Josh Bersin explains why 'work kinda’ sucks'
Deloitte’s engagement guru tells Daniel Cave why staff are struggling and how HR can fix it
"When you ask an individual what it’s like to work these days, most of them tell you that it actually kinda’ sucks,” Josh Bersin lays out frankly. In many ways, the planning of this interview has acted as testament to this current state of work. Separately, both Bersin and I struggled to find a time when free space in our diaries aligned. Twice we’ve re-arranged this interview with electronic calendar notifications popping up on my phone’s calendar to inform me of this. With Josh’s intense, globe-trotting schedules a key factor in this - he cancelled one agreed date because of illness post travel – I began to wonder if the interview would ever happen.
Bersin is a man in demand after all: President and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, providing research and consultation for firms who want to move towards higher performance; he is also a prolific author on Harvard Business Review, Forbes and LinkedIn; as well as on his personal blog. These days Bersin is also a ticket-selling key note speaker, invited to deliver talks all over the world on topics such as the future of jobs, wellbeing, better engagement and how to build an organisation which employees would find irresistible.
Without trying to be too cute, I think that the issues Bersin and myself had in trying to arrange this call reflect how a lot of people find work these days. I found out about one cancelled call on my train home from work – a time when I should’ve been winding down from the day, not absent-mindedly thumbing through work emails on my phone. Dialing in from his home of the West Coast of the US, Bersin tells me this isn’t uncommon. “A lot of people say that they just can’t get away from it [work]; that their phone is driving them crazy,” Bersin explains. He describes other common complaints as people feeling like they to work on weekends or having to commute for too long.
But what Bersin describes shouldn’t shock anyone. There are countless studies on how ingrained burnout-style working practices are – as well as the impact they have on employee wellbeing, engagement and organisational productivity. In the UK, a 2018 TUC study found that commuting times were shooting up – with separate research showing that wellbeing is depressed for those with longer journeys into work.
Additionally, Microsoft tried to counter burnout practices by creating a tool to stop employees sending emails at certain times whilst the country of France recently gave employees the legal right to disconnect from work. Just indications of how bad it had got. Another study found that 95% of employers felt that employee burnout was causing retention problems whilst Stanford University produced a study which shows that more hours worked doesn’t equate to more work done – and it actually damages overall productivity levels.
So, what can be done? “[Productivity] is a growing as an [important] topic,” Bersin tells me. Yet, for many firms it seems to be a vexed issue – even governments are struggling with it. But Bersin explains that it’s actually really simple. For workers, Bersin says productivity means “how easy is it for me to do the job that I’m doing and what is the company doing to make it easier for me to deliver on the expectations that people have.” Businesses, in his mind, should view it this way too. One popular way that businesses often look to solve productivity issues is by looking at employee engagement. “Yet, that’s just a means to an end,” Bersin adds. “Being highly engaged is great but if you’re highly engaged and not doing any work I’m not sure the CEO is going to be that happy because they still have to deliver on something.
Instead, Bersin recommends that improving employee engagement and productivity could be solved by getting both micro and macro – understanding how the individual parts of the firm operate for the benefit of the bigger picture. He uses the example of an HR person stepping into a firm and being told by management that there is an engagement problem. If they used some basic measurements, they may find that this was causing high turnover. Yet, if they dig a little deeper, they’ll probably find the firm is hiring the wrong type of people, not training them well enough, being too heavy-handed with KPIs and quotas, and employing poor line managers. “They’re going to run into all kinds of HR-y things,” Bersin adds. “But if they fixed [these problems], what’s going to happen is that engagement will go up but also sales will go up, revenue will go up and productivity will go up. In Bersin’s view, it’s understanding how each constituent part affects productivity. This is what will improve work for everyone.
Yet, HR aren’t a hundred miles away from this utopian scenario, Bersin adds. “More of the discussions that HR departments are having on the employee experience – the career experience, work-life balance, benefits – is starting to take place in the context of ‘let’s design this so it facilitates people being as productive as they can possibly be’.” And continuing to see themselves as a function “that helps people get [their] work done in a productive way” will “make HR a bit more relevant.
“They [HR] will get out of this world of ‘well, we don’t have a seat at the table’ or ‘no-one pays attention to what we’re doing’ or ‘we’re not sure why people aren’t paying attention to our programmes,” Bersin says, “because they’re thinking about their role in terms of number of customers retained, numbers of sales – things that are very business-y.” “If HR thinks about their work in the context of how it helps people deliver on their jobs, it’s going to be a hero. If HR thinks about their role as helping people get more work done in a positive, productive and meaningful way then all the other stuff makes sense,” he concludes. “When HR is done well it can be a group that is very in the lead in every major business initiative.”