Workforce Planning in uncertain times

Preparing for the impacts of COVID-19 on your shift-based workforce

We’re seeing some big changes as a result of society’s response to COVID-19 and it’s almost certain we haven’t seen the full impact yet.

Some businesses (like supermarkets) have seen demand spike to volumes that are difficult to keep up with. Others are considering at least partial shutdowns to stay profitable. Some businesses are seeing a mix of both; e.g. retailers or hospitality groups with locations that are quiet in the CBD but normal or flat-out in the suburbs.

You’re undoubtedly already thinking about these things, but for what it’s worth here are a few suggestions for managing labour demand, rostering, and the overall employee experience during this period of uncertainty.


Labour demand forecasting

No forecasts are going to have high certainty at a time like this, but we have a few tips to help you make well-educated decisions.

  • Consider multiple forecast scenarios to really understand your thresholds. The impact will look different for every business, but for the sake of an example let’s consider a retail store that is impacted negatively by COVID-19 in the table below:
Mild Impact High Impact Very High Impact
New growth rate (usually 5%) 2% for 3 months 1% for 3 months 0% for 6 months
Temporary demand decline 20% for 3 months 25% for 4 months 30% for 6 months

In your calculations you should be able to experiment with both the impact value (example 2%) and duration (example 6 months). Test your current cash-flow resilience with the worst-case scenarios to understand how urgent mitigation planning is. If you have a B2B business model you may also have a row for permanent churn where you aim to forecast % of business that will no longer be able to purchase your products or services, as many small businesses are at risk right now.

  • Consider buffer time for surprises because things are not BAU; there may be extra work required for setting up remote options, sanitisation activities, etc. It’s very likely that your workforce will be less productive than usual.
  • As a head office you should be as clear as possible on who has final decision-making ability. It is likely that your head office will have a stronger analysis capability than individual locations due to having data across all locations, but it’s also likely that your managers have more anecdotal information about the reality of the situation. If your workforce management software has this functionality, now is an excellent time to use the ‘recommended headcount’ feature (image below), where head office can provide recommended headcount based on forecasts, but allow managers to make final rostering decisions, and then debrief together once the actual data comes through.

Once you’ve gained a general understanding of demand scenarios and potential implications you can work on improving accuracy by taking a more granular approach using cohort analysis. For example, aim to break down your client base into segments so that you can take a more thoughtful approach for each group. For a retailer, this may mean looking at how customer behaviour differs based on store location. For B2B services, you may look at how different industries are being impacted by the pandemic.



Once you have a better understanding of your demand (and revenue), you can make decisions about building your rosters. Now is the time to get creative and explore options that may be different from your norm.

  • If demand looks different across your customer groups you may want to consider redistribution of labour. This may require you to announce new temporary travel policies or launch micro-training to catch employees up on new types of work. In some cases, this may involve giving head office employees the opportunity to work on the frontline. However, if your work requires in-person interaction with customers or fellow employees you will need to take extra precautions around minimising the number of people they interact with, and ensuring they have extra procedures around sanitisation. I’ve noticed my local coffee shop no longer handles cash and only accepts cards for customers to tap themselves.
  • Roster in groups so that you have the same small clusters of people working together. This way, if one person becomes contagious they won’t spread it to your full employee base. We are seeing this in corporate functions with work-from-home (WFH) rotations in staff groups, and in hospitality by having the same staff working together in daily rotations.
  • Provide a feedback channel so that you can get qualitative insights from your managers on how well demand, health, and engagement are being handled. Head office can combine this with any qualitative insights and respond quickly.

To reiterate, it’s extremely likely that your rostering process for the next few months (at least) will look very different from your usual process, and that’s okay. Pandemics are unusual.


Employee experience

The reality is that a lot of businesses will have to cut costs, including work hours, as revenue drops and cash flow becomes high risk. It will also be a stressful time as employees adjust to new ways of working while likely worrying about family members and cancelled events and what will be left at the supermarket after work. However, there’s a lot that businesses can do to make this time more manageable, including a few tips below.

  • The big topic, of course, is reduced hours. You’ll have an idea of the magnitude and urgency of your situation from the Demand Forecasting stage and it’s very possible that you’ll have to take action soon. One option that we’re seeing work well is to offer reduced hours before making redundancies. For example, allow employees to opt-in to 80% of their contracted hours for a fixed period of time, like three months. You will likely have greater uptake if your leadership team takes on this option, if it comes with an extra perk such as timing or location flexibility, and if everyone knows that the goal is to avoid more drastic options. It’s also helpful for employees to see that the business is making cost reductions in other areas such as hiring & travel freezes and eliminating marketing and events for the short-term. While it’s clearly helpful for the employee experience to avoid redundancies, it also makes business sense. We don’t know for sure when this pandemic will end, but it is likely that there will eventually be an end, and business will eventually continue as normal. When that time comes it can be costly and time consuming to rebuild a workforce, especially if you’ve damaged your employer brand or work in an industry with a labour shortage.
  • Build in processes and policies that make sense in this new environment. We’ve seen businesses creating a new type of leave for COVID-19 so that employees can have paid sick/isolation leave and the business can get data on volumes. We’ve seen some speedy work-from-home policies being pulled together (with great examples to get inspiration from online), and user-guides for setting up cloud-based software and virtual teamwork processes. It’s also a great time to simply remind employees of existing policies, such as wellness budgets or counselling services.
  • Finally, err on the side of over-communication. At Ento I’ve been receiving company-wide announcements almost daily and I appreciate every single one. If you’re going to share any ‘bad news’, such as deleted shifts, communicate before taking action. You can also enable employees to share their experiences and stories about these changes, as it’s a very fascinating time. We can still (virtually) come together and share our WFH tips and pictures, take screenshots of ‘Brady Bunch’ family conference calls, and share photos of weird meals assembled from whatever is left on supermarket shelves. While this is a serious and difficult time, a lot of us will get lonely, and humour and team bonding will be important for getting through this in a healthy way.

Ento’s Growth team stand-up, featuring Iain’s cat

That’s the summary, for now! I’m sure this will be a learning experience for all of us and I’d love to hear more about how other businesses are adjusting. I’m hoping you all stay healthy and connected during these uncertain times. Reach out if you’d like to (virtually) discuss your workforce planning, as I’m already going a little WFH restless and could use a good chat.


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