Prediction 3: Treating employees like customers and empowering agile teams will become key HR strategies

Posted by Jeff Mike on January 17, 2018.

More than a clever turn of phrase, “treat your employees like you do your best customers” signals HR’s shift from managing processes to empowering employees and creating engaging environments in which they can thrive. And thanks to low unemployment rates and a strong economy, employees are now firmly in charge.

Herb Kelleher, the legendary businessman and former Southwest Airlines CEO, has been saying for decades that an employee-first strategy is the secret to the airline’s success—44 consecutive years of profitability:

You have to treat your employees like customers. When you treat them right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us.1

In this tight labor market, candidates with needed skills bring high expectations for their employers. If they are not satisfied or engaged with their work and the workplace, they may leave. Furthermore, treating employees like customers is essential to enabling high-performing agile teams—and HR must lead the way.

A new mindset is critical for HR

This more empowered workforce requires HR to adopt an “outside-in” perspective, wholly different from the traditional role of pushing processes and programs out to employees. Three important elements of this practice to treat employees like customers include the following:

  • Design thinking. Focused on user-centricity, design thinking pertains to studying the behavior and working scenarios of our work segments, and then designing solutions that fit into their work lives. Design thinking has grown in popularity as recognition of its value in engaging customers has escalated. Organizations are now applying design thinking to a wide range of nontechnological processes as well as HR technology, and HR teams are using it to evoke enjoyable experiences among the workforce.2
  • Customer personas. Initially conceived by consumer marketers, these narratives describe the experiences an employee goes through on a typical day and also include relevant background, goals, attitudes, and working environments. They help HR teams identify employee motivations, expectations, aspirations, and behaviors. Personas bring the “user” to life, allowing HR practitioners to relate to employees on a more human level.
  • Journey maps. Think of these as diagrams or frameworks of all the steps that employees—defined by their personas—go through during their engagement with an organization. This can mean all the steps in the employment life cycle, from attraction and recruitment to separation and alumni status. Journey maps effectively tell the story of the individual’s experience and identify the moments that matter most in order to design programs and solutions to maximize that experience.

Treating employees as customers enables HR to build a strong foundation for empowering the agile teams needed in today’s thriving digital workforce. Two other components important for fostering this kind of environment are among the topics we’ll be covering in the months to come as well:

  • Developing an organizational culture. An organization’s culture includes the values, beliefs, and behaviors that influence day-to-day life in the work environment. Culture shapes the way the workforce interacts, creates value, and performs work—and it can offer consistency and an anchor to help companies face the unknown. But, while culture varies from company to company, we see a number of recurring factors among high-performing organizations that demonstrate common cultural characteristics, including:3
    • An expanded appetite for risk. This may seem counterintuitive for many HR teams that see managing risk as a major part of their roles. But, disruption and uncertainty require thoughtful risk-taking in order to encourage innovation, agility, and collaboration.
    • Rapid experimentation. One way to manage risk is via the testing of new ideas and solutions and then refining them with data and feedback. Successful experiments can then be leveraged across the organization.
    • Heavy investment in talent. The open talent economy requires companies to treat talent as an investment. This means enabling the development of skills and qualifications for current talent, as well as in the acquisition of new talent.
    • Developing leaders and workers who excel at soft skills. Emphasis on technology skills can be outweighed by such skills as transformative vision, change management, and collaboration. Soft skills can be more durable in times of disruption, while specific technology skills can quickly become outdated.4
  • Incorporating people analytics. Segmenting and personalizing the workforce can create huge amounts of real-time data that may be linked with business and talent outcomes. Managing all of this data and developing insights with the use of analytics products and solutions are critical. The following lists three scenarios in which we see a growing need for a digital environment in order to make the best use of “people data”:
    • Increasing number of sources for people data. As sources of data expand exponentially, a huge need develops to track, analyze, and convert that data into meaningful insights.
    • Accessibility of data and insights. Socializing data and insights implies the ease of accessing data and information, where relevant and when appropriate.
    • Scalability of data and analytics. Organizations need to design an environment for these processes and systems to leverage the power of that data.

The consequences of this new mindset will mean a significant shift in the way organizations and HR approach the people who create value for the business. This approach will also require strong HR capabilities in culture, teams, and analytics to engage employees, empower agility, and become a digital organization.5

Every day from January 16 through January 26, Bersin will be sharing perspectives on the most timely, relevant, and interesting developments for HR professionals to watch in 2018. Check back every day, or visit on January 29 for a consolidated report with all of the predictions.

Jeff MikeJeff Mike, Vice President, Human Resources Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Jeff leads HR research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. An expert in building the capabilities of corporate HR teams, Jeff transforms HR professionals from process-oriented practitioners into strategic partners who are able to compete in complex global talent markets. His ability to combine research with innovative development activities was honed through experience as a faculty member in human resources development at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. Also former head of human capital at IMPAQ International, Jeff has a bachelor of arts in English literature from the University of Washington, a master of science in organizational development and strategic human resources from Johns Hopkins University, and a doctorate in human and organizational learning from The George Washington University.

1 “The Sinatra of Southwest Feels the Love,” New York Times / Joe Nocera, May 24, 2008,
2 Design Thinking in HR, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Jeff Mike, 2016.
3 Aligning the Organization for Its Digital Future, MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte University Press / Gerald Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, and Natasha Buckley, July 2016, aligning-for-digital-future.
4 “Redesigning work in an era of cognitive technologies,” Deloitte Review, Deloitte University Press / David Schatsky and Jeff Schwartz, 2015,
5 Becoming Digital: Ecosystems, Platforms, and HR, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Jeff Mike and Madhura Chakrabarti, PhD, 2017.

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