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Workforce planning and managing during uncertainty

Edition: 6

This article is written by Deputy Secretary Cindy Briscoe from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.

Workforce planning is not a new concept. However, as with most HR functions, 2020 has cast renewed interest and enthusiasm in the pursuit of understanding and planning for the workforce needs of an organisation.

Like many others, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has faced many uncertainties and challenges in 2020 managing our work, and unsurprisingly this includes our most important resource, our people.

We all know robust workforce planning ensures a workforce is agile and able to meet changing priorities and demands. It relies on the right mix of skills, capabilities, and employment types in the right locations, managed within budget. Focusing on the number of employees alone does not tell us about our organisation’s ability to achieve its organisational goals and outcomes. It only tells us part of the complex story.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment story is as complex and diverse as they come. We provide policy advice and research, and act as custodians of the environment. We regulate market and facilitate trade. We protect the health of humans and the environment, and ensure the safe movement of people, food and other goods into and around Australia. We ensure the protection and sustainable management of our environment, water resources and our unique heritage. Our work looks after the lives and livelihoods of Australians.

Our people are in cities, regional towns and remote parts of the country. We are located in 166 geographic locations across Australia (182 buildings), 4 external territories covering Antarctica, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Island and Norfolk Island, and 13 other countries around the world.

COVID-19 impacts to workforce planning

In response to COVID-19 we rethought our operational policies right across the business—from biosecurity and trade to the environment. We needed to continue to do our important work but in new and innovative ways.

The department was able to move quickly in response to the Prime Minister’s Direction on 27 March 2020 to facilitate the deployment of APS employees to better meet the exceptional challenge posed by COVID-19 to Australia. We reviewed our most critical functions and work that could be slowed or paused for a short time, to identify non-critical employees for redeployment. However, due to being a newly-formed organisation this required some manual intervention from our workforce planning team and the business to determine which of their roles were critical. That’s right – we did a position-by-position assessment, assessing close to 7,000 lines within a few days.

We provided 422 employees to the APS Workforce Management Taskforce for consideration for redeployment to support the APS in delivering essential services. Almost 470 biosecurity officers have been redeployed (internally and externally) due to reduced international air traveller movement.

To date, 138 department employees have redeployed to support a range of APS agencies including Services Australia, Austrade, Prime Minister and Cabinet – National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, Department of Health, and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

Through this we have achieved a better understanding of our system capabilities and are developing a capability planning framework to better support us to identify and mobilise the right capabilities, at the right time.

Mobilising capability, both internal and external, presents an excellent opportunity to upskill and build capability within our existing workforce. We will continue to explore ways to leverage these skills and capabilities to enable greater flexibility within the workforce.

Skills, capabilities and risks

The department is also developing a strategic workforce plan and is exploring the capabilities we will need in the short and medium term. We have supplemented our strategic 4-year horizon assessment with short term (12-18 month) tactical workforce plans that have supported areas to identify business risks in their governance reporting (divisional business planning).

COVID-19 required us to rethink our approach to performing our roles. Yet the impacts on our borders due to COVID-19 have not reduced the priority we place on managing biosecurity risk and ensuring our pest and disease status remains intact.

Several teams in the department have been working together to test innovative ways to manage our biosecurity risks, including a trial of Smartglasses technology to test the concept of remote inspection and audit applicability. These types of trials and innovation projects help us to redefine how we use our eyes on the ground to enable us to work differently and more efficiently. They also help address some of our pressing challenges, such as the growing spread of pest and diseases.

We’ve also learnt a lot about our ability to surge to matters of national significance and the effectiveness of the approaches we have taken. Having an effective surge reserve relies on knowing the capabilities you have and where they are at a point in time.

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, the department was responding to the devastating impacts of the black summer bushfires. The department is the largest employer of veterinarians in the country and we were called on to redeploy our staff to support the assessment and treatment of injured livestock and wildlife. We relied on our HR system data to identify staff with veterinary qualifications and supplementary information from our business areas to verify our data for any gaps.

Our experiences and system capabilities have provided us with a blueprint for how we can best increase our effectiveness in capturing, identifying and reporting on our capabilities.

We have also been using our ability to participate in surge activities to consider how we might extend this to mobility opportunities both internally and across the APS. We are exploring these possibilities, beginning by examining the behavioural drivers that influence participation in and utilisation of registers to increase engagement and access by interested staff and business areas alike.

Going forward – learning from COVID-19 and embracing change

The way we have planned and managed our workforce during the response to COVID-19 has challenged us but it has also provided a testing ground, a canvas for innovation and a burning platform for change. We see opportunities in a number of areas going forward.

Workforce attraction: Our remote technologies will allow us to utilise a broader workforce and our less-traditional ways of working will attract a more diverse field of applicants. We have already had great success in undertaking entirely virtual recruitment processes for both small and large-scale activities with strong candidates and numbers, positive engagement and feedback from interviewees and panel members.

Flexibility in location: Prior to COVID-19 the department had been challenging norms related to traditional places and spaces of working. COVID-19 enabled us to explore this further and provided us with a great test platform, challenging our preconceived ideas about where our offices need to be located when we have reliable and accessible technology available.

New technologies, skills, and capabilities: COVID-19 pushed us from flexible work as an option, to it being our only response. People have embraced technology to collaborate but also to explore new and different ways of delivering services. We must be diligent in not retreating into previous customs and habits that will lessen the progress we have made.

Technology will continue to improve and we will need responsive and adaptive skills to keep pace with the change. The department had been operationalising the use of drones in the workplace from 2012. We continue to explore other operational areas where drone technology could be deployed to manage increasingly-complex pest and disease profiles and environmental impacts, while complying with changing drone operation rules and regulations.

Trust and connection with citizens: The APS demonstrated this year, on the largest scale we have seen for some time, its role in serving Australians. We effectively and quickly redirected our resources to where Australians needed it the most, challenging stigmas of being siloed, unresponsive and disconnected from the realities being experienced by citizens.

Another step towards building trust and connection with citizens was the Prime Minister’s decision to freeze APS employee wage increases. This was to share the burden being felt by those who had lost their jobs or had their incomes impacted by COVID-19, and to commence what will be the long journey towards economic recovery.

Reflection for HR professionals

In my years of experience across several Commonwealth departments, successful workforce planning functions have a couple of things in common: an understanding of the business needs, and an understanding of the emerging trends in the labour market. We now need to add to that, the ability to identify and seize opportunities created by being able to work anywhere, anytime, with anyone, in new ways.

Through the COVID-19 response, the HR team have been front and centre in guiding the department through workforce changes. They bring together the workforce planning skills and a connection with all the important elements that impact our people: WHS, industrial relations, recruitment, integrity, learning and development, and more. Success in doing this comes from the added ability to engage with the business at all levels and encouraging areas to be open to new ways of operating, new technologies and new people-related policies.

We are currently exploring how we can leverage and transfer skills from displaced labour markets, particularly those impacted by COVID-19 and those in more disadvantaged areas. For example, women in hospitality and aged care and in remote and rural locations. Exploring how we increase the representation of workers in these categories and localities will require new approaches to building pipelines of talent and generating interest in APS careers. We will need to rethink how we attract talent, such as partnering with schools, tertiary institutions, and community organisations.

Workforce planning will need to play a key role in supporting agencies with their digital, innovation and data transformation agendas through contemporary capability frameworks and inclusion strategies that align closely to strategic recruitment, procurement and learning and development opportunities. Finally, the other critical element of successful workforce planning is supporting business areas to shift mindsets about traditional ways of working and where possible, using behavioural analysis and user-centred design to deliver emerging needs of government and citizens.

Last reviewed: 
17 November 2020