Rethinking Workforce Planning in Times of Uncertainty

The phrase “getting the right people, in the right place, with the right skills, at the right time, and at the right cost” is synonymous with the most common type of long-term forecasting: strategic workforce planning. The methodology, in which HR and their business partners forecast – in time horizons ranging from 3-10 years – the demand for, and supply of, labor has been deployed extremely successfully in sectors ranging from oil & gas to government and healthcare.

Yet, to leaders more accustomed to just-in-time, rapid-fire decision-making, workforce planning is often viewed as too theoretical, academic, static, and largely unconnected to pace of change in the business world. The infamous 2014 headline “Why Everyone Hates Performance Reviews” might aptly be rephrased into “Why No-One Cares About Workforce Planning”.

Unquestionably, the global pandemic and humanitarian crisis we are experiencing is challenging our conventional wisdom about the world of work. 2020 has been marked by a new normal – virtual work becoming the rule, confounding gaps between high unemployment and a scarcity of qualified talent, decreased job-switching, and heightened awareness of bias and employment discrimination.

Here is where lies the opportunity; to identify niche opportunities to take the concept of strategic workforce planning – aligning the workforce with business needs – yet apply it in completely unique ways. How might we make workforce planning more personal, dynamic, engaging, and reflective of the current economic, social, and employment turbulence casting a pall over the future of work?

Here are five ways in which HR leaders can rethink workforce planning in uncertain conditions, divided into those that anticipate, or reframe, the demand for people and ideas to bolster workforce supply.

Reframing Workforce Demand

1. Delivering an Exceptional Experience to Customers

In a recent research study, 80% of CEOs said that their organizations deliver an excellent customer experience; however, only 8% of customers say they actually received one. It’s an experience gap that targeted workforce planning can address.

For example, rather than evaluating the “work to be done”, which is a common starting point for strategic workforce planning, gather data from customers on which touchpoints (sales transaction, online chat, call center question, etc.) deliver the best and worst experiences. This information might plausibly affect workforce demand by:

  • Anticipating demand for products & services that exceed customers’ current needs, or new sources of customer value, that may require additional staffing
  • Identifying current and future job roles that are dedicated to delivering exceptional customer experiences
  • Understanding brand perception and “willingness to recommend” your organization; low Net Promoter Scores may require process improvement different types of employees

Armed with information on examples of strongly positive and negative customer experiences, HR leaders – in partnership with a workforce planner – can determine the appropriate staffing levels in job functions or roles where an opportunity exists to delight your customers.

2. Building High-Performing Teams…and Their Deputies

In his autobiography, Deke Slayton, NASA’s first Chief Astronaut, spoke of how he selected crew members for the Gemini, Skylab and – most famously – the Apollo moon missions. His operating rule was to build cohorts of highly trained astronauts able to adjust to any possible in-flight scenario and select commanders that he personally trusted. Supplementing the mission’s lead crew would be a back-up team who would fully participate alongside the prime team on simulations and debriefs, gathering extensive experience and data in preparation for their own mission.

Unlike these astronauts, most of us do not work under such immense pressure. However, we do routinely operate as part of teams that, more often than not, are formed randomly based on availability, functional role, or familiarity with specific staff members.

The current humanitarian crisis has afforded opportunities for teams to pivot in completely new ways (for example, Cisco redeploying teams to print 3D masks and shields). Assuming that the pace of change continues to increase – whether in reaction to external shocks or internal strategy shifts, teamwork may become the new normal, featuring employees who are comfortable in matrixed situations where formal job roles are less important than cross-functional collaboration.

How can organizations reduce the randomness of team formation and also provide opportunities to upskill the “back-ups”?

A first step would be to identify repeated situations in which teams could be deployed to maximum effect – those that require agile, creative thinking, or the best technical knowledge, or extensive peer networks. Alternatively, to work from the bottom-up, identifying functions in which collaboration might be more natural than purely independent work and facilitating that. For example, Bank of America found that call center employees working in cohesive groups were the most productive and so switched from solo to group breaks thereby increasing efficiency by 10 percent.

Longer-term, consider implementing technology and processes – such as internal talent marketplaces – to facilitate more systematic cross-functional collaborations.

3. Changing the Organizational DNA

In 2009, one of my Publishing customers was facing a dramatic shift in how the company sourced, produced, and distributed content. Shifting resources away from traditional manuscript reviews and manufacturing facilities that produced hard-copy books, the company revised its business and talent goals, specifically calling attention to the need for “digital innovation” that would require the addition of staff with “digital capabilities”. This culture shift prompted a myriad of questions in HR about how to define, identify, and measure such capabilities in the current workforce and future hires.

Changing the organizational DNA – whether in response to external paradigm shifts such as Industry 4.0, or internal reboots to the business model – is extremely complicated. To the example above, PwC’s 2020 survey of global CEOs found that only 20% of executives say upskilling has been “very effective” in accelerating digital transformation at their firms.

The first step is to clearly articulate the current DNA – are you an organization known for resilience and structure, or one that encourages risk and just-in-time pivots? – and what characteristics will encompass the new DNA. From there, workforce planning moves beyond “right person, right job” to “right fit” – is our recruiting process designed to deliver candidates with the best possible fit to our new culture?

Bolstering Workforce Supply

4. Engaging Soft Skills and Passions

The development of technical, or hard, skills will be crucial to building subject-matter expertise in emerging domains, from blockchain to 5G, biometrics, and artificial intelligence. However, these tend to be covered in traditional strategic workforce planning; for example, energy companies are well-known for introducing STEM programs into high schools to develop the next generation of engineers.

Rarely covered in workforce planning is that which focuses on nourishing soft skills – empathy, critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, flexibility, emotional intelligence, and decision-making. These are considered the foundation upon which to build technical skills which, in combination with soft skills, improves the likelihood of lifelong employability, not just current job security.

For some, an unintended but positive consequence of workforce furloughs and under-employment is the opportunity to pursue passions in areas completely unrelated to their job. While some of these may be unrelated to the individual’s employment, in other cases passions for problem-solving, negotiating, using data to draw new insights, or storytelling could lead to opportunities for workforce planners to match the demand for nuanced skills and passions to employee segments who possess them.

The challenge is not in defining the soft skills, but in making the case that capturing the data across the enterprise is valuable and will be used appropriately.

5. Borrowing, Not Buying

In her recent Harvard Business Review article entitled “Make the Right Personnel Decisions Now to Thrive After the Crisis”, author Rebecca Homkes writes about the concept of firms who borrow groups of employees to meet periods of high demand (e.g., home delivery or production) and avoid layoffs in times of economic crisis. This is not only socially responsible but may lead to future partnerships or strategic alliances between the organizations.

The potential for lending groups of employees across organizations poses several intriguing questions:

  1. Does this bridge the gap, and create a hybrid model, between full-time employees – who value financial stability and job security – and gig workers, who are more comfortable with flexibility?
  2. How does this impact workforce planners as they develop staffing models that balance the predictability of employee retention with the nimbleness of utilizing on-demand talent?
  3. How might lending employees to organizations engaged in different activities (e.g., a retailer sharing staff with a hospital to support home-care tasks) build organizational agility in the firm of new skills and expertise?

In the short-term, borrowing employees undoubtedly improves operational efficiency via the reallocation of resources to areas of highest need. Long-term, this provides a fascinating use case for firms engaged in the same value chain – in a consumer products chain, for example, sharing employees between the sourcers, producers, distributors, and retailers).


Strategic workforce planning is not going away. However, HR leaders can supplement these structural processes with niche opportunities that offer a fresh perspective on workforce demand and take advantage of micro- and macro-economic trends to bolster workforce supply.

Mick Collins
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Mick Collins is a Global Vice President at SAP SuccessFactors, leading Go-To-Market programs for the Business Technology Platform (BTP), Qualtrics, and People Analytics solutions. In this capacity, he oversees pre-sales strategy and execution, with specific responsibilities including go-to-market messaging, commercialization strategy, sales enablement, prospect & customer engagement, alliance management, and product thought leadership. With 12+ years of experience in analytics & planning, Mick has delivered hundreds of presentations and workshops to public- and private-sector organizations on how to build their capabilities for data-driven decision-making in HR. Mick has a master’s degree in political science from Virginia Tech and a BA (Hons) in Economics & Politics from the University of Leeds, England.

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