Workforce Management - what looking back reveals about future challenges

by Dr. Jörg Herbers

There are hardly any other central areas in an organization with so many different terms: workforce management, staff scheduling, rostering, employee logistics, shift planning, resource planning, etc.

The variety of understanding as to what this actually means is as varied as the terminology used. The individual opinions are often traditionally, culturally and regionally different and depend on the relevant industry and company size.

But the variety is also an indication that this is an area in which tasks, objectives and tools are surprisingly often not clearly defined within the company. On the whole, the value of workforce management is underestimated, particularly in medium-sized companies. For a long time, it was not deemed necessary to create specific positions for this area. In particular, staff scheduling was performed “on the side” by employees whose main duties were in operational tasks.

The realization in many companies was only gradual: workforce management is a central hub in the company, where many divergent planning aspects come together, which directly affect costs, as well as service levels and employee satisfaction.

The initial focus was on personnel costs

For a long time, the primary scheduling objective was reduced to achieving the most cost-effective staff deployment. Maximum productivity, lowest idle times and minimum staffing costs were the main issues. This moved the main focus to working time demand forecasts and working time flexibility options - both in companies and suppliers of workforce management software.

The companies’ experiences with the numerous working time flexibility options varied, and were strongly influenced by the predictability and extent of working time demand fluctuation. It showed that mastering the growing planning complexity, with increasing working time flexibility, was the most critical success factor. The use of specialized workforce management software was increasingly seen as mandatory.

With suitable software, many companies managed to further reduce staffing costs - thanks to the increasingly flexible assignment of employees and the introduction of more appropriate planning processes. The challenges of workforce management seem to be (finally) solved - so many believed.

However, in many cases, it turned out that an optimization which primarily focuses on costs, was insufficiently differentiated.

Other problems then followed

The spectrum of apparent symptoms ranged from service problems, due to a lack of personnel capacity, which became particularly obvious in the case of unexpected staff shortage or demand changes (usually as a result of an “optimization” that neglected the need for reserve planning), to conflicts when complying with working time rules, to higher fluctuation and sickness rates due to increased physical and mental strain on the employees. This also had a negative impact on the labor market.

It was already apparent in 2014 that in certain sectors and regions in Germany, the labor market demand for shift work had so strongly declined, that the recruitment of qualified staff was an increasingly critical factor for companies. This was especially true for companies with low wages and high demands on employees’ working time flexibility.

Rethinking is essential today

Nowadays, a rethink is taking place more often - certainly not always “voluntarily” but as a result of negative side effects, caused by a one-sided workforce management optimization of costs. In many cases, it is the employees and their representatives who are the driving force when it comes to understanding a current phenomenon: it is undisputed that companies nowadays need more flexible employees than in the past. In turn, flexible employees expect flexible schedules, tailored to their needs.

There are numerous possibilities for involving employees in the schedule design. The mere introduction of some sort of “shift preference procedure” is not enough to solve the problems. On the contrary, a one-sided focus on employee preferences can have fatal consequences, if the working time demands (and thus the service level and staffing costs) are ignored. Instead of increased employee satisfaction, the opposite is achieved.

Rather, the skill is to achieve an individual best balance between the competing interests of the company, the employees, and the customers. In times of ever more rapidly and stronger changing demands, the planning process must also be able to be adapted to this highly dynamic environment, with speed and agility.

Companies that are not well prepared will be in a precarious position in the future.

Demands on the workforce management software of the future

What can be learned from past experiences about the workforce management software of the future?

The requirements will continue to increase. The software should represent the actual planning processes of the company and thereby find the best possible solution while incorporating all target criteria (especially the individual employee needs). Additionally, it should be able to be quickly and simply adapted to the ever more dynamic and agile requirements of the company and its customers.

But one thing will certainly never change: workforce management is and remains different in every company.

And how do you see the future of workforce management in your company?

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About the author

  • Dr.

    Jörg Herbers is CEO at INFORM. He specializes in all topics related to staff planning and optimization.

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