Future-Focused Workforce Forecasting

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every industry, in every corner of the world. Yet this universal impact also brings a time of stark contrast. In the hospitality industry, for example, many hotels shuttered their doors amid global travel restrictions, and the ones that remained open have largely struggled to attract travelers; in early May, nearly 7 out of 10 hotel rooms sat empty in the U.S., according to STR. At the same time, other industries like retail have had the opposite dilemma, struggling to meet surging consumer demand. Amazon reportedly hired more than 100,000 new employees in the first four weeks of widespread U.S. shutdowns alone.

Despite the discrepancies, every organization must rapidly adapt its business strategy for a new set of customer, operational, and societal realities. What are the assets at your disposal, and how can you rethink them to address a new set of imperatives?

Your most critical asset is the workforce. To operationalize a reimagined business model, you first need to consider how you'll adapt or evolve elements of your workforce, applying an intentional focus on workforce planning and forecasting. Workforce planning and forecasting are all about setting business strategy and determining the people, skills, and capabilities required to deliver on that business strategy. It involves looking at skill needs and the mix within an organization today (e.g., full-time, part-time, variable contractors, and gig workers) versus the talent needed and available to secure from the marketplace.

What are the considerations that can help leaders better align workforce planning efforts to a new business strategy?

Skillsets. Business leaders cite "employee skillsets" as the most critical factor in informing their workforce strategies,1 and it’s critically important to recognize the implications of any strategic changes from a skills perspective. The first step is to understand the current skills and skill levels of your employees—and what they might be capable of outside their existing roles with reskilling or upskilling. Analyze whether you need to buy, build, or borrow those skills—and this may be determined by how much time you have to adapt. This isn’t an easy undertaking; leaders across industries say alternative employment models are the most challenging factor to consider in designing their workforce strategy.2

HR strategic enablement. In organizations today, HR (67 percent) and strategic planning (67 percent) play the most substantial role in designing strategies that impact the workforce,3 underscoring HR’s ownership in crafting the future of work. In aligning workforce planning to a new strategy, your HR team needs to serve business units strategically. The function must understand the enabling role of emerging technologies (e.g., automation and artificial intelligence) in talent strategy, and see around the corner to predict the skills your organization is going to need in the future.

Operational changes. Operations have changed permanently (e.g., more customers coming in for pick-up versus making an in-store purchase), and these changes require that you examine job architectures. How many unique roles do you need? What kind of roles are they, and how many employees are needed within each? For example, pharmaceutical sales representatives can no longer talk to buyers in hospitals, fundamentally altering sales operations. Companies in the industry must think through how the responsibilities, performance criteria, and role scope should evolve to best enable sales in the virtual setting.

Take a long-term view

While the current crisis has precipitated urgent needs, it nevertheless presents an even more compelling opportunity to think ahead. How can your company embrace a longer-term, visionary perspective in how it approaches workforce planning and forecasting?

  1. Prioritize vision. First, start at the top of the organization. Does your C-suite champion a strategic vision, or are they solely focused on the business’ immediate needs? While business leaders may struggle to forecast beyond a week in volatile, uncertain times, they’ll also need to look ahead. Workforce planning efforts are moot if you don’t have the ability to see into the future and respond accordingly. Identify and nurture the critical workforce capabilities essential to your longer-term strategic aspirations.
  2. Perfect re-hiring efforts. If you reduced your workforce, incorporate a forward-thinking perspective when you hire back. Use this time to make changes that you may have considered in the past, revisiting the success profiles of roles and how you can better equip employees to deliver on a new set of imperatives. With the pandemic serving as a sobering reminder that the pace of disruption is accelerating, focus on hiring for learning agility. Revamp talent acquisition strategies and role descriptions to position your organization for success in the new normal. You may be able to combine roles, or even elevate roles to be more strategic to address the emerging imperatives of a redefined market.
  3. Invest in technology. Identify opportunities to optimize your current workforce based on the flexibility created by technology and digital infrastructure. In the future, if you have shortages, you may be able to improve access to talent by tapping into employees in new geographies—a capability made possible by our new world of universal remote work. Digital talent platforms, for example, give companies instant visibility and access to a range of employees worldwide.
  4. Upskill and reskill. Finally, assess upskilling and reskilling opportunities in the context of your current workforce. You may find that you have an opportunity to reimagine reskilling efforts with a focus on building talent from within. For example, if you determine you need more data scientists, are there other roles, such as a marketing analyst, that you could upskill into this position? Today’s staffing plans were based on projections made in a world that looked quite different than today. This reality makes it imperative for leaders to understand future labor needs, reskilling and upskilling possibilities, and implications for talent. 

COVID-19 has redefined the marketplace overnight, and organizations must rapidly pioneer reimagined business strategies with no tried-and-true solutions. Finding those solutions starts with your workforce. By approaching workforce planning and forecasting with a future-forward perspective—one that thoughtfully considers skillsets, HR’s strategic role, and operational impact—business leaders will maximize the value of their workforce as a defining asset.

1,2,3 In March 2020, we surveyed > 200 business leaders from organizations across industries with revenues > $1 billion and that are headquartered in the U.S. or U.K. Survey questions aimed to identify key trends driving change in workforce complexity, level of investment in employee experience (EX), and sources of value in workforce strategy. 

Research note: Our research was conducted at the beginning of the COVID-19 global lockdown period (March 17-25, 2020). While we believe perspectives and attitudes have evolved since the time of our study (e.g., due to financial headwinds and the unforeseen demands of enterprise-wide remote work), the findings offer insight into the universal workforce trends and challenges further amplified by the impacts of the pandemic.