How to Be Agile Through a Volatile Reopening


Plans for an economic reopening are now in the spotlight, but this does not mean businesses will be returning to normal operations anytime soon.

A sharp, V-shaped recovery is not what most economic commentators are predicting. Until a vaccine is found and broadly distributed, social distancing rules will be in flux, supply chains will be vulnerable to disruption, and buying patterns will be unpredictable.

For employers, this means they are entering a situation where they will continually need to reassess who they need, where, and for how long. The planning and headcount tracking processes that run on annual cycles and require weeks just to establish baseline data from the HRIS will not be good enough to handle this situation.

If it takes 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine, as experts expect, this volatile situation is here to stay for the foreseeable future. But with an agile framework for decision-making that is guided by real-time data, organizations can manage the ebb and flow in talent demand and become more resilient with the right people and skills. Here are three ways that the right people data approach can help organizations remain agile in the face of uncertainty:

1. Managing fluctuations in talent demand
Businesses won’t be able to instantly start at 100% capacity, even in places where social distancing measures have been eased. According to Gallup, just 20 percent of Americans would return to normal activities immediately. Manufacturers will be wary of burning through cash to make products that don’t sell, and movie theater operators will not want to play films to empty cinemas.

Not only will the cycling up of economic activity be varied, it won’t happen in a straight line. Businesses need to be prepared to scale back on a moment’s notice when the virus surges again. This is where scenario modeling is key.

You cannot just make one plan, you need to cover the three core perspectives; slow growth, medium growth, and rapid growth. Each business needs to use the available external data, as well as patterns from past economic recoveries, to inform and guide these scenarios. However, human judgement will still be a key factor–we have not had to recover from a pandemic for over 100 years.

How organizations match people to fluctuating demands is not just going to be a strategic challenge–it’s also going to be a weekly and day-to-day challenge. Leaders and managers need the ability to make a decision about staffing, see the effect with data, and then make a new decision. Plans will be constantly disrupted through change in employee behavior either through absence, resistance to certain working conditions, and turnover.

It will be imperative to have a people analytics capability that can support advanced planning and handle immediate priorities. Analytics programs that rely on pre-built, fixed dashboards will fail. They were made to answer the questions that were relevant before the pandemic–not those questions that are now in play. Taking weeks or months to build a new set of dashboards is going to be slow, hard to maintain, and expensive.

The right analytics capability will combine data from multiple people and operational systems so that headcount, people costs, and overall productivity can be analyzed in one place, by many people, in real time.

In the Finance sector, for example, we are seeing leaders use agile analytics capabilities to move people from processing claims to selling new policies. They can move people back and forth based on weekly–even daily–demand.

To drive agile workforce decisions, information needs to be securely shared around the organization to multiple different work groups and people managers. Responding effectively to this next economic phase cannot be done with a few experts in a room producing powerpoints. The organizations that navigate successfully will have the technology and the process to securely share their people and productivity data deeply within their organization.

This graphic shows the projected headcount trend by location
This analysis shows the projected headcount trend by location. Fictional data used.
2. Boosting business resilience
Through this crisis, we are seeing that the most resilient organizations are those with a highly digital business model. For example, Amazon is going through a hiring boom right now.

This is increasing the urgency behind digital transformation efforts. Delayed decisions and uncertain progress have already left organizations behind their competitors. This means organizations will need to quickly answer pressing talent questions that are essential to transformation: Who are the real experts within our organization who can deliver on this vision? How can we form and reform teams to drive results in a more agile way?

Another pressing question is: How hard is it to get the people and capabilities we need?

For example, your new business vision may require experience designers and next-gen machine-learning capabilities–but this kind of talent was in short supply before the pandemic hit, and nothing about the pandemic has reduced the demand levels for people with these talents.

A solid strategy for how you will buy, build, rent or bot the capabilities you need to be successful is paramount. By helping you immediately quantify how many people you need, where and at what cost, the right analytics platform can help you establish how to support your new business model from a talent perspective.

This graphic shows the trendlines of projected revenue by projected units produced
This analysis shows the trendlines of projected revenue by projected units produced in a reduction in force scenario. Fictional data used.
3. Retaining critical talent
It can be tempting to assume that everyone is holding on to their job for dear life right now, particularly when unemployment has hit such an overwhelming high. Visier’s benchmarking data, calculated for the week ending April 12th 2020, shows that the resignation rate for that week was 60% lower than the same week in 2019.

But this doesn’t mean leaders should assume that retention is no longer an important area of focus. Even in the toughest of times, people with in-demand skills always have opportunities. During the dot com bust, for example, there were large numbers of job losses, but also a significant number of people changing jobs.

This is where your initial response to the crisis will either pay you dividends or deepen your pain. If the organization is laying people off, employees—in particular top performers—may be triggered by their sense of business instability and more of them will look for a new employer.

As reported in this Time article from the great recession, people have a tendency to react to their laid-off colleagues’ feelings of gloom and desperation. They either stay and reduce their contribution to the business–or they leave.

There is a way to mitigate the impacts stemming from this well-documented phenomenon, known as “survivor syndrome.” The key is to ensure there is authentic communication to critical groups about how the business is going to be successful going forward.

Good people will stay if they think leadership is competent and if they see a role for themselves that will move their career in the direction that they want. These are the people who will make a difference to your business. They will help you weather the crisis, and more importantly, re-energize your business through the recovery phase.

Fact-based answers is key to survival
If you have enhanced your people analytics capabilities during this crisis, you can build agile plans and increase the scope of decision-making. You will then be in the best position to build the future success of your business around the core group of people who differentiate your results.

Even once the pandemic has passed, businesses will be operating in a permanently altered environment. You can empower leaders with data to support an agile people strategy to always stay ahead. This way, you can position the business for the best future possible.

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