Workforce planning during coronavirus: Strategies for planning in flexibility

Author: Wendy Hirsh

The uncertainty around coronavirus (COVID-19) has made employment decisions difficult. Wendy Hirsh shows how HR can build flexibility into the workforce.

Employers have become painfully aware in 2020 that uncertainty increases the need for workforce planning, as decisions cannot be avoided. But uncertainty also makes decisions about employment extremely difficult. Temporary government support has been welcome, but many businesses face difficult choices about potential redundancies over the coming months. Some employers may need to significantly re-think their business models and employment strategies for the future.

The UK has also seen amazing responses to the crisis by both employers and workers, showing ingenuity, energy and flexibility in keeping work going. For example, we have seen:

  • mass homeworking, often by workers who are also homeschooling children;
  • meetings, learning and social events happening online;
  • rapid redeployment and retraining, ranging from retired doctors coming back as volunteers, to food retailers recruiting hospitality workers who were out of work to meet high demand both in stores and for home deliveries; and
  • key workers carrying on, even at risk to themselves, and rapidly adopting new work practices.

So how can employers adjust their workforce planning approaches to grapple with continuing uncertainty and find ways to maintain or even increase workforce flexibility for the future?

Workforce planning needs to address uncertainty

Workforce planning has the ideas of uncertainty and risk at its very heart. There are several ways in which it can help to increase organisational flexibility:

Further resources on workforce planning

Workforce planning

  • "What if" questions and contingency plans can be used to look ahead at possible responses to foreseeable but uncertain events;
  • scenario planning can be used to look further ahead at the potential impact of larger and even less controllable changes, such as global political shifts, climate change and so on - this approach looks for scenarios in which the employment strategy or policies of the organisation will not adequately mitigate business risks and may need to be re-thought; and
  • flexibility can also be planned into resourcing models and practices and so become embedded in workforce planning thinking.

Building in flexibility

Many organisations have needed to make quick changes to their workforce over the past few months, but will have found that flexibility does not just appear when suddenly needed. Workforce planning can be focused on strategies to increase organisational flexibility, so that it is there when needed.

Flexibility can be planned into an organisation and its workforce through three broad groups of strategies:

  • alternative patterns of employment to increase numerical flexibility;
  • making use of spatial and temporal flexibility; and
  • adapting work design, skills and deployment to increase functional flexibility.

Planning for numerical flexibility through alternative patterns of employment

If an employer uses only full-time, permanent employees, flexing the size of the workforce means recruiting new people or shedding current staff. Employers can plan for flexibility in the size of the workforce using a variety of options:

Did you know…?

Studies of zero hours contracts and so-called gig working, such as the Taylor Review, show the key issues are whether those working in such jobs do so out of choice, whether the employment relationship feels fair, and how work benefits and workers' protections are managed in the grey divide between employment and self-employment.

  • Additional hours through overtime or reduced hours through part-time working. Part-time work helps certain groups remain economically active, for example parents, carers and those with disabilities or health issues. Working hours can also be flexed across the year to meet both business and workforce needs, for example through annual hours, term-time working and so on.
  • Temporary or casual work. This is often used to staff predictable seasonal peaks of work, one off projects or gaps (such as through interim appointments). Newer forms of so-called flexible employment, zero hours contracts and gig working (ie workers accessing work tasks from digital platforms), provide huge flexibility to employers. They have become prevalent in some sectors, and not only in lower skill jobs.
  • Using agency staff or contractors. These can also be an effective way to cover peaks and also to access skills that are in short supply. IT work, for example, has highly developed agency providers. Outsourcing gets someone else to manage the work entirely, which can relieve internal management workload and provide services in areas that are not the core capability of the business. But all these ways of "borrowing" workforce also be expensive, and it is important to look at the cost-benefit of such options for specific workforce groups.

Flexibility in when and where work is performed

Flexibility for employees, but also for employers, can be enabled by shifts in work location or the time at which work is conducted. Work can be moved from traditional workplaces to different locations, perhaps in other countries, rented workplace spaces or people's homes.

Did you know…?

Working at home, at least some of the time, has risen in recent years. For the 12-month period from January to December 2019, of the 32.6 million people in employment, around 1.7 million people (5.1%) reported working mainly from home, with around 4.0 million (12.2%) working from home at some point in the week prior to the interview. Meanwhile, 8.7 million people say they have worked from home and 2.9 million people work either in the same grounds or buildings as their home or use home as a base (ONS survey). After the lock down of normal workplaces in spring 2020, will both employers and employees favour a higher proportion of work time at home, where jobs can be done effectively this way?

The time at which work is done can also flex, for example through traditional models like shift work or more recent ones, like core working hours with a more flexible overall working day.

These types of flexibility can bring access to shortage skills and different labour markets as, for example, when hi-tech work is conducted for UK employers but by staff working in Asia.

Planning for functional flexibility through work design, skills and deployment

The UK has been somewhat preoccupied with achieving numerical workforce flexibility and cost reduction by using alternative employment patterns.

This may have taken attention away from a second set of strategies that plan to increase what can be called functional flexibility, that is the ability to meet new work needs through existing employees.

In times of uncertainty it can be quicker, cheaper and more socially responsible to systematically err on the side of employment strategies and practices that make the workforce more flexible in tackling new work challenges.

This can include the following:

  • Moving away from work defined as a series of static posts, each with its own detailed and restrictive job description, towards more adaptive and generic role profiles. These need to be matched by a workforce able and confident to deal with a rather wider range of tasks and flex over time in the balance between them.
  • Taking bolder steps to redesign work so that previously separate jobs are bolted together. This has happened in much of manufacturing, especially in the multi-skilling of maintenance work. It has also been achieved in customer-facing roles in both private and public services, where more highly trained staff can deal with a much wider range of queries. Making jobs broader can cost more in some ways, as more training is needed and multi-skilled workers are often better paid. But money is saved in unnecessary work duplication, the cost of supervision and the management time taken moving people from one narrow job to another. The business can also take advantage of new opportunities much more quickly. It is likely, although hard to prove conclusively, that the work enrichment that generic roles and multi-skilling bring make the organisation more attractive to join and to stay in.
  • Recruiting a more diverse workforce, which goes hand in hand with functional flexibility - drawing on wider talent pools in terms of age, background and educational paths. Recruitment also shifts slightly to look at an individual's potential and attitudes, especially their willingness to learn, not just whether they tick all the boxes of a job's current skill needs.
  • Utilising flexible internal labour markets, which give employees opportunities for more varied work, and keep employees change ready and confident about their ability to tackle new work tasks. Job rotation, for example, can increase learning confidence and grow more multi-skilled teams.

Did you know…?

Leaders who are confident in their own ability to deal with change, manage planned change effectively and support others through change, can show that flexibility is understood and valued. Effective change management is not always as high on the agenda as it should be when selecting, promoting or rewarding leaders at all levels.

Functional flexibility needs to be supported by a leadership culture that pays more attention to the continuous employee development and coaching. It also helps to involve employees in change management, keeping them in touch with changing business needs. Employees are then not surprised when they are asked to adjust to new requirements.

Planning for the future

Workforce planning needs to address flexibility head on and plan in the changes in patterns of employment, work design and talent management (recruitment, training, deployment and careers) that make an organisation better able to respond to uncertainty. Remember, flexibility does not just happen all by itself!

It seems likely that when organisations reflect on their responses to coronavirus, those that already had in place resourcing approaches and a culture supportive of functional as well as numerical flexibility, will have coped better. If the forms of flexibility they use benefit employees as well as the business, they will also be in a better position psychologically to tackle whatever comes next.