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Workforce Planning in the Age of COVID-19

Companies need a strategic plan to ensure that they get the right people in the right jobs.

W​hen COVID-19 hit, the staff at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit was nearly overwhelmed by patients. Suddenly, the organization needed more workers, especially ICU nurses and environmental services staff responsible for infection control.

The health system, which comprises six hospitals and employs 33,000 people, quickly built a new program for cross-training called Ready Talent. The hospitals used it to train other staff to be “runners” for ICU nurses so that these highly specialized employees could devote 100 percent of their time to critical, lifesaving work, says Sarah Sheffer, director of strategic workforce planning.

The organization is now improving the program. In the current pilot, it’s training employees in three disciplines—environmental services, food service and transport—so they can be easily shifted to wherever the greatest needs are.

The program is good for both the organization and the employees. First, it improves the hospitals’ ability to fill staffing shortages in a crisis, since employees from food service could move to environmental services, for example. Second, “it offers an opportunity for team members to have different career growth paths,” Sheffer says. “They aren’t held to just advancing in one department.”

The events of the past year have prompted many organizations to take a closer look at midterm and long-term workforce planning strategies. In traditional workforce planning, a company analyzes its workforce and determines how to prepare for future staffing needs. It conducts a systematic assessment of workforce content and composition issues, including projected candidate availability, then determines what actions to take, such as hiring more software programmers or preparing for a wave of retirements. The goal is to ensure that the organization will have the right people with the right skills in the right jobs to accomplish its goals and objectives in the years to come.

Henry Ford Health System created a systemwide flexible staffing command center, a central talent bank that places temporary staf

In many companies, however, workforce planning has been little more than a headcount exercise, says Todd Brodie, SHRM-SCP, a management consultant at CAID Associates in Orlando, Fla. What’s needed, he says, is a strategic plan that aligns with the business’s overall goals, whether they involve increased profits or better performance. Brodie estimates that only 40 percent to 50 percent of employers have an effective, strategic workforce plan—that is, one that takes care of employees, increases their engagement, and builds skills and capabilities for workers and the organization.

The pandemic has created “a massive opportunity to make changes,” says Al Adamsen, founder and CEO of People Analytics & Future of Work, a San Francisco-based events planner and global network advocating the ethical use of people data. Many companies, for example, have formed crisis management teams with representatives from HR, information technology, operations and legal. Adamsen argues that such strategic teams should have been there all along, and he hopes companies make them permanent.

Several trends that impact the workforce, including digitization and automation, remote work, and demand for independent contractors, have emerged as a result of the pandemic, according to Bryan Hancock, a partner at McKinsey & Co. and global leader of its talent management practice.

“We’ve had five years of change in five months,” Hancock says. This has caused companies to step back and re-examine their workforce planning processes. A May survey of executives by McKinsey found that 33 percent planned to spend more on workforce planning over the next year, ranking it a higher priority than recruiting, learning and development, and engagement.

In particular, experts say, companies are:

  • Forming more-varied, short-term scenarios as part of their long-term planning and revisiting those plans more often.
  • Improving their ability to easily and quickly retrain, cross-train and redeploy staff. 
  • Reimagining how they recruit, retain and redeploy employees in a world where more people work remotely and the use of independent contractors is growing.
  • Emphasizing benefits to protect the emotional, mental and physical health of their employees.

Change of Plans

The most substantial development in workforce planning is reiterative planning in shorter time frames, experts say. 

Brian Kropp, group vice president and chief of research of Gartner’s HR practice, says consultants at the firm used to tell clients to follow the advice of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.” In the business world, the quote has often been used to illustrate the need for innovation. 

But now, since no one can predict where the puck will be, Gartner consultants tell clients to “skate with the puck.”

“You have to make more incremental adjustments to how the world is moving, rather than try to predict where the world’s going to be,” Kropp explains.

He recommends adjusting plans every three months while maintaining a broad, long-term vision of three to five years. Skills requirements, for example, are now changing at a faster rate than ever, so Kropp says the key is to hire for broad skill sets and then train narrowly as needs develop. 

It’s probably safe to assume that a company will need people with data analytics and software programming skills in the next five years, for example. But while it may need Python programmers today, no one knows what new programming language will be hot in a few years, Kropp says. So a good strategy for employers is to hire people with excellent programming skills and a willingness to continue learning, then make sure the organization has effective training structures in place.

During the onset of the pandemic, employees at  Henry Ford Health System were cross-trained to help ease the burden on nurses an

Know Your People

Like Henry Ford Health System, many organizations realize that they need to be able to retrain and redeploy their employees faster and more efficiently. In some cases, that means collecting and analyzing additional and better data on employee skills and experience to more easily identify the best internal candidates for open positions.

Adobe is one company working on that. It effectively redeployed staff during the pandemic based mostly on managers’ personal knowledge of employees and their skills, says Michelle 

Deneau, head of employee insights and technology at the San Jose, Calif.-based company, which has 22,000 employees. 

“Leaders of business units know their talent well, so those relationships were tremendously helpful,” Deneau explains. However, “Adobe’s been so high-growth for so long that the idea of needing to redeploy talent was a bit new for us,” she says. “In the future, we want to improve our central repository of skills data.”  

Ashley Inman, SHRM-SCP, HR manager at Spire Consulting Group LLC, a construction engineering consulting company in Austin, Texas, says knowing “which staff are cross-trainable and might be rotated around to many different kinds of projects or roles” makes an organization more resilient. Not only can a company identify and better utilize the talent it has, but it doesn’t have to spend the time and money to recruit and hire new talent, says Inman, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Special Expertise Panel on Talent Acquisition.

Recruitment and Retention

The experience of having to close the office and send employees home to work as a result of the pandemic also promises to have lasting ramifications for workforce planning.

Gartner surveys earlier this year found that almost half (48 percent) of employees will likely continue working remotely either part time or full time even after the pandemic passes, compared with 30 percent who worked from home before the public health crisis hit. That not only saves employers money, it also opens up a huge labor pool for many jobs because hiring will no longer be geographically limited. Before, companies conducted what Kropp describes as cost arbitrage based on location. Assuming equal access to equal talent, companies would attempt to hire in the lowest-cost geography near a physical workplace. Now they can hire from anywhere.

“That’s good news for employers,” Kropp says. “The bad news is that all of your competitors for talent now have the ability to hire your employees and let them work remotely.” He adds that remote employees often have fewer emotional and personal connections to their employer, which may make it harder to retain them.

Henry Ford’s Sheffer is starting to think about this, particularly because telemedicine is one of the trends that got a huge boost from the pandemic. She recognizes the opportunities for hiring, as well as the dangers of more talent raiding, but notes that factors in the health care industry, such as state licensing and regional credential requirements, complicate matters. Nevertheless, “it will be very interesting to see how telemedicine evolves over the next year or two,” Sheffer says.  

There’s also an opportunity for HR to fine-tune remote work by providing more training and support. Before the pandemic, remote work typically was an exception, with little help to ensure that people could work from home effectively. 

“Just think what [organizations] could do if it was part of the strategy to align people, including those working remotely, to ensure the organization was successful,” CAID Associates’ Brodie says.

Proceed with Caution

​Experts are issuing words of caution as employers revamp their workforce planning strategies as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Among the warnings:

Don’t assume that everything will eventually go back to normal. “Organizations really need to be stepping back from the idea that they can go back to the way they worked before,” says Brian Kropp, group vice president and chief of research of Gartner’s HR practice. “That's never going to happen.” 

Don’t sell off too much office real estate. Some organizations are assuming that, because remote work will continue, they can sell their office space. Instead, Kropp advises, think about the purpose of your real estate—whether it’s to build culture, create collaboration zones or something else—and then base your decision on the answer.

Don’t focus on all talent equally. McKinsey & Co. research indicates that there are usually 25 to 50 roles in an organization that create a disproportionate amount of value. Given how quickly things have changed, it’s possible that there has been a shift in how your organization creates value and what those key roles are, says Bryan Hancock, global leader of the firm’s talent management practice. He recommends identifying those roles and their requirements, and then making sure you have the right talent in the right roles.

Don’t view a job, or a job candidate, too narrowly. The ability to retrain and redeploy talent is becoming critical. HR professionals and companies would do well to think in terms of general skills and competencies rather than specific job requirements, says Ashley Inman, SHRM-SCP, HR manager at Spire Consulting Group LLC. Hiring in some industries is very specialized, such as hiring a structural engineer to design a bridge. But that engineer could also be used in other capacities, such as inspecting roads, designing operations and maintenance plans, or training junior engineers. This broadening of job duties may become increasingly important as certain parts of certain jobs evolve into augmented or virtual reality, she says, enabling the business to better adapt to changing economic situations. —T.H.

With the use of contingent and temporary workers expected to continue to grow, companies could also better incorporate these individuals into their strategic workforce plan. Henry Ford had an in-house staffing office for each hospital that arranged contingent workers as needed for their respective institutions. That evolved during the pandemic into a systemwide flexible staffing command center, a central talent bank that placed temporary staff across all Henry Ford locations. This change created efficiencies that benefited the hospitals as well as the workers. It placed contingent workers at a hospital near them, for example, rather than at one across town.

The staffing command center provided temporary assignments to furloughed staff and, through partnerships with other medical institutions in the area, such as the Cleveland Clinic, offered exhausted nurses temporary replacements so they could have a break. 

Deneau says Adobe has started looking at contingent workers more holistically. Before, it viewed contractors separately from regular full-time employees, with separate budgets, for example. Contingent workers might be hired on a short-term basis to do the job of someone on leave. 

Now, the company is trying to better integrate these workers, Deneau says. “We want to level up and look at our total workforce—from spend to headcount to type of work—to think across the organization about how to bring different types of resources together most effectively for the business.” 

Focus on People

The pandemic brought home the importance of respecting employees as human beings. Many companies have redoubled benefits to care for their people in the long term.

Historically, corporate leaders have spent a lot of time talking about what skills and capabilities they need from employees for the organization to be successful. “But COVID revealed that perhaps we should pay more attention to what needs employees have that we could potentially meet,” Kropp says. 

Meeting those needs could become the next big competitive differentiator to attract top talent, he adds.

This focus has elevated the influence of HR in many organizations.

“This is one of the few times in the 20-plus years I’ve been in HR that everyone is turning to HR and asking, ‘What should we be doing?’ ” says Mark Berry, vice president of HR at Indiana Packers Corp., a meat supplier headquartered in Delphi, Ind., with 3,100 employees. “Overall, HR has become a more important strategic player in the company.”  

Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Illustration by Richard Mia for HR Magazine. 

Photographs courtesy of Henry Ford Health System.