Strategic workforce planning—anticipating future talent needs and crafting a plan of action to align the workforce to those needs—helps an organization grow organically or even through a merger or reorganization. However, it can be challenging to know the correct path to take to plan for the future, and many companies have no plan in place at all. A Mercer survey of senior business executives found that 63 percent said their company did not have a strategy in place to prepare their workforce for the future.

When it comes to planning for upcoming hiring needs, there are specific actions companies should take to develop a strong pipeline for key roles and help the company find the talent it needs to meet its goals. By anticipating the opportunities and challenges associated with growth, companies can plan for future hiring needs instead of merely reacting to changes in the internal and external environment. Here are eight actions that support the successful development and execution of a workforce planning strategy.

Align with Strategic Business Goals

Business strategy should be the key driver of all workforce planning efforts. With business strategy as a guide, staffing plans become an extension of long-range organizational goals and are more likely to support the longevity and health of the business. After all, a staffing plan aligned to individual agendas or pet projects is likely to be more short-lived than one tied to the strategic objectives of the company. For example, if a key strategic goal is to expand into a new product area, then the strategic workforce plan should include plans for expanding talent and capability in areas that support that specific goal, such as R&D. As the new product moves closer to launch, additional hires can be added to support sales and marketing efforts.

A short-term plan to add staff in a few key areas may extend 12-18 months, but building a long-term talent pipeline takes longer. Just as a company’s core strategy typically extends three or more years into the future, so should the strategic workforce plan and the associated activities that go along with it, such as candidate sourcing, background screening, and onboarding. 

Gain Leadership Buy-In

A strategic workforce plan is only as good as the support it has from company leadership. To prevent workforce planning activities from being seen as a “nice to have” or pet project, it’s important to have senior leadership support. Leadership buy-in encourages others to also lend support and helps to show the organization is serious about a particular initiative or goal. To successfully implement the workforce planning strategy, HR will need to partner with the senior leadership team so they can:

  • Champion the plan across the business.
  • Keep workforce plans on the agenda during company talent management discussions.
  • Show where the workforce plan is being implemented and actively helping the company achieve strategic business objectives.

Establish a Long-Range Timeline

Strategic workforce planning is a multi-stage process that includes sourcing strategies, company branding activities, and many touch points with candidates before they are ultimately hired. Therefore, it’s important to establish a detailed timeline that outlines all the steps and timeframes for key activities. A detailed timeline also helps HR and recruiting teams to know when they’re on track or where certain activities are falling behind. 

When it comes to staffing, time is always of the essence. It can be on your side, but more often than not, there are competing pressures that require you to use time as wisely and efficiently as possible. Therefore, when developing a long-range timeline for workforce planning, it’s important to take into account the timeframes associated with key activities, such as:

  • Securing internal approvals for individual position requisitions
  • Sourcing candidates for newly created functions or roles
  • Completing background checks and references
  • Onboarding new hires and helping them adjust to the company culture

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Analyze the Current Workforce

To understand future hiring needs, it’s necessary to know all aspects of the existing talent currently within the organization, including headcount, turnover levels, and key skills across every function, location, and level of the company. In addition, it makes sense to build a good understanding of existing employees’ aspirations because knowing this can help to determine who among existing staff can help to fill future open positions.

A complete analysis of the current workforce also requires understanding which licenses, certifications, and education employees will require in the future. Acting now to implement the necessary training and screening programs will support the hiring and development of individuals with those qualifications later. Key actions to help build a better understanding of existing talent include:

  • Skills gap analyses
  • Professional license and continuing education verifications
  • Comprehensive talent reviews
  • Employee surveys 

Understand and Overcome Obstacles

There are many obstacles that can slow the development or implementation of a strategic workforce plan. The stakes are high, and failure to execute a solid workforce planning strategy can negatively impact business performance. In one survey, 73 percent of business leaders said they missed business objectives as a result of poor workforce planning.

You can’t eliminate every obstacle, but it is possible to anticipate and address them so they don’t completely derail the strategic workforce planning process. Examples of obstacles to anticipate include:

  • Changes in federal or state hiring laws governing background screening or interviewing protocol—for example, new laws preventing employers from asking about candidate salary history
  • Talent shortages that affect certain kinds of roles or hiring locations
  • Advances in technology that may dramatically change certain roles over time

Consider Alternatives to Full-Time Hires

The rapid pace of change is already impacting how work is performed, and new technology will not only add jobs that don’t currently exist, but it will also eliminate certain tasks and jobs currently being performed. According to research by the World Economic Forum, the expansion of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new positions but also displace 75 million jobs by 2022. 

As a result of changes that will affect the future workforce, it’s important to view workforce planning through the lens of the future. For example, a research function currently performed by three full-time hires might be staffed with two employees and an AI-enabled research platform in three years. Given this possibility, it’s important to think about alternative ways to fill future staffing needs—for example, with talent from the gig economy, part-time employees, or even a technology investment.

Leverage the Right Technology

A comprehensive strategic workforce plan includes every key role across every function, and for large organizations, there can be so many moving parts that it makes sense to leverage available technology to make the planning and implementation process more efficient. Examples of technology that increase the efficiency of staffing and talent management activities include:

  • Talent assessment software that helps the organization evaluate and assess existing staff
  • An applicant tracking system (ATS) that helps to screen and track applicants as they move through the hiring progress
  • Org chart software that helps plan staffing and structure scenarios in real-time
  • Background screening technology that positions background screening as a well-integrated aspect of company hiring

Routinely Evaluate and Revise

Strategic workforce planning is an evolutionary process impacted by a range of changes happening both inside and outside the organization. As new technologies or competitors emerge and the talent landscape changes, it will be important for companies to revise plans as appropriate. For example, when the economy is strong and competition for talent is fierce, tactics related to compensation, benefits, and flexibility may be important to attract talent, but in a downturn, companies may have more success stressing opportunities for job stability and security. In any case, the strategic workforce plan will need to be regularly evaluated for effectiveness and tweaked where necessary to reflect current and future opportunities. 

Plan for Future Needs Today

A strategic workforce plan should look like a collection of well-timed and carefully thought out activities, rather than simply a plan on paper. With the support of company leaders, a solid understanding of existing talent, and a roadmap for tackling the changes and obstacles that may crop up along the way, it’s possible to develop and implement a strategic workforce plan today that will help the organization grow well into the future.

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