HR Expert Glimpses the Future of Work

This year forced people and organizations to rethink the meaning of work-life balance and the role of HR. Josh Bersin, a world-renowned HR leader and educator, has always believed HR plays a critical role, but he explains the key to improving the connection between life and work begins with understanding how technology and design can help workplaces evolve.

By Russ Banham, Contributor

Years before HR leaders joined the C-suite and became strategic resources on workforce productivity, Josh Bersin, the respected HR analyst, educator, and thought leader, believed they needed a seat at the table. “Today’s business requirement requires a complete rethink of HR and the critical role of the HR leader,” he wrote in 2012 when few others thought the same way.

In 2019, Bersin left the world of consulting to pursue his altruistic dream of preparing HR leaders for the unprecedented changes in workforce structures. He founded Josh Bersin Academy, a global HR professional development school. The Academy’s curriculum is designed to up-skill HR executives to address the digital transformation of company operations, as businesses move from bureaucratic command-and-control forms of management to highly collaborative teams formed to respond to business opportunities and risks.

This transformation entered a new phase in 2020, following the mass migration of employees from physical workspaces to virtual ones. While many HR consultants have been calling remote working the “new normal,” Bersin prefers the use of a more dynamic phrase—what he coined the “never normal.”

Life and Work Entwined

“Where we are headed—technologically speaking—when it comes to how people work, someone needs to ensure that workforces keep pace with technological invention, especially as we move toward a more dynamic and flexible working environment,” he says.

That someone is the HR leader, Bersin believes, who are needed to paint a picture of what the future of work will look like. HR executives must address such questions as: Will employees be better off in a hybrid physical-remote workspace? And what role will technology play in ensuring their well-being?

“The pandemic, insofar as the mass remote work environment it fostered, laid bare the need for work and life to become more connected,” Bersin says. “Digital tools can help provide this connection, but they’ve been designed historically to manage production and productivity, hindering the integration of life and work.”

“The pandemic, insofar as the mass remote work environment it fostered, laid bare the need for work and life to become more connected..”

—Josh Bersin, Global HR Leader and Founder of Josh Bersin Academy

For example, technologies like natural language processing and machine learning algorithms can be used in combination to analyze employee emails, texts, and comments on a video conferencing platform to understand how the person might feel about both their work output and home-related anxieties. Today’s workforce management tools, however, are focused on work efficiency and employee productivity and do not capture or analyze data suggesting employee sentiments about their work and lives.

This is likely to change, Bersin asserts. As people began working at home, relying on video conferencing platforms and other technologies to connect, communicate, and collaborate, typical life events like dogs barking, kids interrupting, and doorbells ringing have become commonplace and surprisingly humanizing, he says. “The issues of family, well-being, and health suddenly became connected to the workplace in ways we’d not seen for a long time, not since agricultural societies of the late-19th century and early 20th century,” says Bersin.

The whole concept of work-life balance no longer made sense, he continues. Schoolteachers working remotely, for instance, coped with students struggling to transition to distance learning and anxious parents sending emails at all hours of the day. But, Bersin says, “As employers create hybrid physical-remote workspaces and work becomes more dynamic, these issues can be managed, with technology as the critical enabler.”

Technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and video conferencing platforms, he explains, not only ease the strains of remote work conditions, they will enable shared work-life experiences, “blurring the distinctions between the office and a remote workspace, while bringing more of an employee’s home life into their work life,” says Bersin.

“It’s now up to HR leaders to closely monitor these developments and lobby their use and value to peers in IT, finance, legal, and operations. HR has long lobbied for a voice in the C-suite; now that they have this voice, they must not squander the opportunity to create a dynamic workspace and highly engaged workforce.”

Ahead of the Curve

Bersin believes traditional workforce management structures are apt to become stale, outmoded, and uncompetitive whenever an innovative work-related technology is unveiled. The current remote work phenomenon is a case in point. Certainly, the global economy would have ground to a standstill, he explains, were it not for the availability of such tools as video conferencing platforms, cloud computing, digital payments, and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled robots in factories and warehouses—to scratch a deep surface.

These technologies made the remote workspace as collaborative and as productive as the physical workspace for many companies. Not that it was perfect. “The idea of a borderless workplace, where people work where they want at times that are most convenient, has pros and cons,” Bersin says.

The upsides include employee feelings of empowerment and control in managing their work and lives, as well as the avoidance of the time, money, and stress inherent in commuting. The downsides are finding the space and quiet at home to work, figuring out how to be productive, and dealing with feelings of social isolation.

“People miss the casual conversations in hallways and going out for a drink after work with coworkers to let off steam,” says Bersin. “Such social interactions will return once employees return to the office, but the same feelings of togetherness and camaraderie also need to be present at the remote workspace.”

Technologies like VR, AR, and enhanced video conferencing platforms can provide these experiences. “VR and AR tools can be used to create an illusion that a group of employees is sitting across from each other in the same physical office space, removing the impersonality of teleconferencing and other online communications,” says Bersin.

Human Sentiment Analyses

As companies migrate to the expected hybrid workspace where employees are seen and supervised in the physical senseless than they have been heretofore, team leaders and managers will experience difficulties gauging their productivity, mental health, and well-being. Again, technology can solve this dilemma.

“Down the line, we’ll see collaboration tools embedded with AI to discern when users might be feeling stressed out,” says Bersin. “For example, if the tone of voice or speed at which an employee speaks appears to change, it may indicate a lack of sleep, problems at home, or work fatigue. A manager alerted of this possibility could reach out to a coworker to shoulder some of the employee’s work temporarily.”

Video conferencing platforms also will evolve with options that bring more of an employee’s life into their work collaborations. A small window might pop up in which a family member appears during a meeting to ask a question, like, “Mom, can you see if I left my homework on the kitchen table?”

“The employee would tell others in the conference her daughter had a quick question,” says Bersin. “This might elicit the team to ask if they could say hello, duplicating the integration of life and work we’ve become accustomed to during the pandemic.”

It doesn’t get more human than that. “In the office, you see someone dressed for work and you really don’t know what else is going on in their day,” he says. “Now we have the opportunity to set a new foundation of closeness between coworkers, teams, and managers, one that engages people through shared work and life experiences.”

Taking the Lead

As this new way of work progresses, HR must lead the journey toward tomorrow’s flexible work arrangements, hybrid workforce structures, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, and digital transformation, Bersin says. “HR leaders need to advocate replacing old HR tools with modern technologies that help people work efficiently, productively, and happily collaborate and communicate—in both the physical and remote workspace.”

To lead tomorrow’s dynamic workforce, HR leaders will require cross-training in IT, finance, and other professional disciplines. HR leaders also need to collaborate with C-suite peers to consider the “citizenship” of the company—how the organization drives a sense of purpose, fairness, inclusion, belonging, and social responsibility, Bersin says.

“The future of work will be better,” he adds. “People will head to the office to get work done and engage in casual conversations, lunches and after-dinner drinks. But they will also spend time at home or on the road enjoyably engaged in the virtual equivalent.”

Welcome to the never normal.