Josh Bersin on Going Digital & Establishing Trust Amid COVID-19

Josh Bersin
May 7, 2020

Josh Bersin is an analyst, author, educator, and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces globally. He studies the world of work, HR and leadership practices, and the broad talent technology market. He is often cited as one of the leading HR and workplace industry analysts in the world. 

Josh is also an Advisor to pymetrics, and co-hosted a webinar on May 12th with our CEO Dr. Frida Polli on talent mobility in this new normal -- to watch, click here!

We recently tapped into his thought leadership, particularly around internal mobility, employee experience, and going digital amid COVID-19. Below is a summary of our engagement:

py: You’ve described the employee experience (EX) as one that means "we work for the employees" and not the other way around. What do you think are some of the most impactful measures companies can take right now to drive this principle home?

JB: As you know, the concept of "experience" has just changed. The initial focus on EX was based on more frequent surveys, journey mapping, and reducing bureaucracy standing in the way of getting things done. Now it’s a focus on real-time listening, immediate and local communications, and developing real-time response systems to help people stay healthy and productive.  All the things we started doing pre-crisis are still useful, but we need to use them in a real-time, highly distributed way.

One of the biggest findings from the crisis is that real-time response demands a much more distributed operating model for HR.  As I describe In a recent article about resilience, we now have to "empower" local HR business partners to diagnose and improve employee experience locally, and this wasn't part of the conversation a few weeks ago.

py: In your opinion, how strategic of an investment is internal mobility right now? What pain points can it help companies eliminate and how?

JB: Before the crisis, companies were ramping up internal mobility because it was becoming impossible to hire anyone. Now the problem is reversed.  Companies need to rapidly furlough, layoff, or move people from "virus-prone" positions to internal positions, work at home, or operational roles that may not be directly customer-facing.  This is a massive, real-time internal mobility problem and one that requires just as much energy as before.

During a crisis like this, we don't have a lot of time to do skills assessments, but the more tools and data we have to identify whom is best suited to move into a new role the better. So those companies that already had strong internal mobility strategies are way ahead. This is where the pymetrics tools can be a huge help. If you get employees to quickly assess their cognitive strengths, the company can quickly figure out what new roles they could be assigned in a time of crisis.

For example, not all of us are going to be good nurses or care practitioners. Some of us should be pushed into roles as analysts, data scientists, or perhaps digital content creators (Even writers!). A strong set of high-level skills assessments makes such moves much easier. (Of course, we also have to quickly ask people what roles they are interested in.)

py: Many companies in crisis know that they need to digitize parts of their hiring processes to meet business needs but don’t have the proper budget or time. How can HR leaders stay ahead and in-the-know with limited resources?

JB: This is an interesting topic. Online video interviewing, digital assessment, and digital candidate experience strategies were "nice to have" before the crisis. Now they're business-critical. We can't bring people into the office to interview any more, so we need to interview and assess them well online. A Zoom interview is a good help, but we need far more. So once again tools like pymetrics are a huge value add.

By the way, a big message from the crisis is that companies who invested in sound digital HR strategies suddenly see them as business-critical tools and have gained significant benefits.  

py: What are the biggest trends, both positive and negative, you foresee HR adopting after COVID?

JB: We're learning an awful lot. First, we now know that crisis response and agility are among the biggest design principles for HR.  We can’t have everyone working on everything when a crisis like this happens, so the model of distributed control with centralized coordination has to be enhanced. This means better digital platforms, more expert and trained HR business partners, and far better data.

Second, the investment companies have made in people analytics is now also critical. The high-performing companies already have real-time dashboards of virus incidents, people at risk, travel activity, and geographic changes in virus growth, recession, and governmental policies.  And we need to quickly slice and dice the workforce data by tenure, age, role, level, and family size – all of which demands good data. So people analytics teams play critical roles in this crisis.

Third, I think HR capabilities are now urgent. Our Academy is built around this – and the scramble for skills in remote work, employee surveys, health and wellbeing, mental and psychological support, family services, and of course all the traditional talent practices is huge. HR teams really are the heroes of this crisis, so those companies that have still focused on old-fashioned transactional HR skills really need to step up.

Fourth, this crisis points out something I’ve learned many times in my career. The best HR organizations operate as a team. People know each other, they are willing to help each other, and everyone knows who the experts are, how to find answers, and what others are working on.  

The military calls this shared awareness and it’s one of the keys to fighting an asymmetric war. This is an asymmetric war (the virus is very sneaky and unpredictable) so we need a huge amount of social and digital shared awareness. As the military puts it, this is a socio-technical response system: part of it is tools and data, but a lot of it is knowing each other and having a good history of working in an agile, highly responsive way.

It’s a big push away from service delivery optimization as a model, and one that is badly needed in HR.

py: What are some of the key steps that will need to be taken to recover from the high unemployment rate and help us get back to pre-outbreak rates? (both within HR and outside of it)

JB: Honestly we’re all learning here, but to me the #1 issue is safety and trust. When will employees feel truly safe and protected at work?  When I read stories about nurses, Amazon workers, and drivers who feel unsafe in their jobs, I cringe. We cannot let this happen. Not only is it inhumane (people need their jobs to survive), it’s a terrible way to run a company.

When a flight attendant, driver, nurse, or retail worker feels threatened, they won’t serve customers well, they lose faith in the company, and over the long run, they hurt your bottom line. The #1 thing is to over-invest in safety, diagnosis, prevention, and continuous focus on cleanliness and hygiene.

We can all learn a lesson from the oil industry. The big oil and energy companies (Exxon, Chevron, Shell and others) view safety as their #1 business and talent strategy.  Of course, they need to find, drill, refine, and distribute fuel – but that’s secondary to being safe. They’ve learned over decades that when there are fires, explosions, and accidents, the employees suffer, the business suffers, and the financial operations suffer.  Every company is now in this boat.  If you learn this lesson fast, your company will jump ahead of your competition.


We hope this Q&A provided you with some valuable insight around establishing trust, investing in digital strategies, and mobilizing employees quickly with automated and highly-predictive tools. If you’re interested in hearing more from Josh and participating in a live Q&A with him and pymetrics’ CEO Dr. Frida Polli, feel free to watch the webinar recording here See you there!