Dawn Burke

Dawn Burke: The Reality of a Rapidly Evolving Workforce

With our modern workforce rapidly evolving, what are the realities of hybrid work, company culture, and employee engagement? This week, we are joined by guest Dawn Burke and host John Hollon. Dawn is a leader, consultant, speaker, writer, podcast host, and she specializes in modern HR practices. Tune in for more valuable insights on the future of work!

Tune in below, at tlntx.co/dawn, or wherever you like to podcast!

Here’s how the conversation went… This interview has been edited and condensed.

John Hollon: Hello, I’m John Hollon and welcome to the Talent Experience Podcast on Fuel50. Today’s guest is Dawn Burke. Dawn is a longtime friend and the founder of Dawn Burke HR, an HR leader, speaker, and influencer specializing in new HR practices, engagement, and workplace culture. Her HR and leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, most recently serving as Vice President of People for Birmingham Alabama, award winning technology company, Daxko. Dawn, how are you? 

Dawn Burke: I am great, but I need to correct something my last corporate job was actually with Kinetix as the VP of Talent Consulting and of course, some VP of People work as well.

John Hollon: You know, I knew that and I got caught up on the Daxko part so wonderful!

Dawn Burke: No worries!

John Hollon: That is right, thanks for keeping me up to date. It’s been hard the last few years keeping things up to date, as you well know.

Dawn Burke: Yeah, of course.

John Hollon: You know, there’s lots of changes going on that impact HR and Talent Managers, and workplaces are facing all sorts of things in our post pandemic world, and I’d like to get your perspective on some of them if your game for that.

Dawn Burke: Oh, of course, it’s top of mind for everybody still.

John Hollon: Let’s start by, we could talk a little bit about workplace culture after the lockdown. What’s your take on where it is going? And what you see about it? Because I know that it’s been a real challenge for a lot of organizations dealing with it in the hybrid work and remote work and all of that. And I have said, how do we do a culture when we have some people working remotely and some people not? And I’m not exactly sure how that works. So, what what’s your take on that?

Dawn Burke: Well, I have a few different directions we could go in first, I want to talk about what has been this history of cultures of engagement. And looking backwards, we can then look forward a little bit. I do believe in the short term, hybrid is still going to be king, I’ll say queen, hybrid still going to be queen. It makes sense. And I think one of the biggest reasons is because during the pandemic, C suite decision makers, the ones that were the most adamant against any kind of remote or hybrid workplace, they now have done it. And when they realized they got benefit from it, then that was something they then could imagine working. Whereas before it was a failure of imagination, this concept that everybody needs to be in the same place, I need to be able to as a C suite or leader or manager see everything, influence everything, and now they know that that’s not the case anymore. So, hybrid is going to keep on going on until it doesn’t support the business financially.

John Hollon: Well, you know, I, I kind of laugh as you talk about that, because I had so many people, I worked with over the years, who were adamant against any remote work. I mean, even the occasional day on a Friday or a Monday that you might say, hey, can I do this? Because I got a doctor’s appointment, or something else, and they just were adamant they had to see you had to be there, even if it made no sense. And I’ve often wanted to go back to some of those people and ask, what are you doing now? Because now everybody is doing this, so what’s your take now? I wonder about how those people coped with having to make this change which they had been resisting for so long.

Dawn Burke: Well, again, I think necessity is the mother of invention. They didn’t have a choice. They didn’t have a choice. So, they cope the best they could I think there was some forward-thinking leaders who really, it was an easy choice for them because of the safety of their employees was top priority. I think others it probably was just a learning curve for everybody. Cope the best way they can. I think some didn’t cope. Some didn’t cope.

John Hollon: You know, one of the things you said you’d sent a note to me, and you talked about wanting to chat about leadership disconnect. Is this a disconnect that these people were so out of whack about this for so long and then suddenly had to turn on a dime and make it all go?

Dawn Burke: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, here’s that part where I talk about let’s look backwards a little bit before we can look at the pandemic and forward. Right now, we’re seeing all over the place. The phrase eology if that’s a word of quiet quitting, quiet quitting. That is a wonderful marketing tagline for something that has been the case forever, which was considered a disengaged workforce. Same exact thing. Here’s what’s very interesting. So, I’ve been in the HR leadership space for now decades. And one of the things I studied was engagement disengagement for the last forever years. Well, right now, when you look at the 2022 engagement survey from Gallup, it’s from I think it Q2 or Q4 of Gallup, in 2022, the number of the percentage of people who in the workplace were engaged was 32%. All right now the people who were actively disengaged, so these are people who are coming to work and looking for other jobs, it’s 18%. Alright, so 32% engaged, 18% actively disengaged, this is 2022. Well, let’s go back to 2015. Guess what the numbers were regarding the percentage of people who were engaged, and the percentage of people that were actively disengaged. John, I’ll let you just guess.

John Hollon: My guess is it was probably about the same.

Dawn Burke: Exactly the same. Not the same, exactly the same 32%. Okay, well, I lied in the other one for actively disengaged with 17.5%. When we talk about engagement, and disengagement, we haven’t cracked the code then, we haven’t cracked it now. And, you know, I think it’s a misnomer for us to now say, hey, hybrid workforces have been the cause of this disengagement in this, this quiet quitting, no disconnection from leadership to employees has been the cause of disconnection, lack of clarity. This is the biggest one, lack of clarity on job descriptions, outcomes, results, who we are, who our customer is, transparency, and what’s happening in the organization. Those are the things that if that was happening before the pandemic, before hybrid, then they’re happening here. It’s too easy to say, the hybrid workforce has changed everything, because now I can’t see that person here. No, well guess what, if you weren’t engaging in a hybrid manner, which would be I, for instance, John, as a leader, that means that once a week, I jump on zoom from my house, to one of my employees who’s across the country, and I prioritize having a one on one with them. All right. If I’m not doing that, in the hybrid workforce, that I sure wasn’t doing it in the face-to-face office workforce, as well. Because to do those things consistently, it doesn’t matter where your location is, it’s about being trained to be a leader, who prioritizes the communication and the clarity. So, I really do think it’s important that people quit looking for the easy explanation on why it’s been so hard to manage the easy explanation. And unfortunately, it’s the wrong one is because now we’re hybrid, or we’re remote.

John Hollon: One of the things about the Gallup numbers that I really respect is that Gallup has been tracking this data for about 30 years. And so, they have a really good time horizon, they can look back on how it’s been. And compare that and compare it to things that were happening in the economy and the workforce and various things. And so, their numbers are very, very good. But you know, I wrote about this for many years. And what it finally came to me was, and maybe you agree with this, maybe you don’t, but I found that engagement, I thought was really connected to culture. I thought we were kind of looking at it wrong, investing all this time and energy into engagement. And it’s like, if we get the culture, right, I think the engagement follows. That engagement, good engagement is another barometer of how good the culture is. And yet you get a lot of people right now who are saying, oh, just think about culture is bad etc., etc., and I think they’re they are saying that because it’s hard to get a fix on how culture in the workplace is going to work when you have people working in a remote or hybrid way. How do you do that when they’re not all in the same place?

Dawn Burke: This is, again, something that people will probably want to throw tomato at my head for saying but you have to constantly communicate to the folks you have to survey, you have to have relevant surveys. Engagement surveys are very different than satisfaction surveys. But what I would say when you look at the culture versus engagement connection to me engagements an outcome of having the practices that of understanding your culture and what works. A lot of people say, hey, if we’re engaged, our culture will be better. No, if you figure out what your authentic culture is, which it’s gonna be different for everybody else of how we get things done, and what we expect, what value set we have, et cetera, once you get that, right, you can then train your managers properly across all lines on how do we model that? How are we clear about that? And how do we reward for doing that? Those things are going to be the key stones for then having more engaged employees.

John Hollon: What’s your take on these organizations that are pushing people to come back? They’re trying to bring remote employees back; I know Disney is. And the people who are pushing back on it are, of course, a lot of like the office staff. I think like 2000 of them wrote a letter to the CEO complaining about and telling them this is terrible is going to do all these terrible things about like the company. I thought the letter was a little bit overwrought. But they’re not the only company doing this. There’s a lot of a particularly a lot of the tech firms are trying to get people back into the office now. What What’s your take on that? And what do you hear a lot of your clients saying about this?

Dawn Burke: So, I’ve been in the industry for several decades now. And I think there is a lot of pluses to wisdom and age, right? So, I’ve had the ability to look back and see some trends. And I don’t mean this to be cynical. This is what I have seen, not only in the corporations that I was doing HR work, but also as a consultant, I worked with some very good marquee names as well. It comes down to this, for a majority of workplaces, not all, the hybrid versus coming back to the office. So, let’s say prioritizing hybrid work will only happen if leadership, not employees, but if leadership says that they will have some sort of financial gain for the organization, or a personal professional gain. What do I mean? Professional gain, I worked with a CEO, who was very focused on the culture. The reason he was focused on the culture was because he wanted employees to be more productive, et cetera, et cetera, but he had a very, very personal motivation, because he got a lot of press on having a good culture. Now he had to speak on it. This was something that was his brand, even though at times and I would say a lot of times he didn’t model or practice what he preached. Good, good guy trying to, but just didn’t. Other organizations, the Disney, Tesla, etcetera, it’s going to come down to are they going to have better returns for their stockholders, by having people internal or external? Now, the other thing too, when you talk about financial gains or losses, though, is you have to look at the market. So, for now, I think it’s a fool’s errand for organizations to not embrace a remote workforce, because if they don’t, their candidate pool is going to shrink significantly. And that causes financial distress. It’s an employee’s market. It’s a new generation of worker. And now all generations of worker also want the flexibility because they were burned out beyond measure, me included which that could be a whole nother podcast, honestly. But I think if indeed, right now, there, it’ll be a hybrid unless you’re manufacturing or, you know, you’re in retail or something. It’ll be hybrid, until the market changes. When the market changes, then if the ones do believe it’s better to bring people in, to see, what I look at is when managers have trouble with the hybrid is because they never learned to delegate. Yeah, they need to see it and do it. If that creates a better financial gain, or better products, or better tech, or I’m able to see things, people are going to come back to the office, or they’ll find others who will. But I think that it’ll be less percentage than it used to be.

John Hollon: Well, you know, I’ve been working remotely for about 12 years. So, I was working remotely before remote work was cool. And the one thing that I missed from the office environment are the impromptu engagements you had with people in an office environment. And frequently out of those getting a cup of coffee in the break room, somebody coming by your office or your cube to poke in and ask a question about A, and you end up talking about B, which is something you’ve been struggling with, and guess what you come up with a solution in this impromptu way. I miss that. But I also know you don’t have to be there five days a week to get that. With me, the hybrid environment is like perfect. At home three days a week, and let me dome in a couple, and I guarantee I can probably get the same upside for those kinds of impromptu meetings two days a week as I was getting five days a week.

Dawn Burke: Agreed! And that’s what I prefer. Yeah, it’s interesting, I think by nature, I’m an extrovert, but then when I get ideas, and I get energy from it, but I also have somebody who’s like, when I’m tired of playing, I gotta go home, I need to sleep, I can’t be that way all the time. But I really got a lot of my energy, confidence, happiness, through those interactions. I’m like you, John, before the pandemic hit, I was working remotely, consulting for a great company, working as a consultant for a couple of really great companies. And there was a point after a couple of years, where all of a sudden, I was getting depressed. And I didn’t know why, and it was because I needed some more interaction. Now, here’s the thing that companies need to realize, though, there’s always this question of, what are we going to do to we have those authentic conversations at the coffee pot? You’re not. You’re not. It’s different. You’re not, if you’re remote, I’m not going to run into you. And again, a lot of times I think people are phrasing it when we’re trying to change this of, why don’t we make it like it was? You can’t. It’s not like it was. What can you do? Well, let’s work within the parameters and the realities we have, guess what, you’re gonna have to have more online types of communications, or phone calls, or some sort of sessions where it actually is about nothing. We’re not talking about work, will that work? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s again, I love this, you know, it’s a fool’s errand to think that we’re going to have that authentic run into each other type of thing, because we won’t. And we also have to know that a lot of the people who are now being employed by companies aren’t people that live in the same city as they were before. So even if you wanted to bring everybody in and have it all, you know, everybody’s coming back, you can’t, they’re still going to be I think, hybrid by not by design, but by necessity by force. So, I think you have to look at it through different lenses and find other ways to connect authentically. And right now, I don’t think anybody’s cracked that code. But it’s doable if you make it a priority.

John Hollon: And I think the companies and the organizations that have made this work had been the ones that were really flexible, are willing to say just what just what you said, the old ways are kind of gone, we got to figure out how we can make this work with what we have at hand. And the ones that have been willing to embrace that and kind of put the old ways aside and say we got to find some new ways here, and embrace those have done well, and the ones that haven’t kind of gotten that yet, they’re still they’re still kind of kicking and screaming, getting dragged kicking and screaming into the new world.

Dawn Burke: Yeah, yeah. And I think that it’s a result of change. We can do a whole nother podcast on change and change management. A lot of people had absolutely no preparation, training, and obviously, for the pandemic. And I think the first step for leaders is to really, really start to get to the point of, I have to accept the realities of the new workforce. Once I do that, then I can have more brainpower toward creative ways of figuring out how do we have more personal interactions, even if they’re not authentic or spontaneous? I would say, equally important, if somebody wants to start figuring out how do you continue to thrive or improve because a lot of companies pre pandemic in the offices were not thriving, as far as engagement. They weren’t. Because 70% of employees weren’t engaged. But I think there’s a couple of things that you need to think about, on why this is in and where to start. I think we have been looking at the pragmatic reality, that not everybody is going to be engaged. Why? Number one, human beings are way too complex. Their needs change, their thoughts change, they learn more, they see more, and what I needed when I was hired, that company could have been providing me. But as I grow and change, the company could still be acting in the very same way. But that is not something that fits my current needs. Also on the flip, companies are far too complex. It’s the same. They’re their own organism, I don’t know many companies whose goal is just to stay the way they are, they normally aren’t growth companies, or they want to make more pies, or open more stores or have better product. And their needs change, as well. It’s too complex, and they’re going to need a different type of employee. So, it really is about two things. And I know we’re out of time, if people want to start and have that flexibility, knowing things will change. Number one, clarity is huge. John, I know that you’ve seen them. So many companies, all I’ve seen, big marquee names versus a 10-person startup, there’s some opposition to really getting clear on what the jobs are and getting clear on what our message is, and getting clear on what our product is. So, number one clarity, and then you communicate it. All that other stuff, I’m sorry, if you don’t get those two things right, then having happy hours, or let’s have a roundtable for a book club or whatever. Let’s have an ERP group, which is really great, but that won’t matter. It won’t matter. They need to be clear on everything and communicate, especially if they’re not in the office.

John Hollon: Well Dawn, that is a great note to end on. As you kept saying, yes, we could talk about this, we’ll have to have you come back and do it again. What’s the best website to go find what you’re doing?

Dawn Burke: Well, right now, I think there’s two places one would be LinkedIn because right now, I’m in transition from working at Kinetix. I’m not a full-time employee there, but I am doing consulting work. So, I would look at my LinkedIn page. Number two, I do have a website, DawnBurkeHR.com. So, you can get some tidbits from me there. So I think those are probably the two best places right now.

John Hollon: Great. Well, thank you Dawn, for taking the time to talk to us today. Great conversation, you’ve been generous with your time. You’ve always got something really interesting to say so we will have to have you back.

Dawn Burke: It’s done! It’s done. Let’s do it!

John Hollon: So, we really appreciate you being here.

Dawn Burke: I appreciate you asking, this is fantastic.

John Hollon: So, for Fuel50’s Talent Experience Podcast, this is John Hollon. Thanks for listening!

We hope you enjoy listening to this episode of the Talent Experience Podcast with Dawn Burke! We look forward to sharing more learning with you.