Planning for a future-ready workforce

Workplace trends can be easy to track through popular phrases and jargon - “the war for talent”, “the future of work”, the “gig economy” and now, “the great resignation.”

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In the same way it took time for the dust to settle on whether or not robots were going to take over our jobs or the anxiety associated with whether you should have a “side hustle,” it’s impossible to predict whether we will all be left with a great chasm in our workforces once the pandemic winds down. 

"58 per cent of business leaders perceive strategic workforce planning (which is deeply reliant on workforce analytics) to be more important since the beginning of the pandemic.” – Gartner ReimagineHR Employee Survey

What we do know is the impact of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come. Businesses large and small have found it a cause for reflection on how they might improve their ability to anticipate and be better placed to respond to a crisis or other sorts of significant disruption.

For large businesses like ANZ, the usefulness of scenario planning and complex forecasting models as a means to “anticipate” - that is to improve planning and make better decisions - has been known for decades.

The pandemic has punctuated just how important these capabilities can be across business from the frontline staff, finance, risk to IT. However, it’s also essential for human resources functions.

Research by Wharton University found 70 per cent of senior executives now think workforce analytics (underpinned by the use of modelling) is a top priority. This is backed up by research from Gartner which found 58 per cent of business leaders perceive strategic workforce planning (which is deeply reliant on workforce analytics) to be more important since the beginning of the pandemic.

This is likely a realisation or reinforcement that workforce strategies need to adjust as quickly as business strategies in response to the external environment. Moreover, workforce strategies should be a tightly coupled subset of business strategies.

At ANZ, it’s imperative for the bank to understand what workforce it needs over a three- to five-year strategic time horizon, as well as planning to realise it. However, the strategic time horizon could be much shorter depending on the nature, materiality and velocity of the strategic change.

Traditional approaches to strategic workplace planning (SWP) tend to recite the adage the “right skills at the right time in the right place”. Modern SWP is perhaps more holistic than that and addresses questions like what sort of capabilities will our workforce need at different stages of our strategy execution? How will roles evolve? How many people will we need? What locations will they work in? How much will the workforce cost? How will our workforce composition reflect the customers we serve? For these reasons SWP practices increasingly resonate with finance, corporate strategy and even customer experience teams, helping solve their challenges too.

One of the hardest working and most important ingredients of SWP is its use of modelling and forecasting techniques to detect risks in gaps between supply and demand of labour.

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Lessons learnt

Effective SWP teams are a broad church. It can be a multi-disciplinary practice benefiting from people with backgrounds in analytics, data engineering, strategy, human resources business partnering, finance and organisational development.

Building SWP muscle takes time. It’s a bit like going to the gym, you can’t expect to bench press 200kg on your first attempt. It takes time and discipline to build up the strength to do it successfully and sustainably. This is true both in terms of those supporting the work and those who require the support.

Those willing to consider using SWP for the first time invariably find the following:

  • Discomfort working with scenarios. This can be met with resistance and a preference to work with only one possible view of the future. Developing comfort with ambiguity is essential to participate well with SWP.
  • Frustration about not being able to move straight into action planning e.g. rushing to develop a learning program for an obviously scarce capability. Moving to action feels like progress but it may be at the expense of the fastest or most efficient gap closing choices.
  • Disbelief of demand modelling projections. The results of demand-based projections are often provocative and can challenge mental models of the future, especially when there has been a practice of relying on intuition or financial models focused on exclusively on costs. Modelling used in SWP does not propose to predict the future, it helps surface possibilities and to understand options.
  • Wanting to only address skills and not roles. While it’s currently a popular trend to think about the ‘future of work’ as focusing on skills instead of roles, both are essential to contemplate in SWP. Making full sense of your workforce requires us to create this meaning in units of labour – in other words through a role. Roles are “skills in context” and enable you take to make full sense of your workforce profile.
  • Gradual adoption of SWP as way of doing business. Smart leaders quickly recognise the benefits of SWP but old habits die hard and it takes time to bake SWP it into business cycles. Be patient with business leaders about moving to this way of working, particularly when planning ‘know how’ has been accumulated and reinforced over many years.

Competitive advantage

Individual SWP initiatives and their outcomes - even within a large organisation like ANZ - are never one and the same. That’s because the nature of a business unit’s long-term objectives, aspirations or challenges are highly contextual and so the SWP approach should adjust accordingly. For example, SWP in ANZ’s Technology division has supported efforts to better understand key roles and capabilities as well as develop modelling tools to improve its capacity to ‘see around corners’. On the other hand, in ANZ’s Australia Retail and Commercial business SWP is helping make sense of how the workforce will need to evolve to support the ongoing digital transformation and the reinvention of customer experience.

The SWP in both divisions helped the bank understand the impacts to workforce supply due to resignations but also the impacts on labour demand due to increasing external cyber threats, asset retirement, introduction of technology new assets, automation and new forms of customer value. The divisions are then enabled to prioritise interventions around their buy, build and borrow strategies, involving talent reskilling, career mobility and talent acquisition strategies. Crucially in both instances the net benefits flow from a more coherent anticipation of capabilities required in the future, which an existing workforce can be mobilised around earlier.

There is no doubting effective SWP is a competitive advantage. Organisations who invest in this capability will be better placed to anticipate their workforce shifts, which in turn leads to better decision making, better employee engagement, improved workforce productivity and overall business resilience.

James McKay is Product Owner, Strategic Workforce Planning and Megan Anderson is Chief Operating Officer, Technology at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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