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COVID recovery through SWP - Henley Business School Finland

COVID recovery – Strategic workforce planning can help you right now, not just tomorrow

As organisations of all kinds all around the globe are pulling out all the stops to manage through the current crisis, there is a wholly understandable focus on short term business continuity and cost management. Many are needing to look hard at workforce optimisation and walking the fine line between revenue generation and cost base. In such circumstances, it would be easy to say that anything which feels focused on more than a 3- to 6-month horizon is an unnecessary distraction from the very real task of keeping the lights on. However, it is precisely at times like this that strategic workforce planning (SWP) can show its other key benefit beyond helping us plan for future organisational needs – its ability to help us make better short-term decisions.

So rather than pushing SWP from our to-do list, we should in fact be moving it to the top, but in a lightweight, speedy and agile format

Why? Well consider the kind of questions many organisations will have on their agenda right now:

  • Do we need to reduce the size of our workforce?
  • Do we need to look at recruitment or pay policies?
  • Are changes in structure or operating model needed?
  • Where can we manage costs without cutting into capability we will need later? Where are the critical skills we must retain?
  • Where do we need to continue investing in order to maintain our competitive position? Where are the opportunities?

The questions sitting underneath all of these is “how do you know what to do and where to do it?” or equally, “how do we know if we’re making a bad decision?”

Those of you who have followed my previous articles on the subject will be familiar with my viewpoint that SWP provides vital context for the short term. It helps you to understand which skills are most critical, to segment the workforce and to understand the potential future implications of decisions you make today so that you can have greater confidence that the negative impact on the medium to longer term of necessary short term decisions is minimised.

To gain this benefit, SWP principles must be applied speedily and in a focused and lightweight way. There should be zero tolerance for lengthy, complex and granular approaches

One way to do this quickly is to follow these steps:

  1. Think about where the need is greatest. This may be at enterprise level or in one particular business unit. Start there
  2. Gather a representative group together including operational leaders, Finance and HR in a workshop setting
  3. Facilitate a classic but macro-level SWP discussion exploring the 1- to 3-year strategy and identifying potential capability requirements in terms of structure, workforce size and location, skills and knowledge
  4. Now repeat this but on a 0- to12-month horizon, looking at the resources, skills and knowledge needed to keep the business running and to support its recovery. Where are they the same, where different?
  5. What you now have, after just a day or so, are two FILTERS against which short term actions can be reviewed in order to understand their potential level of risk versus benefit, to identify where you might be cutting into muscle or shooting yourself in the foot, to understand which skills segments may need short term retention measures and which may be becoming less relevant going forwards and to identify where they might be opportunities to re-purpose or re-skill

If we charge into business and cost management measures without some thought, we are going to make mistakes which will cost us more time, money or effort later. These will be false economies. By spending a short time standing back and looking at our workforces in a measured and contextual way, we can minimise the chances of making such mistakes whilst also supporting the very real business continuity and cost base requirements.

The now not so recent financial crash revealed, in hindsight, that those organisations who were thoughtful in their balance of cost-cutting and investment in workforce capability stole a march on their competitors. Those who threw the baby out with the bath water talent-wise, through blanket recruitment freezes and unfocused reductions in headcount, were slower to get going again.

So, don’t think of SWP as “jam tomorrow”, think of it as a way of building some context and focus into how you make better decisions NOW which support, rather than damage, sustained recovery and future success.

Nick is a highly experienced HR practitioner, and has led organisational development, resourcing, talent & leadership, performance and L&D functions in a number of major businesses. He has leveraged his eclectic sector and functional career to build an industry reputation as someone who challenges both HR and the wider business to think differently and as a creator of innovative thinking in the organisational arena.

Nick was a Visiting Professor and Co-Director of Henley’s Centre for HR Excellence from 2010 – 2016. In recent years, he has worked with clients around the world both as a Senior Partner for Korn Ferry’s People Advisory business and as owner of his own consulting firm.

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