COVID-19 Analytics Remain Key to Workforce Planning

By Dave Zielinski January 10, 2021
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​The tracking and reporting of COVID-19 analytics related to workforce infections, absences, quarantines and more remains a high priority as cases continue to rise, despite the vaccine rollout. As the pandemic enters a new stage in 2021, HR leaders are deploying next-generation analytics technologies to keep their organizations appropriately staffed while also protecting employee health and safety.

Mark Berry, vice president of human resources for the Indiana Packers Corp., a producer of fresh and processed meats in Delphi, Ind., has used analytics software from provider Visier, linked to a human capital management system, to track key COVID-19 metrics in his workforce. From March through September, he gathered data on infection rates, infection velocity contact tracing, absences and overtime.

"We also didn't want people to be tempted to come to work sick," Berry said, "so we implemented a mandated quarantine leave program and for each of those leaves created solid estimates of what utilization and costs would be." 

Creative Solutions to Staffing Challenges

COVID-19 analytics will shape Berry's workforce planning in 2021 as infection rates ebb and flow. He uses those analytics to inform his hiring needs, track turnover rates, gauge average versus available employee headcount and analyze worker time-off rates.

"It provides trends, enabling us to anticipate future changes, and also snapshot views of absenteeism, overtime, employee leaves and an overall understanding of what's happening as COVID-19 infection rates change," Berry said. "Analytics tools are tremendously important in being able to keep the pulse of what's happening with our day-to-day business and not have to rely on ad hoc, reactive reporting."

Berry said one surprise has been that given the high unemployment rate, he expected more workers to be available in his job market, but that isn't the case. He attributes that discrepancy to potential workers choosing to sit out the market for fear of getting the virus at work, and others making ends meet through federal stimulus or state unemployment subsidies.

To address staffing challenges, Berry's organization created recognition and incentive programs to attract new employees and retain existing ones, in order to keep production high while also ensuring workers were kept safe in the workplace. Incentives include new-hire bonuses and enhanced benefits, while targeted performance-based plans also are being evaluated and implemented.

"We're finalizing design of a plan that will give bonuses to new hires to encourage them to start and to stay," he said. "The majority of people who leave the production side of our business do so in their first 90 days of work, so the bonus will be front-loaded to encourage new hires to stay through that period, and then will pay out in portions by quarter as an incentive for sustained employment." Existing employees who've often put in long hours and overtime during the pandemic also will be rewarded, Berry said.

He added that he'll continue to use the latest science around COVID-19 to guide workforce planning, as he anticipates the vaccine becoming widely available to his employees by late spring or early summer.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Choosing the proper technology is only half the battle in getting talent analytics right. Designing and deploying such metrics in a way that influences the decisions of business leaders often is a taller order. While CEOs or CFOs see the value of COVID-19 analytics, that's not always the case with measures like engagement scores, learning outcomes, workforce attrition rates or succession plans.

Molly Tipps, director of HR research and advisory for Gartner, said there are steps talent leaders can take to increase their odds of success and avoid pitfalls when creating talent metrics. Tipps offered these three ideas at Gartner's recent Reimagine HR Conference as ways to help HR leaders create "quick wins" with talent analytics and increase the odds of sustained success with use of such metrics.

1. Tie talent insights to a near-term business problem. If analytics in areas like employee engagement or workforce attrition aren't tied to looming business decisions, they may go unheeded. "Instead of asking how cool or insightful a certain metric is, you should ask instead if it will support an actual decision a business leader is facing right now," Tipps said. "Too often, we assume the insight itself will instigate the action, but it doesn't often work that way."

As an example, she cited the judicious way in which a large pharmaceutical company uses talent analytics. "Leaders there decided even though they had generated a large amount of good talent data and insights, they would only share it if it was exactly aligned with a decision an executive was making. If they had good data on performance management, for example, they would hold it and only share it during performance review season."

2. Design analytics with end-user input. It's natural to want to wait until a talent metric is fully formed before unveiling it to business leaders. But such a unilateral approach can undermine success. "If you wait until it's all shiny and perfect before introducing it for the first time, the chances are the analytic isn't reflecting the end user's priority," Tipps said.

Instead, use a more iterative, design-thinking process that makes end users co-creators of the metric. In this approach, initial development time is shorter and end users—business leaders—get to provide feedback on design drafts. Tipps knows of one organization that used this approach to improve its succession planning process. Too many of the same names were coming up on the company's list of potential leadership successors each year, so a new candidate recommendation engine was proposed. "The first draft of that solution was a simple Excel spreadsheet that talent leaders co-created with business leaders," she said. "But the spreadsheet had sufficient insight to improve and expand upon. It wasn't built for end users, but with them."

3. Agree on your terms. What often goes overlooked in the creation of talent analytics is the importance of agreeing on term definitions. "You might create a data insight tied to full-time employees [FTEs], but there isn't widespread agreement on what constitutes an FTE," Tipps said. "Recruiters might be unsure of why an HRIS [HR information system] platform defines an FTE differently than what they see in their recruiting system, or payroll might have a varying definition of what constitutes an FTE versus a contractor."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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