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In 2000, we started talking about the future of work and what it would be like in 2020.
We had 20 years to make changes, run experiments, and get better.
But we kept punting and delaying and now we are stuck trying to solve two decades worth of issues in a matter of months.
HR to the rescue?
Jason Averbook thinks that HR needs to step up and lead the march towards the future. Rather than spending time trying to check up on people, they need to check in and see what are the real challenges people are facing.
HR has been very transactional in the last few decades and has lost a lot of trust in their ability to be transformational. HR needs to change their approach to work to lead the conversation.
The future of human work
Jason uses the concept of hands, heads, and hearts when talking about distributing work between humans and machines. Machines do the hands work, people do the heart work, and they must combine to do the heads work.
There’s also a lot of scope for personalization in the world of human work. Rather than treating humans as if they are interchangeable, companies can understand the thousands of persona that exist and design a workplace just for them.
Jason Averbook also thinks that HR teams need to get serious about testing out AI in their regular processes. They shouldn’t wait for AI systems to mature, but start to work with them now.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Jason Averbook. He is the CEO and cofounder on Leapgen. Hey, Jason. What’s going on today?
Neil, how are you? Thanks so much for having me. I can’t wait for this.
I’m also excited. Jason Averbook, you have this aura about you, thinking about the future, thinking about things that are coming up soon, which is really cool. But I’m going to surprise you a little bit here. We’re going to give you a CAPTCHA question to prove that you are a real human.
I love the CAPTCHA question.
Alright, so here’s yours. What was your favorite meal as a child growing up?
Wow. Do you really want to know?
I want to know because this is important.
Taco Bell. Don’t tell my mom. I hope my mom never watches this. Because my parents both worked and because I was so busy after school, it seemed like that was our go to meal. That wasn’t my favorite meal. That was our go to meal. Probably my favorite meal was when my dad would grill burgers in the summers in Minnesota here. So that’s probably my favorite meal. My go to meal, unfortunately, or fortunately however you look at it, is Taco Bell, which now I don’t eat anymore. So yeah.
I remember that. Man, I had working parents, too, and there were times when I saw my mom walking in. She’d either have like the bucket of chicken or she’d have the Taco Bell bag. And it was like, oh, right, this is cool.
But wasn’t it funny what you relate to versus your favorite meal? Yeah, interesting question. I hope I passed the CAPTCHA.
I think that works. That works for me. Jason Averbook, you seem to be a legitimate human for going to Taco Bell. Very cool. Tell us a little bit about Leapgen. Give us a quick introduction about who you are.
Yeah, so Neil, good or bad, I was never really born and raised to be in the HR space. My dad was a businessman. My mom was an educator. At age 14, 15, 16, 17, I kind of loved technology, even though I can’t even really call it technology back in that day. It was enough technology with floppy disks and things like that. I wonder what I could eventually do in my life to combine business, education, and technology together. And here I am, and ended up in the HR technology, workforce technology, people technology space. Started my career at Ceridian Corporation, built one of our first Windows applications ever in the HR technology space. Then went on after eight years there to PeopleSoft, where I did everything from open offices to implement PeopleSoft to lead our product strategy and marketing function for the organization.
In 2004, left there to start a company called Knowledge Infusion, which was to help organizations realize that technology isn’t the silver bullet. It takes work with inside your organization to make sure the technology works. Had that company for about eight years, sold it to Sequoia Capital, went on to be the CEO of a company called the Marcus Buckingham Company where we focused on strengths, new ways of engagement. Sold that company to ADP in 2016. Took or was supposed to take six months off. And got a couple calls from CHRO saying, we really need some help with some digital transformation. And spent my summer helping those two CHROs and then said, “Wow, I love this,” and started Leapgen in 2017. Focused on digital transformation and really thinking about how do we prepare for workforce 2020, which I know this is where our conversation will go. So I’ll just pause right there.
Yeah, so it seems like your career trajectory has you retiring in about 200 years or 250 years?
Yeah, for sure. Retiring is not in the cards anytime soon.
Yeah, no, it’s fantastic. And it’s great to hear the pieces you’ve been at because I mean, a lot of these companies, PeopleSoft back in the early 2000s, I mean, that was a little bit on a revolutionary side of trying to bring technology into the HR space, but maybe not fully implementing that and seeing things. Marcus Buckingham is obviously a big leader in the way we think about work and strengths and how people go through things. So, Jason Averbook, you were at a front row seat to a lot of great things.
Yeah, in reality, I’ve been blessed to have learned from amazing leaders. And just as a “pro tip” for those listeners, make sure you’re always learning and watching. Never pretend you’re the smartest person in the room. Always be open to learning and listening. And I’ve just been blessed to be able to learn and listen from lots of great people.
Yeah, well, it’s great. We want you to share with us all the things you’ve learned. So start off with you guys have this term called the now of work. So unpack that for us a little bit. What do you mean by that?
So I mean, Neil, basically what happened is, I mean, I always say, and once again, I’m old enough so I know this. We went from Y2K, which was an era that I was right in the middle of to right after Y2K and right after people survived, we started talking about this thing called workforce 2020. And during that time between 2000 and 2020, we talked about future of work. We talked about it being teams based, being hybrid, people looking at each other on video screens, people carrying around mobile devices. And we talked about all that stuff. And we said that’s going to be workforce 2020. And interestingly, between 2000 and 2020, we didn’t do that much to really prepare for it. So 2020 hit, and it hit hard. I mean, it didn’t just hit because the year turned to 2020. It hit because we ended up dealing with multiple pandemics around social justice, diversity and inclusion, and public health. And all of a sudden, what we used to call the future of work was all of a sudden staring at us right in the face. It was the now.
So dude, for me, we said the future, we shouldn’t be talking about the future, we need to be talking about the now. And that’s really where I came up with that term for the now of work. Like guys, we don’t have five years. We don’t have three years. We are all actors in a movie right now, in 2020, and 2021. And people are looking at us saying, I mean, well, they’re going to watch the movie five years from now and say, what did these people do? Did they recoil back to where they were? Did they actually take 10 steps forward to really prepare for what is life going forward? That’s the moment that we’re in. And that’s why for me, the now of work is such an important term, instead of something like, oh, that’s the future, let’s just deal with it later.
Yeah, I love that. Because like you said, everything we can imagine, or we could have imagined 10 years ago, is possible now. The scope of what our imagination was 10, 20 years ago, is totally implementable. And now we’re at a phase where we’ve lost that ability to imagine because we haven’t updated our work enough to take to embrace the tools we have now to say, like you said, the future of work. I mean, anything anybody’s talking about is mostly stuff that you can have anytime you want.
Yeah, and Neil, I’ll just add one thing, not only is it possible, it’s expected. I always use this example. It’s 2021 outside of work. What year does it feel like inside work?
Hmm, 1992, I would say.
Yeah, it doesn’t feel like something within a decade. We’re way off because it’s the same people, the people that work outside or that live outside of work that show up at work.
So, Jason Averbook, you’re coming at this from an HR world. So that’s a world you’ve been in, you’ve seen the technology in different things. Where do you see that, like does HR fall away in the now of work and become lean back on some of these technologies just for processing and for automation type things? And we’ve talked about pushing that out to the responsibilities HR used to have, push those out to managers. Where do you see HR falling in this?
Yeah, so Neil, I love the way you said it. And it made me totally think once again, learning. I’m coming at this, we’re coming at this from an HR perspective, because I believe out of any function within the organization, HR is in a position to influence it most. It’s HR job, and its stated job is to make sure that talent can do its best work, that people can do their best work, that I focus on, how do I enable people versus monitor people? How do I check in on people versus checking up on people? Those types of things, if that is truly HR’s job, and that’s our mission, which we’ve been saying, for 20 years, people are our most important asset, but we haven’t treated them like that. We’ve been counting heads instead of making heads count. If I truly say that that’s HR’s job, then I’m approaching it the right angle. If we say that’s IT’s job, or if we say that’s finance’s job, then I’m not coming at it from the right angle. So I love the way you framed that up. And it actually made me think for a second, because I’m coming at this from the function that I believe has the biggest opportunity to impact the way people work, their happiness, their satisfaction, and overall, the ability to drive business outcomes.
Alright, let’s talk about this a little deeper because I feel like…
I’m going to just push back a little bit. I feel like in some outlier cases, HR has the credibility to do that, and to step in these conversations. But I also feel like because of the last few decades of HR being more focused on monitoring, being more focused on just counting things, and really HR technology existing to help HR out and not necessarily to help the organization out, that they’ve almost, I feel like, lost some credibility. And so, Jason Averbook, when they come in and say, “Hey, we’re going to bring in, we’re going to usher in this now of work, the future of work is here,” I can imagine some people rolling their eyes a little bit and saying, “Oh, you guys are the ones that are coming into this?” So sell it on to me a little bit more. Why should we trust HR to be the ones that lead us into this?
So I mean, what we need to do is we need to, what’s the best way to say this? We need to trust that HR is thinking differently. So if HR is the same HR, Neil, or everyone’s afraid to talk to them, or the phone rings, and it’s HR, or you get an email from HR, and you’re like, “Oh, man. Now what did I do?” That’s not the HR I’m talking about. I’m talking about an HR organization that has a mission and vision that is proactive, that’s focused on the things I said, that’s human based, not transaction based, that’s focused on truly thinking about the people in the organization, not making them do things inhumane, like once a year performance reviews, or once a year engagement surveys, but making sure that they can show up with what they’re innately bringing to the workforce. That’s the HR organization I’m talking about. So it’s a great point that you made. And it’s important to segment the two. Because if you’re a transactional HR organization that doesn’t believe in what I just said, you’re not the ones, you’re not ones to carry that forward.
And you have to look at what’s the mandate that’s been given to HR. It’s very rare that somebody turns to their CHRO and say, hey, you need to lead us into the future. It’s mostly the sense of, hey, you need to make sure people are working and make sure that they’re not complaining about things. That’s why we go to them. And if that’s the mandate, then they are going to be more transactional.
Yeah. Completely agree.
So like you said, Jason Averbook, even you talked about enabling versus monitoring, that’s a big topic we talk about a lot, like how do you judge if somebody is doing a good job? For the most part, we’ve been, especially in our office mentality, it’s like, did somebody show up? Are they there sitting in their desk? Or are they generating a lot of activity that’s there, as opposed to looking at outcome based approaches, or trying to figure out did somebody actually reach an objective and stripping away a lot of those other metrics that we use. And I think HR has so many of those metrics that they can rethink, but there’s so many of those layers of the onion that they have to peel back to really find out what’s the true function that we are…
We have to reimagine, Neil. We have to reimagine what our role is as a function, A, and then B, we have to realize that people don’t work for HR. People work for a company, and people work for leaders. What HR can do is HR can help those leaders be successful with their people. They can help the organization be successful with their people, but HR can’t force people to do things. And that’s a really important mindset. And that’s a mindset, Neil, one of the things we talk about when we talk about digitization so much is that mindset is key. The concept of being able to adapt or unlearn. HR is one of the oldest professions in the world. And the ability to unlearn and relearn based on the now of work will clearly differentiate.
So let’s talk to someone who they’re leading the company. A lot of our listeners are leaders, CEOs of companies from 25 to 200 employees. So put them in a situation where they’re just introducing HR as a true discipline within the company. If you could step into that situation and advise somebody there how to not set up structurally a system that’s going to work against the now in the future of work, what would you have them do? What does that HR function do? Do you need one dedicated person to do that as they build their own team? What are the things that you would want to reimagine for HR team?
So the first thing is to make sure that there’s alignment and coordination on the mindset. And make sure that coordination and alignment on the mindset gets out to the business. It’s not coordination alignment for me and HR only. It has to be in alignment with the business. Because if the business still sees HR as one thing, and you’re over here doing something else, it’s not going to work. Well, that’s number one. The second thing is creating clear, Neil, and if I could scream clear, I would.
Do it. It’s okay.
CLEAR measures of success. Our job is not just to keep the thing going. Like we’re just going to show up from 9 to 5. Our job is to say, what are we trying to do? What is our goal as a function? What are our measures of success? Neil, we even see this when people try to implement technology, their measure of success is go live. Stupid. Once you’re live, that’s when you actually begin, we say you should never have a go live party, you should have a go begin party. Because once you actually get live with the technology, that’s when you actually start to make an impact. So it’s really, really, really, important that we set these clear measures of success.
And then the third thing is to make sure that I organize HR in a way that’s most efficient and effective to meet those goals and measures of success. So Neil, I talk a lot about this concept of hands, heads, and hearts. Machines are good at hands work. People are good at hearts work. Where machines and people meet is what the heads work. And that is so important right now. Because people always say, when are machines going to replace people, when are machines going to replace people. Machines aren’t replacing people. Machines are moving people up the value chain to be able to be closer at what humans are great at versus what machines are great at. And Neil, we could find, just the last thing, I’ll shut up, you could find some pundants all day long who would tell me that machines are replacing people. Cool. I’ll take you on any day, buddy. But that’s 10 years, that’s 15 years, that’s 20 years down the road, maybe. We’re talking about the now of work. And I need to think about how do I get my hearts, my people, closer to the people that need them and out of doing that transactional stuff.
Yeah, 100%. And I would say that we are not prepared as humans. We’ve not been doing a lot of heart work over the last 50 years and we are woefully unprepared. If machines do come in, and they will, they take tasks away from humans, that’s for sure. There are certain things that humans just aren’t good at that machines are just much better at, certain aspects of work that they should be doing because they’re so much better than us. But when that happens, and then the machines turn to us and say, okay, what do you do around here? We got to have a good answer for that. And there are many great answers at that. But if I say, hey, I’m here because I can motivate people. I understand how they work. I know how to optimize their workplace so that they’re getting the best out of it, and they can engage really well. That’s super great. But you suck at that right now. And you need to get better at that. As people in the workplace, we need to focus on those skills and focus on how we can get better at human work.
All right. This is good. All right. Now we’re getting into some deep conversations. Jason Averbook, I like talking about this idea of clear measures of success, too, because that’s also something that just isn’t often there. I’m imagining, again, this growing company. When you finally decide to bring in an HR leader, what is that person going to do? As a manager, I think there was this sense we were talking with a guest earlier that was saying, we started to outsource that emotional relationship with employees. As things started to get a little bit emotional, be like, okay, go talk to HR about that because that’s not my business. I’m here to get work done. But managers now, really getting work done is the responsibility of the person you hired, the team member, that’s their job. Your job as the leader is to engage in some of those team dynamics. How do people interact with each other? How are they doing as a person? And so a lot of that role is getting pushed back on to managers, as it should be. And the HR person is almost there as that resource, that mentor, that coach that can come in and at least provide opportunities and say, if you’re struggling with this, let’s help you out in this area and less necessarily mandatory training, even though I think some training should be mandatory, but more like, hey, here’s the resources. What are you struggling with? And we’ll set you up with how to fit that in. That’s where I see a lot of that heart and head work moving towards and equipping us as leaders. And the rest of HR, some of the general paperwork and processing can be done by machines and can be given mostly to them.
Yeah, and Neil, just one more thing around that is that one of the things that we’ve done in HR for a long time is we’ve taken a one approach fits all model. And it doesn’t work. I mean, almost every organization, I was on the phone with a major organization this morning that does concession stands at sporting events, they run the parks and recs people. And for them to take a one size fits all approach as to how do they serve the workforce, and some of it’s seasonal, some of it’s year round. It doesn’t work. So I’m looking at the title of your show, Digital Workplace, one of the keys of a digital workplace is the ability to personalize, the ability to be able to understand the personas of that workplace that fit within that workplace and design for them. One of the things you said earlier, which I think was really interesting, was you said, we haven’t done that, we haven’t worked that way. One of the reasons we haven’t worked that way is because we haven’t actually designed for our people. We’ve designed for us. So when all of a sudden we turn the meter into a window, and we say let’s design for them instead of looking in the mirror and designing for us, that is a huge shift. And it’s mega important.
Yeah. And it’s possible now. I think there was a time if you had 10,000 employees, that at least the way everything was set up, you almost had to have some kind of standardization, like maybe you can have blue or red, you can have two options. But once you get beyond that, it gets more complex. But with all the digital technology we have today, it’s like there’s nothing stopping you. You can do all that. You can individualize things down to certain levels. Just how willing are you to engage in that and to offer those options to people.
Yeah, and once again, I’m just going to say it one more time. It’s beyond possible. It’s expected. It will make or break whether your organization is successful in the decade of 2020.
Yeah, absolutely. Jason Averbook, let’s close this out.
We’re done already? Whoa, holy cow.
I want to give you a chance to answer this last one because it’s a little bit bigger. But I want you to take us, what’s the discussion that we’re not having that we should be having? What’s the thing that in five years, we are going to be unprepared for if we don’t start planning for it right now?
So the biggest, in my personal opinion, and it’s going to get a little bit techy, so I apologize. The role that artificial intelligence will play and machine learning will play in helping HR be able to focus more on the hearts work instead of the hands work, it’s not just another cloud thing. It’s real. And in order for it to work, we have to have very, very strong foundations. We have to have great data foundations. We have to have great information about our people. And that has to be somewhat clean, meaning, on average enterprises that have 2500 employees and above use 47 systems. To have your employees go to 47 systems to get something done, it doesn’t work. We’ve spent the last couple years trying to build these experience layers on top of the 47 to make sure that employees don’t have to do that. But underneath, we’ve still got a mess.
At the end of the day, for artificial intelligence to truly work, I have to be able to think about my data and say my data is correct. And it’s not just data knowing my name is Neil Miller. But it’s data that says when Neil Miller has a question about X, here’s the answer. And it can’t be tribal knowledge. You know what I mean? Because if it’s tribal knowledge, I’m always going to be stuck answering transactional questions instead of being able to do the things I’m talking about with that hearts work. The more I can get my policies, my procedures, my Standard Operating, my FAQs, that stuff documented, and have a great knowledge manager or management function within HR, then artificial intelligence can answer those questions for me.
And guess what I’ll be able to do? The strategic hearts work, the strategic heads work. But I’m telling you, if we don’t do that now, because it’s not something you just go out and say, oh, we need a contract. This is foundational work. This is like, I’ve been ignoring my health for the last 20 years. And now I need to deal with it because I just got back from the doctor, and I’ve got high cholesterol. And I’ve got some blockages. So this is work I have to start now. If you don’t start this work now, when AI becomes mainstream, not fake AI, like today, but as it becomes mainstream, your organization’s going to be woefully behind.
Yes, 100%. I think if you just look out there, I think a lot of people look at technology and say, oh, I’ve seen AI we can do right now. It’s little tricks here and there. But it’s not transformational at this point. And if you just say, oh, I’ll just wait until they get better and wait until I can use it later, you’re too late. You have to adopt this AI mindset, like what you were saying before, that you have to understand how AI works, it needs all the data, it needs to understand what it’s going to be good at, what it’s not going to be good at, what are the good use cases for it and be ready for it and be ready to experiment with it now. So that when it is mainstream, you’ve already adapted, you’re already ready for it, and you know how to use it.
Yeah, completely agree.
Excellent. Jason Averbook, we could go on forever. But I knew you were going to give a great answer to that question. So that’s why I wanted to close it there. Tell people where they should go to learn more about you, what you’re doing, everything. You got a lot of things going on. So tell us about it.
Yeah, the best way is just to follow me on LinkedIn. On LinkedIn is where we try to keep everything related to Leapgen. I mean, really quickly, Leapgen stands for something that I think is really, really important. And I’ll just end with this. It stands for love, energy, audacity, and proof. That’s what the leap stands for. And people are always like, why leap? It’s not leap to the future, etc. I mean, we can do that. But one of the things I think that’s so important for people to realize, related to the now of work, is that you have to love what you do. So why do I keep doing this? Why am I not retired? Why am I not going to retire? Because I love this stuff. If you love it, it gives you energy. If you have energy, you can do the audacious. And if you do the audacious, your goal is to prove that and keep doing it in the circular or continuous basis. And I truly think that anyone that’s going to take this on right now, this task of shifting work from past to now really needs to focus on that leap, that loving what you do and having that energy. If not, don’t bother. Sorry. Because it’s not for the faint of heart. I mean, you’re changing culture, you’re changing an organization. It’s easier to change technology all day long than it is to change an organization. And that’s what we’re doing.
Totally, and it’s tiring. And when you get to the place where people just having trouble getting people to think in these new terms and getting to transform minds, you’ll reach a point where you’ll just be like, fine, just go back to the way it was.
That is so much easier, as you know. That is so much easier. But it won’t work for the long term.
Absolutely. Jason Averbook, thanks for being on the show, man. We appreciate you coming on. We appreciate you sharing your ideas with us and we look forward to having you back again sometime.
I would love to, any, any, any time. This was a true joy.
Jason Averbook is a global keynote speaker, industry analyst, thought leader and consultant on human resources and workforce experience. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leapgen, a digital transformation company shaping the Now of Work. Author of The Ultimate Guide to a Digital Workforce Experience ~ Leap for a Purpose, Jason seeks to broaden executive mindset to rethink how to better design and deliver employee services that exceed the expectations of the workforce and the needs of the business.
Prior to founding Leapgen, Jason served as the CEO of The Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC). In 2005, he co-founded Knowledge Infusion, LLC, and served as its CEO until 2012, when the company was sold to Appirio. Earlier in his career, he served as the Chief Business Innovation Officer at Appirio Inc., where he led the HCM business. He has also held senior leadership roles at PeopleSoft and Ceridian Corporation. Jason has more than 20 years of experience in the HR and technology industries and has collaborated with industry-leading companies in transforming their HR organizations into strategic partners.