So what even is "workforce strategy"?

One of the things that people often shyly mention to me is they’re not really clear on workforce strategy is.

This is perhaps not surprising given it’s often apparent that there isn’t a very solid understanding of what strategy is in the first place. I don’t say that meanly; I mention it because it’s a fundamental definition needed to ensure your workforce will deliver what you need (quite apart from your business being successful).

Strategy is often confused with innovation. Sitting on interview panels, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say “I don’t think they’re strategic enough” despite the fact the person has just delivered a robust framework to get from A-B. Innovation may well be part of a strategy, but equally, it may not be. Nor is it a plan, however it is perhaps, a system rooted in planning - a 'way' if you will.

There are key components to strategy:

- What are you trying to achieve?

- What value will be created?

- What will you need to be really good at to realise that value?

- How will you deliver that value?

- What will be needed to make it profitable (or in the case of NFPs, not lose money)?

- What makes you better at doing that thing than your competitors?

Workforce strategy takes your answers to these questions and puts a people lens over the top. In reality, there are several interlinked mini-strategies (learning and development, recruitment, staff engagement, remuneration, workforce planning). Still, they should fundamentally be answering the question “how do we harness people power deliver on the answer to question 1?”

There isn’t a ‘right’ people strategy that you can pull off the shelf; ‘I can’t tell you how many people look at organisations and like Google (massive turnover, turned out all the pool tables and slides in the world don’t make up for swallowing up people’s personal lives) or Atlassian (all the money in the world) and want to emulate them off a bootstrap NFP or health budget. There are some fundamentals to workforce strategy that are simple, add huge value, and ensure financial success. As you go through the above questions, a workforce lens considers things like:

- Understanding the industrial relations laws that apply to your operations. For example, what are your options for rostering vs what do you need to deliver? How can you optimise those structures to deliver services to your clients when, where and how you need to? What tools do you have at your disposal to achieve that? (your EBA, individual flexibility agreements, reviewing your selection criteria to expand your candidate pool.)

- Looking at how you can build capability cost-effectively. Often organisations in this sector have limited L&D budgets that are eaten up by mandatory training. This means it can be hard to provide opportunities to really build expertise beyond a basic level of functionality. In reality, there will be some genuine in-house expertise you have access to; how can you harness that? Perhaps through structured buddy systems, internal communities of practice, training sessions by internal subject matter experts (are they crap at standing in front of a room? Get them to host a day in the life of’ sessions one on one or in small groups, write articles or host question and answer sessions), or opportunities to be seconded to other parts of the business.

- Think critically about your hiring practices. How much do you have available to spend on a role? Are you just replacing like for like ‘because’? Could you use that salary in something that is going to deliver more value? Will the role add a burden (this is a great book on the rise of bullshit jobs)? Do you keep just hiring the same people? Do you only have x amount to spend and know it won’t get you all the skills you want? If so, what would give you the most bang for those dollars? For example, a skilled specialist may cost less than a skilled generalist. Or would a greener but ambitious generalist be a better use of that money? Do you need someone on the payroll or could having someone highly skilled dip in and out be a better use of those dollars.

- Think about your current state – who do you have in the business, what are their skills? Are there people who would be better placed elsewhere? People who shouldn’t be there? Underutilised people? Do you need to add new capabilities to your staffing cohort to get where you’re going? What role does technology potentially plan in this? What elements of your culture might help or harm your objectives?

The factors you consider and the questions you ask will depend on your answers to the questions at the start of this article, but you get the gist. A workforce strategy isn’t just an L&D framework or a roster; it’s an integrated approach to thinking about how you’re going to deliver on your broader organisational strategy. Often the strategy is great, but is debunked through the people part not being thought through; how to address the need for new skill sets, finding that industrial laws don’t allow you to operate in the way you want to, or not being able to afford the skills you need. It takes time, but the pay off can be significant.

In researching this article, I found this great piece in the Harvard Business Review on why strategy (in general) fails at the point of execution. It’s a great expansion on this topic. It explores how to avoid the very human reasons execution fails (inconsistent delivery across teams, lack of agility, communication not equating to understanding and so on).