productivity tools. One of the most frustrating things about work is things that get in the way of your productivity. Too many emails, too many meetings, systems that are hard to use, processes that are bureaucratic and so forth. Now there are a whole variety of organizational network analysis (ONA) tools like TrustSphere and YVA and others that look at the communication and work styles of highly productive people.

They can tell you statistically what these people are doing differently to teach you how to be more productive. Sending shorter emails can make you more productive and happier. Getting out of your desk and walking around is directly correlated with happiness and engagement because it gives you physical activity, helps you meet people, and so on.

The third category is diversity and inclusion tools. One of the things that frustrates people at work is feeling that they’re not included or that decisions that were made were not fair. “Why didn’t I get a raise and he got a raise?” Now we have AI‑based tools that instantly point out bias.

Surveys show that 87% of Millennials and Gen Z workers say that career development is a very important factor at work. Is that an area where AI can make a difference?

AI absolutely will start helping that. There are products being built now—one of them is called Fuel50, another one is Gloat—that look at successful career paths in companies and find where there’s demand for more skills. Then they tell employees, “Look, if you want to progress, here are the paths that are going be the most successful for you, and here’s some things you could do to prepare yourself for these other jobs.”

The reason people are job‑hopping so much these days is they’re not getting opportunities in their own companies. Right now, we have a 3.7% unemployment rate, so if you lose somebody, you’re going to have a devil of a time replacing them.

Sometimes managers have to let people leave their group and go work in another group and yes, maybe that wasn’t what they wanted to do, but that’s the right thing for the company. As one head of HR told me years ago: “In a great company, the manager doesn’t own somebody. The manager’s just there to coach them along until they find their next job.”

Even with all of these AI tools, do you believe that for a good percentage of the labor force, work isn’t ever going to be fun? Isn’t that why they have to pay you to show up?

I’m kind of tired of reading that. I don’t agree with that at all. In my experience, if you find a job that is the right job for you, it can be very satisfying and enjoyable. People that are too hung up on the money often don’t like their jobs and that’s because they’re not looking for work they like.

Companies have to think about the fact that they’re not going to be successful financially if their people are not happy. Companies with low levels of engagement generally get into all sorts of problems. Now they’re realizing, “I’ve got to take better care of my employees or else I can’t grow, because I’m going to lose talented people.”