While it is challenging to have strategic business conversations around budget, staffing and headcount while we are working in a time of uncertainty, we still have to be able to plan for our company’s future. HR leaders and our teams are struggling to plan and prepare for either a surge or a shortage of talent, a boom or bust economy, a major election that has a direct impact on federal policies, and the potential for a pandemic second—or even third—wave. How do we do this for the next 12 to 24 months?
Consider that we all have at least six months of crisis response experience and we’ve likely learned a lot. We also have experience in change management. Combine these two factors and we start to see the possibilities for planning for a moving target. Let’s start with one example of agile and flexible crisis planning: H-E-B.
Before the World Health Organization (WHO) upgraded the coronavirus to pandemic status, before the White House and most state governments announced any plans, and before there was a single identified case in Texas, H-E-B—a Texas-based grocery chain—was preparing an emergency response plan it has been refining since 2005. Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness at H-E-B, told Texas Monthly in March about the store’s response to COVID-19. The company swiftly implemented the following: reduced store hours to give employees more time to stock shelves, a pay bump of $2 an hour, purchase limits on in-demand products ranging from beef to toilet paper, crowd control and social distancing procedures, and tapped partners in other industries to haul products to its stores to avoid shortages. All of this happened weeks before other large supermarket chains implemented similar measures.
How were they able to do this so quickly? Planning. H-E-B established a crisis response team in 2005 to plan for various scenarios from natural disasters to health crises. Because the company had an emergency response team in place, they also had an opportunity to test it in 2009 when the San Antonio suburb of Cibolo became the first place in Texas with confirmed cases of H1N1, commonly known as swine flu. According to Texas Monthly: The emergency management division studied how the Chinese government had responded in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak and projected how social distancing measures such as metering customer entry and erecting plexiglass partitions might be implemented. Members of the supply-chain team focused on keeping products in stock. The personnel department studied how Chinese retailers were managing a workforce that was getting sick. The product team looked to Europe for insight into changes in consumer behavior as customers began self-isolating. Within a couple weeks of the tabletop exercise, H-E-B had a plan.
This is what workforce planning looks like in an ongoing public health and economic crisis: Key members of HR and your company’s executive team mapping out multiple scenarios and multiple solutions using a predictive model. It’s essential to be able to work with data that guide these different situations and scenarios, and data is where you begin. The imperative for HR leaders is to identify where and what the impact will be for your organization’s talent and skill needs.
If X is your company’s current economic outcome and Y is what it is expected to be one year from now, having a baseline dataset to move up and down these axes allows you to plan for an endless number of scenarios, from ramping up hiring to reorganization to layoffs, whether you create flexible staffing with contractors or plan for a more static model, or as the skills you may need to hire for change.
As we can see in the H-E-B example, this planning model means that it is critical for all business partners to be agile and flexible. Pivoting from expected scenario B to scenario F based on changes in the talent marketplace requires a swift response from all company leaders so that you and your team can act on the response to the specific scenario. Your company leaders should be empowered and, in turn, empower HR leadership to move quickly as forecasts change.
The challenge for HR leaders is to respond and move from a static to an agile planning approach, one that can continually reshape the workforce to incorporate changes in business and skill needs through the pandemic and beyond.
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