HR Insights
July 1, 2020

The return to work: Workforce management strategies to drive engagement and control costs

Outdated workforce management strategies that worked pre-COVID-19 will not be effective for the return to work. During this critical time, organisations must balance two priorities: empowering the workforce to have greater control of their schedules and work lives while meeting the needs of the business. Here’s what organisations will need to consider to support a positive return to work.

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The return to work will be complicated for organisations across all industries. As governments lift restrictions in some areas and businesses begin to reopen and welcome their people back into the workplace, employers will need to navigate the complexities associated with the return to work. Limiting the spread of the virus, supporting new employee needs, and optimising efficiency and labour spend are all paramount to business continuity and achieving growth and revenue targets.

Prior to COVID-19, many sectors already faced challenges with workforce scheduling and labour spend. For example, only 12% of retail organisations strongly agreed that their company had the capability to properly predict and plan for labour needs. According to Nucleus Research, organisations using manual scheduling processes increased labour costs by 2% to 8% due to unintentional schedule padding prior to COVID-19. Now, with the additional challenge of COVID-19, the complexity of workforce scheduling and labour planning has increased ten-fold. Organisations must adhere to changing laws regarding scheduling, increased overtime among essential workers, meeting government requirements for reopening, and considering employees’ complex schedules – all while keeping costs down.  

Here are several strategies to keep in mind to support a seamless transition back to work.

Workforce management strategies for the return to work

Labour planning and labour spend 

As organisations aim to meet spikes in demand or more aggressively drive sales, there’s a risk of creating unnecessary overtime and overtime costs, particularly when organisations are managing employee time manually or don’t have overall visibility into trends and time worked. Employees can begin to feel the effects of burnout, which can lead to absenteeism. During the return to work, it’s critical to track, manage, and gain greater control over when and where people are working to keep costs down without overloading their workforce and sacrificing customer experience. 

Forecast and better plan for demand: Without accurate labour planning and forecasting, businesses might not have the right people assigned to the right task to complete work efficiently and on time. Employers can use historical data of store demand they experienced pre-COVID-19 to more accurately forecast labour needs as they ramp back up. This will allow managers to align labour with demand instead of guessing how much labour will be needed.

Gain greater control of overtime hours: Organisations can better manage scheduling by tracking employee hours worked to avoid unnecessary overtime. Advanced workforce scheduling technology can auto-schedule your workforce, considering pay rate, hours, tenure, skills, etc. to build the most optimal schedule to help avoid overtime and reduce costs. Having visibility into employee scheduling trends can also help to control overtime costs.

Workforce scheduling

Scheduling employees for the return to work can get complicated. Dysfunctional scheduling practices such as “just-in-time scheduling” or “call-in-shifts” – whereby employers provide tentative schedules and cancel or make last minute changes – has led to unpredictability of work schedules in the past. Today, employees are under even more stress due to income instability, and income instability from poor scheduling practices can further worsen stress levels. In the coming months, many organisations will need to stagger shifts or limit the number of people scheduled to work in a particular location. Hours may also be reduced as part of a phased return to work. Below are considerations to help optimise scheduling practices while supporting the workforce during this time.

Automate scheduling practices: Managers spend a significant amount of time building schedules that balance organisational needs with employee preferences. And today, some employees are trying to balance work life, while others are looking to pick up shifts to pay their bills. Organisations can automate scheduling and refocus time spent on building complex schedules to training and coaching employees and identifying opportunities to improve productivity.

Build in breaks:  Whether paid or unpaid, providing minimum rest periods can help employees avoid burnout from working “clopening” shifts that are too close together. In fact, some scheduling laws require a minimum amount of rest time between shifts. Rest periods are designed to help employees with the effort-recovery process, which is the time needed for rest in between shifts to perform effectively.

Provide self-service scheduling: Relying on manual or paper-based systems is common for many businesses, which can often cause roadblocks and frustration for both employers and their employees. On the employer side, it hinders their ability to optimise scheduling, and from an employee’s perspective, they lack visibility and communication of their schedules which can lead to several challenges such as disengagement and absenteeism. With remote or distributed workforces, it’s even more important now for employees to have convenient access to schedules, the ability to swap shifts, and make time off requests.  

Mobile scheduling helps give employees a sense of control when returning to work post-pandemic. As well, families may be struggling with income, so there will be portions of the workforce looking to pickup shifts to bring in more income. Mobile solutions allow employees greater control of their schedules, while also reducing workload for managers to fill spots from reduced headcount should employees fall ill or tend to their children.

Stay on top of scheduling and payroll compliance: Organisations will need to adapt to shifts in scheduling demand as governments lift restrictions in different areas. In the coming months, regional laws on store capacities will continue to change. As well, some regions are seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases for which organisations will need to stay on top of evolving directives. Technology can help simplify scheduling processes by alerting managers when, for example, too many employees have been scheduled to work at a given time.

Employers will also need to stay on top of payroll compliance. Legislation changes rapidly – especially for organisations operating across regions and borders. Employers can use technology to implement applicable changes in various regions to reduce risk exposure.

Read more about how the retail industry can prepare for the future of work

Task management

As employees reenter the workplace, there will likely be distractions, such as coworkers reuniting. Even the adjustment to a new environment after being off work or working remotely can impact time-to-productivity.

Identify business critical tasks: Organisations must identify which tasks are critical to the continued operations of the business and should be prioritised. Task management technology can help identify and put extra focus on these essential tasks so employees can accomplish critical work in a timely manner.

Increase productivity: Organisations will also need to ensure employees with the needed skills are doing the right tasks at the right times for maximum productivity. For example, rolling out new merchandising displays, auditing inventory, and setting up promotional campaigns.

Tying task management into labour planning and scheduling will ensure employers have the right number of hours allocated to tasks that need to be completed, while skilled employees are scheduled to perform the right job. Better managing certain tasks will also help managers understand where there’s opportunity for improved efficiency.

Absence management

Throughout the last several months, employees have experienced higher levels of stress. They’re worried about finances, the state of the economy, the health and well-being of family members, and much more. Government lockdowns, income instability, and remote work has only heightened stress levels over the last months.

Track absences in real-time: Despite efforts to support the workforce with holistic benefits offerings, there will likely still be unplanned absences. Managers can track absences in real-time to respond more immediately to any issues. The insights from real-time data also help managers have more informed conversations with employees that will help address and improve their performance.

Proactively planning for absences and leveraging technology to identify potential patterns in absences will help managers address short-term scheduling challenges as well as uncover underlying issues such as burnout or disengagement.

Empowering employees to have greater control over their work life

The pandemic has created a new workplace reality. Organisations that are able to thrive in this new world of work are effective at empowering their people with greater control of their work life while also optimising schedules and labour planning. These organisations understand the interrelatedness of these two priorities.

While workforce scheduling and labour planning are top of mind for organisations looking to reopen and ramp back up, it’s just one part of an effective return to work plan. Taking a more holistic approach to workforce management strategies will help organisations get up to speed faster, support employee health and well-being, while driving engagement and productivity – a win for both the workforce and the business.

Learn how Danone North America is managing their workforce during the pandemic  

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