Workforce Planning in an Era of Hybrid Work
This article was originally published in the Workplace Intelligence Insider Newsletter on April 24, 2023, featuring a Q/A between ActivTrak CEO Mark Ralls and Dan Schawbel, Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence.
For this week’s Workplace Intelligence Newsletter, I interviewed Mark Ralls, CEO of ActivTrak, a workforce analytics software company that provides productivity insights. Serving over 9000 customers and nearly 550,000 workers, ActivTrak provides leaders and employees the data they need to work together and improve how work gets done. An experienced software executive, Mark has over twenty years of experience building high-performing and scalable organizations. Prior to ActivTrak, he was president and chief operating officer at Invicti Security, an Austin-based cybersecurity firm. He has also held a variety of leadership roles in business strategy and operations at Vista Equity Partners, SolarWinds, Social Solutions Global and Boston Consulting Group.
In our conversation, we discussed workforce planning challenges and shifts, productivity and engagement in a hybrid work environment, and the connection between well-being, productivity, and retention. Mark also shares how to use workforce data and analytics to your advantage regardless of your organizational status.
Read on for Mark’s insights about this important topic. Or watch the full video interview here:
From your perspective, what have been the biggest shifts and challenges when it comes to workforce planning in today’s hybrid workplace?
The rapid growth of hybrid work over the last three years is obviously inseparable from what caused it: the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, whether driven by government mandate or individual choice, companies rapidly shifted to remote or hybrid work for every employee able to do so. This much is obvious.
What is less well understood is the degree to which the pandemic reduced the size of the US labor force, both through early retirements and reduced immigration, and the industry distortions that took place given the shifts in demand that occurred.
Technology and e-commerce businesses experienced unprecedented demand growth and responded with equally unprecedented hiring, while sectors like hospitality and travel saw demand destruction and shrank their workforces. And over the last 12 months those trends have reversed.
This created a challenging environment for employees and employers to navigate the dynamic logistics of hybrid work.
For employees, it has meant learning to balance the demands of work/life in an unstructured environment without the typical guardrails to maintain focus and productivity. For managers, it has involved learning to manage from afar with greater empathy and understanding – of different needs, different goals, different workstyles. It’s a lot easier to “manage by walking around” than to intuit via Slack or Zoom if someone may be struggling.
Building and preserving culture and camaraderie – through better communication and collaboration – are two of the biggest, yet most underrated issues that will have the biggest impact on the long term success of hybrid work.
Based on your 2023 “State of the Workplace” report, how has employee productivity and engagement changed as employees split their time between remote and office working?
Our report is unique in that it reflects the actual behavioral data of employees over the last two years, as opposed to self-reported surveys – which makes it one of the most accurate industry studies of workforce trends and patterns.
When it comes to productivity, we found digital work habits have stabilized. As the seismic shifts of the past few years continue to settle, the long buzzed-about new normal may finally be, simply, normal. We saw this reality reflected in the consistency of employee digital behavior – with employees spending roughly the same amount of time behind the screen in 2022 as in 2021 (7hrs, 24mins/day) – with minor shifts in focus, collaboration and multi-tasking.
Unfortunately, employee well-being continues to be at-risk. While trends show the number of overutilized* employees dropped (-8%) year over year, nearly 30% still face risk of attrition due to ongoing over- and underutilization.
Digital overload is certainly one factor. Employees interacted with 20% more tools, sites and apps this past year, as more organizations threw more technology at the challenges of hybrid work. But as we all know, more isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s disrupting and frustrating.
While the number of employees working on weekends remained small (5%), the length of time they spent working weekends increased (+18 mins). One assumption is they’re shifting more deep work to the weekend when they can focus better with fewer interruptions.
*When an employee is more than % threshold over their productive hours/day goal.
What is the connection between employee well-being, productivity, and retention, and what can leaders do to improve these outcomes right now?
They’re all inextricably connected.
How you define and measure productivity has a significant impact on how you sustain engagement and well-being. Just because someone works longer hours doesn’t mean they’re more productive. In fact, long hours could signal larger issues such as lack of tools or inadequate training. What really matters is how much effort it takes them to achieve their goals (e.g. the inputs that lead to outputs).
Managers need to be able to “see” and understand when employees are at risk of disengagement and burnout – whether that’s because of over- or underutilization – and to intervene with resources and coaching. This is especially hard with hybrid work that may span various schedules and locations.
Adding to that, many employees are afraid to speak up and ask for help – especially in this climate, with the push to return to office. As a result, many continue to spin their wheels until they either give up or burn out. And that’s when you see attrition.
Sustainable productivity – defined correctly and supported appropriately – contributes to better work/life balance and well-being, which ultimately leads to greater employee engagement and retention.
The reality is that people want to contribute, they want to spend their time doing something that matters and makes them feel like they accomplished something valuable that day. The best managers already know and cultivate this; hybrid work is forcing others to learn the hard way.
Can you share some examples of how workforce analytics can help organizations manage their talent more effectively and efficiently?
Digital workplaces are in a constant state of flux, especially now, with hybrid work. This makes it difficult to see and understand how people work.
Workforce analytics help leaders replace costly guesswork with data-informed decisions, providing an unbiased and objective perspective.
The best solutions provide visibility and insights into digital activity across people, processes and technology to reveal patterns and trends about employee work habits. This gives employers the tools to set goals and benchmarks, track progress against results and optimize outcomes for success.
And those benefits cut both ways. Workforce analytics can give leaders a visual snapshot of employee workloads based on short- and long-term historical data to support decisions about headcount planning, workload balancing and resource allocation. They can also help organizations assess the effects of organizational change by conducting before-and-after analyses or A/B tests of different work programs. Workforce analytics can also provide valuable information about teams’ work habits to quickly surface meaningful trends and coaching guidance tailored to their specific needs.
For employees, workforce analytics insights can help individuals self-manage by providing real-time visibility into digital work habits to help them improve their workplace experience and develop critical skills for personal development.
One of our larger global customers with operations in 94 countries said it best, “The biggest benefit we’ve seen [with ActivTrak] is it’s really allowed our managers to take a look at the different business processes and tools we’ve provided our employees and have those conversations in terms of, are you spending time in the right type of tool, are you focused on what’s most beneficial to the company, or are there areas where we can improve? It really opened the line of communications, not only with the managers and the direct employees, but even multiple levels up.”
How can people at all levels of an organization, from the C-suite to managers and individual contributors, use data to improve their job and achieve their goals?
In my personal experience, workforce analytics data helps me be self-aware and make better choices about how I work. I was diagnosed with ADHD in business school and ensuring adequate focus has always been a challenge for me.
It was only when I joined ActivTrak, and obtained access to my own granular activity data, that I gained objective data on how I get work done (or not!) each day. Thanks to my ActivTrak data I was able to identify the top sources of task-switching and distractions and take concrete steps to mitigate them.
Best of all, I could track the results and hold myself accountable. My ActivTrak personal insights dashboard helped me improve my daily focus time by more than 25% each day — allowing me to get more done in less time.
Workforce analytics helps organizations understand how activity across people, processes and technology add up to the full picture of how your business is doing/performing.
A lot of the fear about hybrid work is the fear of the unknown. Workforce analytics give everyone from the C-suite to individual contributors the power to identify and remove barriers to success so they can do their best work.