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Planning for COVID: What have we learned from our first response?

Published on 11 August 2021

Planning for COVID: What have we learned from our first response?

When we hosted this series of free webinars, in the first lockdown, we asked participants when they thought we would be free of the cursed lockdowns and get back to some form of normality. Most expected that the summer would see the back of the lockdowns, some said September, others even possibly October (to a chorus of boos and cries of ‘never!’). Absolutely no-one guessed that we’d still be in lockdown well into 2021.

So what did we learn? As David Preece argues, in the next article, homeworking seems to work for people. It’s not for everyone, but for some it has been a godsend. A hybrid workforce can find the best approach for each individual, but only if it is introduced and organised in the right way. Also, we know that we need to revisit our business continuity plans, to put more focus on wellbeing, as we explore elsewhere in this chapter. But what does it all mean for the resource planners? Is it an opportunity? A curse? Something of both?

How will planning for wellbeing change?

Talking to members about how our perception of planning for wellbeing will change, as a result of the pandemic, a number of things beccome clear. Firstly “the way we plan for flexibility will change … with work life balance becoming more prominent when scheduling”, suggests Brooke Holloway, from the planning team at Capita Local Government. A regular participant in our webinars, she believes that flexibility will become the main key for all colleagues when creating shift patterns and rotations. We might even see the idea of a pattern or rotation become less frequent. “Wellbeing is now something that a Resource Planning team can’t ignore” says Daniel Lowrie, Planning Manager at NE Ambulance Service, “with corporate wellbeing strategies more the accepted norm. A lot of the ‘too difficult’ tasks that were holding us back have become the norm through the pandemic. Businesses have continued to operate, proving this can be a successful long-term strategy”. Like many, he thinks of robust home working solutions and flexibility in shift patterns. Not that the transition back to the office and normal social interactions is going to be a smooth ride for everyone. Both planners and operational leaders need to recognise this.

So, how will colleague expectations change over the coming months and years? Some people expect that we’ll see contact centres recruiting people who would not usually be able to work the core shift patterns. Specialist homeworking providers typically recruit from a very distinct profile already and we may see this trend grow. “The genie is out of the bottle now”, says Dan Lowrie, “and any business that tries to force their old operating model without consultation onto their staff is going to find themselves at a competitive disadvantage”. Will options such as annualised hours, split shifts, unpopular shift times be more popular choices for hybrid workers?

Forecasting with no data

Another webinar topic that proved very popular was how to forecast when our historic data is no longer appropriate, because patterns or opening hours have changed, or when we are setting up a service that is entirely new. This highlights the importance of planners becoming much more highly skilled in the area of data analysis. Of course, great analysts know how to balance what the numbers say with human judgement. We also have to beware of the unconscious bias that can creep into human judgement. For this reason, every planner or analyst should look to build a portfolio of techniques they can use to validate assumptions and build in judgement.

There can be a tendency for people to rush into action at once, wanting immediate results. However, unless we have our problem and goal clearly defined, there is a real risk that the actions that we take will fail to lead us to the desired solution. Good techniques for preventing these kinds of problems are Scenario Analysis for strategic or budget planning (see chapter 1) and the Pre-Mortem approach (see box) for any kind of new situation we face. You want to discuss all possible approaches and the barriers that could derail your plans in the future. Think about what could go wrong and how you could fail to deliver. Then, prioritise the solutions to each of these issues to make sure that you do not fall victim to all the traps that you have outlined.

The pandemic timeline

Looking back over the last year, it’s good to remember what has happened in our operation and take the right learning for the future. A simple timeline is a useful tool. Do this while it’s still fresh in your mind; hindsight creates terrible bias! In this chapter we have brought together different member stories for this purpose, those in the articles that follow and some examples here from different sectors. At LNER, Chris Wilkinson looked back one-year-on to January 2020, when the story began for them, well ahead of lockdown. There was no risk assessment for many key factors: air conditioning, disinfecting surfaces etc. It didn’t exist and that was the first step. Then a series of emergency timetable changes, going in stages into the national lockdown in March. They had to change catering supplies, manage journeys for people stranded. Were there enough people to operate each one from a H&S perspective? “We found we had homeless people and other vulnerable people on our trains during that period as they felt it was a safe place to be”. So much learned about resilience and agile response!

Logistics and delivery firms were also hugely impacted but in a different way. At Brakes, one of the UK’s largest food providers, Mike Ellis talks about the challenge of predicting the behaviour of tens of thousands of customers that each have their own individual circumstances, constantly changing. Add onto that challenges like Brexit border control and switching overnight from servicing hospitality to servicing supermarkets. “Perhaps our crowning achievement was the joint venture with Bedford to distribute food packages to the vulnerable … millions of boxes delivered every week on time, feeding the nation. We feel really proud to have done that.”

Hybrid working: what can we expect?

Certainly, we’ve been impressed at The Forum to see how quickly most planning teams responded, offering support and shifts designed to help people cope, whilst still trying to match or better the high levels of service to customers. For a while, customers seem to understand and can be patient, but surely this is starting to change as the pandemic extends. How many organisations still have a message on hold that talks about this “exceptional circumstance of COVID”? From a planning perspective is it really exceptional or unexpected more than 12 months down the line?

Looking to the future, we asked Alex Bowman-Clarke, one of our Associate Consultants at The Forum, about the potential benefits and pitfalls of a hybrid workforce. “As the pandemic goes on, we see more creative solutions to this question” he considers. “People are sharing workloads, splitting their time between offices, homes and everywhere in between. For everyone desperate to get back in a room with their team is someone else grateful to be able to work in private at their own speed”. Personal choice is key. So, will a happy workforce mean less attrition and better satisfaction scores?

Changing workforce management technology

So how will workforce management (WFM) systems change to support us in offering increasing levels of flexibility and to support employee wellbeing? “With the flexible site and hours worked through the pandemic, WFM tools should now be expected to easily incorporate these requests from individuals”, argues Dan Lowrie. With social distancing seen by many as likely for the foreseeable future, on-site capacity may be at a premium for a long time and we need solutions to let individuals book desk space themselves, with the same rule-based automation that we see in annual leave booking. At Domestic & General, Adam Morrison has seen that functionality added to their Real Time Automation system, during the pandemic, as an agile response by their supplier QStory. 

Members are now looking for support on different scheduling approaches, as we explore later in this chapter. ‘Pull scheduling’ let’s colleagues pick, from available options, when they are happiest to work. Micro scheduling looks at tasks within a working day, often used by homeworking specialists like Arise and Sensée. These methods change the traditional approach to shift swap, holiday booking and general absence requests.

Time tracking is also key. One member suggests allowing colleagues to give reasons when they enter a particular state/code (for their time tracking). Enhanced WFM functions have potential to save time and effort from all parties. Look for tools that automate frequent tasks or reduce time spent ‘chasing’.

What will be the new normal or ‘the new different’?

In looking to the future, we will need to distinguishbetween the approaches that are temporary – oracceptable only because we are in a pandemic – andthose that we want to be building into our operatingmodels or contingency plans going forwards. At thesame time, hybrid working and the pandemic are notthe only changes shaping our future operating models. The impact of technology is massive, as we explore in Chapter 4. This is impacting both the opportunities for customers and the working rhythms and approaches for our own people. AI and BOTs will triage more and more contacts, with technology providers continuing to push the envelope in terms of what’s possible, and this will change the mix of skills, roles and how we allocate or blend work operationally.

This article was first published in the 2021 Best Practice Guide - Unlocking Opportunities: You are the Key

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

Author: Alison Conaghan

Published Date: 27th April 2021

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Author: Leanne McNamee

Categories: Library, Planning & Resourcing

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