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What Does Workforce Planning Look Like When the Future Is Unpredictable?

March 15, 2021 Leadership
David DeFilippo Reworked Talent Management Contributor
By David DeFilippo LinkedIn

This past year has been one of the most unpredictable in a generation due to the unprecedented combination of turmoil in our health, society and politics.

These quickly shifting sands created challenges across all industries, forcing most to fundamentally adjust their business models to perform, if not simply survive. Like a restaurant having to shift from in-person dining to a take-out operation overnight, companies have been forced to take actions that called prior planning assumptions into question and have had a far-reaching effect into how business operates.

A central tenet of business operations is to establish a plan to achieve specific goals, which may be revenue, profit or earnings per share targets. These objectives are established to create customer, shareholder and brand value for those firms and are typically multi-year plans with a specific focus on the current year. Regular monthly or quarterly reviews evaluate progress, identify problems and create plans to take corrective actions to address issues. The cycle repeats itself as a continuous check and balance.

How to Adapt Workforce Planning to Unpredictable Conditions

The centerpiece of any business plan is the human capital to carry out the many tasks that fulfill client or operational requirements. A firm’s talent management strategy is core to planning and managing the hiring, training and deployment of people for this purpose. In particular, workforce planning is a critical talent management practice that stems from the business plan and is the first step in what will become the employee lifecycle.

By definition, workforce planning is focused on a comprehensive review of the business goals and corresponding human capital requirements to plan for the required organizational demand available talent supply. The goal is to reach an equilibrium between the quantity of qualified people needed to carry out an organization’s tasks and the existing pipeline of talent.

In normal times this process is dependent on coordination between business planning, human resources and respective functional areas to determine timing, position requirements and hiring sources. With the added complexity of an unpredictable environment, these standard practices may need to flex to accommodate the current and future states. One helpful illustration is the management consulting industry. In consulting, teams are quickly assembled based on client demand and the required skills for a particular engagement.

Related Article: Update Talent Management Practices for a VUCA World

Tips for Effective Workforce Planning

Drawing from this analogue, here are some twists on the tried-and-true talent management practices to consider as options during volatile times like these.

 PhaseTraditionalFuture
Selection 
  • Assess candidates for the available role. 
  • Assess candidates for a variety of roles.
  • Learn about candidates' personal and professional interests to assess flexibility and adaptability for a role that may not yet exist.
  • Hire skills for current and future roles to prepare to have bench strength.

Onboarding
  • Prepare new hires to perform in the current role.
  • Prepare new hires to perform in two to three critical roles through systematic learning, practice and coaching on the job.
Movement
  • Planned rotational assignments for a specific time period.
  • Dynamically deploy new hires into roles or projects without notice and based on immediate business need.
  • Expect new hires to work with and perform with multiple teams early in their tenure.
  • Establish talent marketplaces to prepare for business needs and encourage movement.
Managers
  • Report to hiring manager for initial role.
  • Provide exposure and accountability to multiple managers to gain experience with other leaders and various management approaches.

While there is explicit need to ensure that the supply and demand sides of this equation are aligned, preparing for the unplanned by integrating a variety of experiences, relationships and leadership exposure at the outset of an employee's tenure may be the best approach to workforce planning.

It's a departure from the traditional approach where organizations take the time for new hires to become competent and comfortable in their roles before adding additional tasks or skills. However, by intentionally integrating new and dynamic elements on shorter time cycles, an adaptable talent pipeline can be developed.

Building this change-ready muscle memory for new hires will gradually infuse this capability and culture into an organization. The result is that organizations are better prepared for the next disruption and able to adapt to what will inevitably become "the new normal."

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