Workforce Planning: Connecting People and Meaning at Work

Workforce planning

Who do you need to employ now, and in the future? What should they bring to the role? What will they get out of it? And how do you keep them there? These are questions that HR leaders seek to address as part of workforce planning. But they’re also questions that address a much bigger issue: How does workforce planning lead to workforce meaning i.e. why do people come to work, and why do they stay?

What is Workforce Planning?

Like many terms traditionally associated with business strategy, workforce planning is one of those phrases that is used a lot, but not explained very often. The CIPD defines workforce planning as, “a process of analyzing the current workforce, determining future workforce needs, identifying the gap between the present and the future, and implementing solutions so that an organization can accomplish its mission, goals, and strategic plan.”

That’s a real mouthful. In simpler terms, to paraphrase AIHR Analytics’ description, workforce planning is about making sure your company has the right people, with the right skills, doing the right jobs, at the right time to make your business run smoothly.

Why Is Workforce Planning Important?

It’s generally agreed that people are the key element that keeps most companies running, particularly in today’s talent-based economy. But, as the SHRM says, “Despite its importance, this asset is often not carefully planned, measured or optimized. This means that many organizations are not sufficiently aware of the current or future workforce gaps that will limit execution of business strategy.”

As anyone who has ever experienced staff shortages will know, not having the right talent in place causes enormous strain. The professional services and HR consulting firm, Mercer, explains it succinctly: “A weak pipeline or hidden talent issues can shake your organization’s very foundation before anyone has realized there might be a problem.”

However, if organizations are able to look ahead and plan what roles, skills and people will be needed to meet their business goals now, and in the future, they are more likely to thrive. This is often easier said than done, though. It involves a systematic, rigorous and disciplined process combined with a future-looking view of the world, a solid grasp of business strategy and a deep understanding of human talents and capabilities: a strategic, time-consuming and thoughtful process.

More Time for Strategic Workforce Planning


Leave the administrative chaos behind you: Personio automates HR processes and thus creates more time for important HR tasks.

Who Owns Workforce Planning?

Although line managers and the HR team have a role to play in both employing people and helping them stay with the organization, the decision of what the workforce should look like in future is often a mystery revealed only to board-level executives. Since strategic workforce planning is often designed to meet scenarios three-to-five years in the future and must be aligned with business needs and objectives, it requires the knowledge and the time to prepare a plan that looks at future business strategy and includes scenario planning.

This makes workforce planning particularly tough for HR leaders who already wear many hats and are notoriously short on time. Unfortunately, it’s only possible to be truly strategic once HR operations are running smoothly so sometimes finding the time and space to do workforce planning properly means getting the nitty-gritty admin of HR out of the way.

It should not be attempted lightly, but there are tools that can help make workforce planning easier, like this helpful process.

Six Steps to Better Workforce Planning

The National Institutes of Health Office of Human Resources has a helpful toolkit that includes six stages of workforce planning which you can take a look at here but, in essence, these are the steps to take in language that is easy to understand.

Answer these questions, in sequence:

  • Where is your business going?
  • Who is working for you now and what skills do they have?
  • Who and what skills will your business need in future?
  • What are the gaps between what you have and what you need?
  • How are you going to fix the gap?
  • Did it work?

Workforce planning

So, now that you fundamentally understand workforce planning it’s time to take a look at how this relates to what your employees want and need. Mercer puts it this way in their Global Talent Trends Report 2020, “It can’t just be about employee capacity and business unit alignment, it [workforce planning] must recognize employees’ potential and engagement and be intertwined with the company’s technology roadmap.” That’s a big ask. Do you know what your employees want in the first place?

Sadly, the same report which gathered insights from more than 7,300 people from nine industries and 16 geographies says that two in five HR leaders say they don’t know what skills they have in their workforce today! And even if we are able to track the skills that our employees currently have, running a thriving business by matching skills to business needs and pay grades is no longer enough. Successful workforce planning requires a combination of vision, planning, strategy, humanity and empathy.

Workforce Meaning

Why do people come to work? Gone are the days where people simply worked to earn a living. Employees crave meaningful work. When they do work that has a purpose and are ‘energized’ by it, people are more likely to want to come to work, stay in work, and get more value from it. They are also less likely to suffer from depression and other mental health issues. In fact, research shows that “Energized employees are five times more likely to say they are thriving and less likely to burn out (60% compared to 81% of energized employees).”

Actually, great workforce planning can help align what a business does, why they do it, and how their employees can add value with their day-to-day work, when it’s done right. And when it’s clear who to hire, what skills and attributes to look for and whether they’re the right fit or not, it means that the search for workforce meaning can play an important role in workforce planning.

Unfortunately, according to HROToday, “most organizations rarely take the time to get to know people well before they decide if they should hire them or not, and what role is the best fit for their behavioral DNA.” Perhaps this, too, is related to the burdensome nature of the recruitment process?

It may be that if HR leaders are able to remove some of the administrative burden of the recruitment process that they can focus more on hiring the right people that don’t just meet today’s requirements, they are also the right people to support the organization’s future goals.

Hire the Best Candidates

Save candidates’ information and documents centrally, tag their strengths and weaknesses and access feedback collected from the various colleagues involved at any time.

When Workforce Planning and the Meaning of Work Combine

The CIPD says that workforce planning processes, when done right, can reduce labor costs, respond to changing customer needs, improve employee retention and their work-life balance as well as allowing HR to make recommendations about how the business can deliver more strategic value by making best use of their talent.

If that is true then getting and keeping the right people in place isn’t just good business sense, it’s good for people, too. Perhaps the answer lies in getting the right people across all levels of the organization involved: at the level of the individual hiring managers, at a strategic, forward-looking level, and at the level of every hiring decision. And then maybe organisations can create a ‘secret army’ of individuals who can help create business inspiration, drive business momentum and be adaptable enough to shift when business needs change.

As Gina Balarin says in The Secret Army, “The only way to ensure that a helpful, supportive army will step in and carry the weight of the work that needs to be done is to give them a reason to want to come to work every day. Great companies are able to do this – to make people feel like they’re not just a lowly cog in a machine. It not only goes a long way towards gaining their support, it also makes them feel great – because by doing what they do, and doing it well, they help the wheels of their industry turn.”

Are you ready to plan a workforce that doesn’t just do a job, but that takes pride in doing a job meaningfully? Maybe that’s what the ultimate form of workforce planning should take, in an ideal world.