Looking for the 'Future of Work'? It’s already here...but will it last?

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne June 17, 2020
HR guru Josh Bersin explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted leadership, the way we work and HR’s role in the second part of an exclusive interview.

(Pixabay )

The "Future of Work' is no longer in the future - it’s happening right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused HR to hit a reset button (see here) and fast-forwarded changes in the way we work and attitudes to work, believes Josh Bersin, longtime HR sector commentator and now Dean of his own global development academy for HR professionals, the Josh Bersin Academy:

The 'Future of Work' turned into a big buzzword, a marketing phrase. The World Economic Forum and all the consulting firms just jumped on it and said, ‘We’re going to be developing the future of work for you because we know more about AI than anybody else, we’re going to come up with the skills of the future, blah blah blah…’.

Now, we kinda know what the future of work is. The future of work just landed in your lap. It’s basically working with the digital tools you have, being much more flexible on your time and location, being heavily focused on soft skills and communication skills and empathy skills. Yes, you need to know how to use the technology - that hasn’t gone away.

I think a lot of the energy that was going into the Future of Work before was because the unemployment rate was very low and people were trying to figure out should we re-organize, should we re-skill, how do we deal with issue of not enough people coming into the company and how do we grow the company to become more Amazon-like?

“Now we know that the two largest most digital companies, Amazon and Facebook, are hiring more human beings than any other company….So the future of work is not about everything being automated - we’re past that. I think it’s a refreshing reality check. Yes, there’s going to be a lot of AI and a lot of automation, but there’s also going to be a lot of people driving around in trucks, handling distribution centers and talking to people on the phone too.


The pandemic has changed the way leaders and managers look after their teams. Leadership is now driven by qualities such as being caring, empathy and trust. In part, this is a by-product of the economic cycle. Bersin argues out that a pre-COVID period of massive economic growth has had a detrimental effect on the way companies behave, as workers on the hamster-wheel have been asked to go faster and faster to meet demand:

We were at the very peak of a very long growth cycle and some companies were getting kind of hard on their people. They were pushing people to grow the business more, pushing for productivity, people working extra hours; salaries were not keeping up with the cost of living before. So I would say the leadership models in general were not super-empathetic to people; they were more empathetic to the stock market.

That changed overnight. Now issues, such as removing uncertainty, mental health, emotional health, positive psychology, resilience, are top of the joint CEO and HR agenda. Recognition that these soft skills are important for the future workplace rather than just technical ability has been growing in traction for a few years, but, again, the pandemic has fast-tracked those changing attitudes:

It turns out that the technical skills that everyone is so gaga about are not that hard to build. You can send somebody to school and teach them to become a software engineer in a year, but you can’t teach them how to become a good leader in a year.

Instead, soft skills or “power skills” as Bersin prefers to call them, such as forgiveness, patience and listening, are the qualities that companies are looking for and valuing in their leaders. He gives the example of one company during lockdown which has instigated weekly online meetings for all leaders. Each session, two or three leaders go on video and talk about a difficult situation they have had with their teams, how they dealt with it and then this is open for discussion. It’s a very different approach to traditional leadership development, says Bersin:

In most companies, leadership development used to be and still is a very highly-architected, carefully designed, very expensive process. Having a weekly call for all the leaders to talk about a topic - nobody would ever have done that, but it works very well and isn’t very expensive.

But will it last?

Although many companies have a lot of good intentions, particularly around the importance of wellbeing and mental health during this crisis, Bersin has doubts about how long this interest will last:

Will the world continue to be as focused on wellbeing and empathy? Probably not. That’s a cycle we’re in. Soon as the economy takes off again and is growing and there are worries about profits, we’ll pretty much go back.

But it’s a different story when it comes to home working. Any doubts about the effectiveness of home working have been snuffed out and even the most rigid companies will have a hard time refusing remote or flexible working requests in the future.

Many companies have not only found that productivity is unaffected by people working from home, but that employees have been incentivised to put more time and effort into learning.  In periods of economic hardship and uncertainty, Learning & Development (L&D) is normally an early casualty, but the opposite is true today. Employees are consuming a high amount of learning, partly because people working from home now have a couple of extra hours a day to do stuff and also people are more interested in developing themselves. Bersin adds:

The other reason it’s doing well is that the L&D technology market is very healthy. There was a period when learning management systems were really hard to use and there weren’t a lot of tools for easy access to content. Companies were frustrated with their L&D situation. Now we have learning experience platforms and all these content libraries that you can access online through other tools - you can get content from Microsoft Teams, from Slack, in Salesforce - so the learning industry is doing really well and the L&D professionals are implementing what I call ‘learning in the flow of work’ pretty actively now.


While this increased interest in self-development, combined with a greater focus on creativity and innovation, have been positive byproducts of the pandemic, the changes have not been without its challenges, acknowledges Bersin:

The biggest change or challenge I see is the operating model. The traditional operating model is HR as a service delivery function. Companies minimize the cost of the service by having Centers of Excellence and you try to give managers a lot of self-service tools so they don’t have to call HR very often. But in this world we need very highly empowered local HR business partners that can help people deal with situations that are very asymmetric.

The pandemic is forcing HR to be very much more regional in its focus, as different countries are at different stages of recovery:

There’s a much more co-ordinated, but distributed HR operation needed, so the local HR people all of a sudden have a lot more power. They need to be skilled up so they know what to do and the central group has to be very good at communicating with them on a regular basis.

But a lot of HR groups just weren’t set up that way, so if there’s an under-skilled, very administrative HR function in some regions, then they are at a disadvantage. So, for many companies, co-ordinating HR activities and keeping everyone on the same page, has been a challenge. This need for central and local approach is a model that has been successfully adopted by the military, notes Bersin:

The military operates in a very decentralized manner now with central coordination but not central control and that’s the way HR has to evolve.

With so much change in every direction happening, this is the sharpest learning curve HR has encountered. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s also an unparalleled opportunity for HR to truly understand and influence all aspects of the business, he says:

Not only has HR been given a seat at the table but they are now at a table being asked questions that no one’s ever asked before, so this is an important time for HR to feel empowered to develop themselves while they are going through this pandemic.

I think we’re going to look back on it as one of the most important learning experiences in our careers. I don’t see this as just an opportunity to do a lot of hard work, but an opportunity to take a little bit of time and learn everything you can about how the organization works, what other organizations are doing, what the tools are. Then, we’ll come out of this with a different type of HR profession. We’ll come out with an HR profession with skills in areas we didn’t know we needed before.

My take

Josh Bersin has seen HR go through many iterations. The difference this time, is the unprecedented speed of this change. Overnight, outside forces have forced a radical re-think of how we all work and thrust HR into the strategic hot seat that so many HROs over the decades have staked a claim on and complained was denied them. That then is a huge opportunity for HR.

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