We Can’t Control the Wind, But We Can Adjust the Sail: Workforce Planning in a COVID-19 World
By Megan Cleary |
July 1, 2020
July 1, 2020

To say that COVID-19 has been a disruptive force in both our personal and professional lives is an understatement. For most businesses, the pandemic has demanded a seismic shift in the way we work; one that is still sending waves across the global business landscape. The tide turned, with little warning, but if we are all feeling the change, why are some businesses weathering the storm better than others? How have some businesses adjusted their sail to meet market demands and evolved customer expectations, while others struggle to survive? What makes them so agile and resilient?

The most successful businesses all have one key thing in common: their ability to make the most of what they already have—the workforce at their fingertips. Organizations finding creative ways to optimize their current workforce are by and far leading the way. Oftentimes, this means enabling the current workforce to meet the new needs of the business through strategically re-allocating people and teams, training employees to enable a dynamic workforce and identifying the newly defined priorities. There is no crystal ball; however, strategic, data-driven capacity planning can help develop a path out of the storm regardless of whether you are experiencing a surge in variable demand or a drastic decrease.

The Right People in the Right Place at the Right Time Ensure a Successful Voyage

Sounds like a piece of cake, right? Ha! Understanding your workers’ skills, behaviors, capabilities and attributes is key to unlocking their potential, and to do so strategically takes real effort and time. It also helps leaders make tough judgment calls in times of crisis based on data rather than gut.

For example, let’s say an organization is experiencing a surge in demand of one of its twenty products… hand sanitizer, anyone! Due to the environment, the organization does not want to increase its workforce by headcount. A common knee jerk reaction might be to start training teams and re-allocating workers’ hours to focus solely on producing the product in surge. While that approach might work just fine, it can be hard to know the short- and long-term impacts before it’s already in action.

Leaders can understand how decisions of today affect the results of tomorrow by leveraging strategic capacity planning to answer questions like:

  • What are the teams across the organization producing? This will help show the full picture of what they may be giving up or risking by focusing solely on one product—in this case, hand sanitizer.
  • Which employee groups have the right skills to fill needs across the organization? A mix of qualitative and quantitative data can identify the skills or knowledge required to produce products. It can also educate leaders on where those skills exist most readily across the organization, decreasing the learning curve in the new role.
  • What will create the greatest impact on the bottom line? Defining the opportunity cost of re-allocating employees’ focus on one of the twenty products will help determine how you can create the most impact on the bottom line with consideration to both the short- and long-term future.

Ultimately, data-driven decision making allows leaders to strategically reimagine their business and reshape their workforce to create sustained business continuity and support optimization.

With a Storm this Severe, Efficiency Overrides Absolute Certainty

Don’t get me wrong, accuracy is important, especially in high stakes situations. But in attempts to “get things right,” many organizations fail to do anything at all. They become unable to make decisions because they’re too focused on precision.

One way to break free from this pattern of paralysis is to create and implement “micro” workforce plans—think of them as the business equivalent of baby steps, allowing you to pivot when necessary and respond quickly to changes. This approach will also help you understand utilization, staffing surpluses and gaps that need to be filled.

A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilled Sailor—Upskilling Benefits Everyone

I love my comfort zone, and I bet you do, too. It’s… comfortable. Grappling with change, let alone embracing it, is difficult for most people. Regardless of an employee’s skill set, they will need to get comfortable with continuous evolution and be willing to explore uncharted waters. This requires a shift in mentality versus a shift in hard skills.

On the flip side, organizations should be willing to provide their workforce with education, training and new opportunities. Leadership will need support, but it’s ultimately up to them to keep their finger on the pulse of their talent supply and demand. Upskilling benefits the employee as well as their organization, and while no one planned on a pandemic it will allow workers to become more dynamic and cross-functional down the road.

Dropping Anchor in a Post-COVID World

When it comes to reimagining a post-COVID workforce, data and sophisticated analysis are two of the most important factors in determining resource capacity. And the organizations that have a true understanding of their most important resources—their vital human capital—are well-equipped to reemerge and thrive in the new normal.