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What is workforce planning, and why is it important?

Workforce planning is a strategic alignment of business goals with people strategy. It involves reducing labor costs, responding to changing customer needs, identifying strategies for people development, targeting inefficiencies, improving employee retention, productivity, and work-life balance, and delivering strategic value through talent.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

workforce planning

Table of contents:

What is workforce planning?

Workforce planning is the people side of planning, but some businesses skip it, thinking that people will just appear when needed. Workforce planning aligns core business goals with people strategy. It makes no sense to plan on a new product launch next year without thinking about R&D, supply chain, and sales staff.

Workforce planning is the tool you use to ensure that alignment.

What is involved in workforce planning?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) identifies the critical points of workforce planning as follows.

  1. Reduce labor costs in favor of workforce deployment and flexibility
  2. Identify and respond to changing customer needs
  3. Identify relevant strategies for focused people development
  4. Target inefficiencies
  5. Improve employee retention
  6. Improve productivity and quality outputs
  7. Improve employees’ work-life balance
  8. Make recommendations to deliver strategic value through talent

This article will break down these points and how they apply to your business.

1. Reduce labor costs in favor of workforce deployment and flexibility

Labor is often the highest cost for businesses outside of manufacturing. Some estimates put labor costs at 60% and even 70% of expenses. With these costs, planning to reduce costs while increasing flexibility is critical to continued success.

This isn’t advocating for low-balling employees or providing rotten benefits for employees. It’s about getting the right people in the correct positions. An engaged, competent, happy employee will cost less than an unhappy, unqualified employee. Remember, turnover is expensive as well.

2. Identify and respond to changing customer needs

The classic case study of a company that didn’t respond to customer needs is Kodak. As the king of film, Kodak had digital technology early but decided to focus on film, thinking digital was a fad. It wasn’t, and the company struggled for survival, dropping from a peak of 145,000 employees to 5,000 as of August 2020.

Human resources departments need to be a bit of a fortune-teller to accurately predict workforce needs. Because SHRM doesn’t issue crystal balls, HR needs to work closely with each department to help predict needs and create plans for meeting these. Open communication between HR and each department is critical.

3. Identify relevant strategies for focused people development

The very premise of workforce planning is that business changes, and because business changes, people need to change. Figuring out talent gaps and plans to fill those gaps is a core function of workforce planning.

People development needs to happen before the need exists. Remember, you can go out and search for the “unicorn” candidate to fill a need immediately, but it’s often more manageable if you plan and develop an employee to take care of that specialty skill gap – if you do it right. This can mean training classes, graduate programs, or stretch assignments.

4. Target inefficiencies

If you’ve ever heard “we’ve always done it that way” as an explanation, then you know that the business has inefficiencies that can be rooted out. Good HR will ask; “What should we stop doing?” as well as “What should we do?”. You can find inefficiencies in all areas of the business.

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5. Improve employee retention

Turnover is expensive – not only does it take time and money to find, interview, and onboard a new employee, training them can take months. Good HR focuses on retaining employees who have potential. (You shouldn’t retain just to retain – if someone is a toxic employee, giving them more technical skills won’t eliminate their toxicity.) Creating career paths within the company can be an excellent workforce planning tool to aid employee retention.

6. Improve productivity and quality outputs

While managers need to figure out how to improve productivity and quality, HR can provide support. For instance, are there policies and procedures that can increase productivity and quality? What support do employees get for reaching their goals? When HR takes a look at the workforce, they can spot problems that decrease productivity. For instance, an employee who bullies their coworkers can destroy productivity in a department.

HR needs to plan to find, coach, or remove such employees, as well as helping managers find better ways to do things.

7. Improve employees’ work-life balance

Employees are at the center of workforce planning – without employees, all plans are worthless. You can increase your productivity by requiring everyone to work 80-hour weeks, but your turnover will shoot through the roof, and your quality will collapse.

Through making sure that employees have sufficient downtime and are supported at work, your workforce will be a lot more stable.

8. Make recommendations to deliver strategic value through talent

Sometimes managers can undervalue employees – they think if they can get someone cheaper, they should. But, good workforce planning demonstrates that you pay for top skills. While we use the word talent often in HR, you really should think about it in terms of skills. What skills do these employees have that can make a difference in your business?

Remember that treating employees right is a lot easier than trying to squeeze value out of people who are exhausted and burnt out.

How to create a workforce plan

This is more than just figuring out who you need to hire. There are many ways to approach this, but here are four critical elements that will make your workforce planning a success.

1. Understand the company’s mission and goals

Workforce planning doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it needs to support the company’s goals. Are you looking to expand across North America? Well, that’s quite different from a company that is content operating out of a single location.

The company’s mission matters as well. What’s the most important thing to the CEO, shareholders, employees, and customers? Make sure you have that answered before you move to step two.

2. Conduct a present gap analysis

This is a systematic method of understanding the gaps in the organization. What is missing? While workforce planning focuses on the people side of the business, keep in mind that a gap analysis looks at all business areas, not just skills and talent.

People aren’t at their best unless they have the equipment, training, and support they need. This is looking at the situation now. Remember all the points above – you need to look for improvement in all these areas.

3. Project for the future

This involves speaking with company leadership and involving every unit in the business. You’re looking for where the growth will be and where the workforce will shrink. You want to determine what skills the company will need in the coming years, not just now.

4. Conduct a future gap analysis

Knowing what you do about the current employment situation and the business’s goals and projected path, put together what the workforce will need and look at your gaps:

  • What do you need to reach these goals?
  • Do you need more employees?
  • What type of training will your current staff need?
  • Can you conduct this training in-house, or do you need people to receive formal training or even degrees?
  • Do you have a formal employee training and development company policy in place?

Make sure you look at external trends as well. In 2019, no one would have guessed the massive shift toward remote work, but now, you’d be remiss not to consider where the workforce will be in the future. Will employees continue to work remotely or will they expect to? If so, is your company prepared to support people in other states? Or do you want to limit hiring to your local area, regardless of where they work?

Of course, there are many more things that you can do to plan for your workforce’s future, but these will get you a solid foundation. And, one last note: remember to be flexible. Plans change, and your workforce planning documents need to flex as the world changes as well.

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