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The Use of Scenario Planning to Develop Workforce Strategies following COVID-19

Workforce safety and productivity challenges. The need for frequent, transparent, and consistent communications. New leadership requirements, including management of remote teams. New compliance requirements triggered by the Family First Coronavirus Response Act. The pandemic has created unprecedented business challenges that arose at a pace that few anticipated. Even those with detailed business continuity plans found that the nature of this event (e.g., shelter-in-place orders, uncertainty of duration, immediate impacts to commercial and industrial client work) stretched plans beyond their design.

As utility leaders take action to address immediate and near-term needs, attention is also needed on longer-term workforce strategies. Examples of key planning questions include:

  • Do policy changes in response to the pandemic reflect “a new normal,” and if so, what adjustments need to be made to policies and programs to make them sustainable in the long-term?
  • Have we stress-tested our workforce plans to respond to compound events (e.g., pandemic, major storm, or cyber-attack)?
  • Are we prepared to support continued operations, including the logistics and policies around sequestration of key personnel, if necessary?
  • Do we need to change our strategies around flexible work arrangements in order to attract top talent?
  • Does an increase in available workers provide opportunities to shore up weakness?
  • How do we best structure/size our workforce to respond quickly to increases or decreases in customer-driven work?
  • Should we assess our use of temporary, part-time, and full-time employees and contractors to balance flexibility (e.g., gig economy workers) with traditional full-time hires? How do we ensure our workforce and theirs remain safe as we bring temporary workers on site?
  • What will employees’ expectations be under this “new normal”? What do we need to consider as it relates to the work environment, work conditions, technology, and flexible policies?

Answering these questions can be daunting, but using a structured approach can help. Scenario planning is a tool that is often used to develop corporate strategies under a variety of potential futures. This approach can be adapted to focus on planning for important aspects of workforce strategy.

The five steps to scenario-based workforce strategy are:

1. Develop key strategic drivers that will impact workforce strategy.

Identify the key factors driving strategy that could potentially affect your workforce as part of the “new normal.” These factors might include:

  • Economic conditions
  • Technology requirements
  • Regulatory requirements
  • Employee expectations (e.g., safety of work conditions; flexibility to work from home—“we’ve done it for months”)
  • Significant events (e.g., pandemic re-emergence, major storm, cyber-attack)

As an example, let’s evaluate a potential strategic driver for this new normal: employee expectations (e.g., workplace safety, remote work policies and programs, time off policies).

2. Create end points for each of the strategic drivers.

For each strategic factor, determine and describe the two ends of the spectrum for future situations—the least risky outcome (e.g., workforce needs remain the same) and the most extreme outcome (e.g., most significant changes require a full reboot of workforce strategy).

Continuing with our example of employee expectations, let’s now define the two end points:

  1. Status quo – little or no change in employee expectations in the work environment; existing policies and programs are adequate.
  2. Extreme measures required for ensuring employees feel safe and productive and to meet employee needs (e.g., top talent expects protocols and policies around workplace safety, work schedules to allow for distancing, flexible work from home options, and robust technologies to support remote work).

3. Create a set of future scenarios to model.

Looking across the strategic drivers and the potential spectrum of outcomes, establish a set of future scenarios that might emerge in the new normal environment. Usually, these potential scenarios will fall somewhere along the spectrum of future situations. As a group exercise, you may even “vote” on where along the spectrum your future is likely to be (e.g., leaning toward the lowest-risk end, leaning toward the extreme end, or perhaps, somewhere in the middle). Scenarios may reflect the worst-case, but less likely future for a particular driver, or they may represent a more likely, but less impactful future. In more advanced-planning exercises, scenarios are built across multiple drivers, but for initial planning, we recommend that teams focus on scenarios that are impacted by a single driver.

In our example, a particular scenario might be one where employees’ expectations are at the upper end of the spectrum. Unions and individual employees and applicants are expecting changes to the work environment, flexible work policies, aggressive monitoring of employee wellness, and increased workplace sanitation standards.

4. Identify strategies, programs, and policy changes.

In this step, create strategies that would address each of the issues, challenges, or opportunities presented for each scenario. In developing these strategies, consider “no regrets” actions that will benefit any scenario.

For our example, strategies might include creating a tiered remote work policy that provides varying levels of flexibility when external events dictate or creating a crowd-sourced tracker of employee wellness that would alert management when employee concerns about workplace safety are escalating. A no regrets action may be enhancing work tools and technology that will be beneficial in either a low-risk or extreme scenario.

5. Identify trigger events for each potential future that signal the described future is imminent.

These triggers will serve as the “canary in the coal mine” that the strategies or policy changes identified for that future should be implemented.

Our example scenario might have trigger events, such as a rise in employee complaints or grievances, an increase in employee regrettable departures (e.g., looking for better conditions/more flexibility), or candidate feedback around workplace policies from recruiting events.

This structured approach works well as a group session attended by leaders representing delivery operations, generation, workforce planning, and HR business partners. By focusing on possible scenarios, participants anticipate the challenges, opportunities, and business decisions that accompany each potential future and document actions that mitigate negative impacts or take advantage of opportunities.

COVID-19 has tested the preparedness of utilities and, in some cases, created renewed awareness of the value of workforce strategy. By adapting proven scenario planning techniques to focus on workforce needs, utilities can improve their ability to respond quickly and confidently to future events.

ScottMadden has guided many leaders through this strategic planning process, and we can help you and your team think through workforce strategies and other challenges presented by COVID-19. We are all working through this one day at a time. Let us know if we can help you!

About ScottMadden’s Energy Practice

We know energy from the ground up. Since 1983, we have served as energy consultants for hundreds of utilities, large and small, including all of the top 20. We focus on Transmission & Distribution, the Grid Edge, Generation, Energy Markets, Rates & Regulation, Enterprise Sustainability, and Corporate Services. Our broad, deep utility expertise is not theoretical—it is experience based. We have helped our clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize departments and entire companies, and implement myriad initiatives.

About ScottMadden, Inc.

ScottMadden is the management consulting firm that does what it takes to get it done right. We consult in two main areas—Energy and Corporate & Shared Services. We deliver a broad array of consulting services ranging from strategic planning through implementation across many industries, business units, and functions. To learn more, visit | Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn.

About the Authors

Kim Davenport is a partner with ScottMadden and John Gray is a director.

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