From employee engagement to activation: Josh Bersin reveals why listening to employees is the future of work

8 minute watch

We need to build management systems and HR practices around not just listening to employees but empowering them to influence business strategies directly, says thought leader and analyst Josh Bersin


Employee surveys are dying with limited utility in today's fast-paced corporate environment. Instead, companies need to open up listening channels and enable “employee activation”, says Josh Bersin, CEO of advisory firm The Josh Bersin Company.

In our Forward Thinkers interview this week Bersin emphasises the need for HR departments to transition from passive data collection to active engagement strategies that involve employees in shaping their work experiences. This shift, he argues, is critical in adapting to a workforce that is younger, less committed to long-term employers and more demanding of work that aligns with their personal values and needs.

Bersin is speaking against the backdrop of increasing union activity in the United States. While union membership remains low at just over 10% overall, there is a significant undercurrent of workers eager to unionise. According to the Economic Policy Institute Americans' interest in unions grew by 53% in 2022 and more than 60 million workers wanted to join a union but couldn’t. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) notes that individual petitions are at an all-time high, with the number of unfair labour practice filings increased by almost 11% last year.

Employees are now in charge, Bersin believes, and so fostering a culture where employees are engaged participants rather than passive observers is crucial. Highlighting the potential pitfalls of ignoring employee feedback Bersin recounts an anecdote about a well-known technology company praised for its hybrid work model. Despite the CEO's public accolades employee reviews on Glassdoor paint a starkly different picture, revealing a disconnect that could harm the company's reputation and employee retention.

The call to action for HR leaders is clear: listen more attentively, "activate" employee insights into actionable strategies, ensure fair wages, maintain competitive benefits and most importantly, cultivate a culture of trust and inclusion. Bersin warns that neglecting these aspects could lead to increased dissatisfaction among employees as they seek environments that respect and value their contributions.

About Josh Bersin

Josh is an analyst and thought leader specialising in the global talent market and the challenges and trends affecting business workforces around the world. He founded Bersin & Associates in 2001 to provide associated research and advisory services – a business he later sold to Deloitte when it became known as Bersin by Deloitte. In 2019 he launched The Josh Bersin Academy, the world's first global development academy for HR and talent professionals, and he is currently the CEO of its sister research advisory firm, The Josh Bersin Company

For a longer version of this interview between Josh Bersin and Siân Harrington listen to the audio here 


Transcript of video

I think employee surveys have been dying for quite a while. I think they're useful but of limited use, to be honest. And new technologies and new listening tools are going to replace them more and more over time. So yeah, and so if you're an IO psychologist and you like building surveys, I think you have a great opportunity to learn how to do some new stuff.

If you think back, for those of you that have been in HR or management for a while, there's always been this concept of employee engagement. That is essentially a legacy of the old management and labour model of work where we had managers treating employees as labour, telling them what to do. Every now and then we would do a little survey and say, hey, are the workers happy?

And if they are, okay, we're good. If they're not happy, why are they unhappy? What can we do to make them happy? You know, treating them sort of like machines, then we have to feed them the right amount of stuff so they keep doing their thing. And you know, that's been going on a long, long time. It used to be annual surveys and then quarterly surveys and then quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily, etc. The problem with that is you have to ask them a question and they have to take the time to answer it.

That data goes to HR, HR sits on it. Maybe they give it to the managers, maybe they don't. And it's used for things like, should we raise the pay? Should we change the compensation and benefits, etc? It's a very slow, old fashioned legacy way to think about the workforce. Now fast forward to today, where we have a labour shortage. The workforce is way, way younger.

The average median age of the workforce in the United States is now 31, 32. The average worker at that age will live into their hundreds, so they're going to work for 60 or 70 years. They're not as committed to you as they used to be. And in a sense, that old model where the employee adapted to the job has been completely reversed, where the job has to adapt to the employee.

And that's what employee activation is all about - building a management system and an HR system around not just listening to employees but empowering the local organizations in your company to adapt to the things that the employees say are important. High performing companies are adapting their thinking to allowing employees to activate the business strategy  and HR. And I think most HR people have learned over the years that most HR programmes that are developed in a vacuum at corporate headquarters and then rolled out don't always work. Whereas if you co-design and empower the local organization to work with you on the programmes, and sometimes the programmes themselves are flexible, then they do work.

So there's a lot of implications on this to HR, to the survey business, to the employee engagement data and strategies, and to just management in general. There's four or five things that have to be considered. 

Employee activation in practice

First is whatever listening process or tools you're using today, you have to open them up so that they're more conversational, crowdsource oriented and shared with management.

If you're sitting around developing a statistically perfect survey in corporate and you're rolling it out and sort of statistically correlating the answers, that's of less and less value over time. It's not not a value, it is a value because you learn a lot of things, but it's not necessarily getting the information in the right hands fast enough. The second is empowering leaders to act on the information. So like if we give a store manager or a business unit leader or a geographic leader a bunch of information and feedback from their employees and they're complaining about the work environment or the hours or the way they're paid or the way they're being treated or whatever. Or maybe something just process-wise, like, I can't serve this customer because the system is so slow. It's frustrating me. And then the manager goes, well, it's not my problem. Go talk to corporate. Then you're back to where you started from.

So,  if we're going to open up this aperture, we're going to have to deal with it. And we're going to have to be a little more flexible  on what is going to be possible for a manager to do, which leads to the issue  of  inclusion, believe it or not, because  if you don't have an inclusive culture and a culture of respect, then the manager is going to say something like, Oh, those guys are always complaining about that. You know, that group over there they've been a squeaky wheel forever. And that's a management behavioural problem that companies have to address in their management development and their selection of management. And then the last thing is being honestly at a senior level comfortable with a world where you might have to pay people more money.

You might have to give them more flexibility. You might have to do childcare. If you're a healthcare provider, you might have to provide childcare in the hospital for mothers who can't afford to get to work on time because their kids are in school or other things. And if you don't get this, you're going to get hurt. People are going to leave, they're going to quietly quit. It's going to be harder to hire. I'll just make one more anecdotal comment. 

I don't want to mention the name of this company, very well known technology company. I was listening to the podcast of a CEO talking about what a magnificent hybrid work system they had put together and how happy everybody was and how great it was. They had this flexible work environment. Just for kicks, after I listened to this hour long speech, I went onto Glassdoor and I read as many ratings as I could and the Glassdoor ratings were horrible.

And I'm thinking to myself, either there's something wrong with Glassdoor or he's not paying attention. And we don't want to let that happen. I mean, it's just, there's too much mobility in the workforce and all these good ideas that employees have need to be used and we need to listen to them. So this is a fundamental shift in the whole concept of employee experience, employee engagement and listening. 

First three steps on the employee activation journey

So number one is accept the belief that employees probably have more information and more passion about what needs to be done in the company than you do because they are out there doing stuff and they're seeing it every day. 

Number two, don't rely on all of your surveys to decide what's the most important priority. Open up the listening aperture to much more direct feedback with all of the tools or conversations you can. 

And number three is empower the local line leaders to make decisions based on the employee input without forcing them to go to you and HR all the time to come up with a new corporate policy. Now that doesn't mean letting everybody do anything, but it means flexing the policies so there can be more flexibility. And when an innovative idea takes hold, grab hold of it and replicate it.

And you will learn tremendous amounts by allowing managers to make the changes that they think are necessary and you learning from them instead of them learning from you.

Published 1 May 2024
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