How to Plan Your Future Workforce

Build digital services teams that put people first.

Rachel Greenspan

5 min

July 14, 2021

The future of government is digital. Governments face hard problems that need high performing teams to maximize value delivered to citizens. But how do you build a quality team?

The outdated approach to the problem

Governments are often prescriptive when proposing solutions to hard problems. Traditionally, when a problem needs fixing, organizations hire for specific skill sets rather than for grit––the ability to learn, adapt, and think critically. The focus is very much on granular skills and specific tech stacks and tools, especially when it comes to technical roles.

When it comes to highly technical roles, hiring for specific skillsets is limiting: it assumes we already know the answer to a problem and simply need a person with the appropriate skills to execute it. What’s often more effective is building a team with a diverse and adaptive skillset that can look at that problem critically from various perspectives, assess a number of possible options, and then recommend the right solution.

"I think we need to move from a more process-based approach to a more consultative approach,” says Saurabh Surendra, Program Manager for Strategic Workforce Planning at the US Department of Homeland Security, “where we're advising our leadership on how to adapt the workforce for what they're trying to do." (via Public Sector Network)

In practice, this means that organizations benefit from team members who bring diverse skills and experience from previous roles in different disciplines.

Build teams for the long term

Today we know that roles change over time and institutions should be thinking long-term when building teams. Button works collaboratively with government to modernize their operating model, prioritize user experience, and de-risk major IT projects.

Team members that have "learned to learn" pay dividends far into the future. It’s important to maintain institutional assets that empower teams to learn, develop, and share new skills and knowledge. This also builds a strong culture of curiosity and brings diversity of experience to solving problems.

A long-term approach requires a culture that encourages growth and change. It means knowing that part of identifying and filling talent gaps in your team is about adaptability, retraining, and lifelong learning—not about predicting the future. It’s about building strong, evidence-based solutions that put citizen experience first and maximize return on investment.

This approach benefits from a global perspective: how to we harness the most qualified talent?

One solution: cast a wider net. Remote work was growing in priority before world events accelerated its adoption. While adapting to remote and asynchronous work brings challenges, it also creates opportunities, says Tracy Beckford, Senior Manager of Workforce Planning and Talent Management for the Ontario Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. “Now you're not just looking in your own backyard. For people who before didn't have the opportunity to work in your central hub, the barriers are now gone. It’s an opportunity to expand our talent pool and look at the workforce differently." (via Public Sector Network)

Chart a path to leadership

Ideally, a leadership team should reflect the larger workforce.

It's important to establish diverse pathways to leadership for every member of your team. You can start by using available data to map the paths of different roles to leadership positions. Then you can build mobility and resourcing into your culture, allowing team members to move fluidly between roles, gaining varied knowledge and experience that sets them up for leadership positions down the road.

Nurturing the talent you already have is particularly valuable for smaller organizations, says Visha Dukdeo, Executive Director of Human Resources (HR) for the City of Oshawa. “When you’re not a big player in the talent market, you have to be focused on internal opportunities and investing in your staff.” (via Public Sector Network)

Integrate Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) and inclusive practices to ensure your hiring practices don’t marginalize quality candidates.

Ask yourself tough questions.

  • Are you able to go back through the years and follow the pathways that people took to leadership roles?
  • What gaps and opportunities can you find?
  • Are you missing groups of people in your leadership team?

By answering these questions, you can start creating a more diverse and representative leadership team and a stronger organization.

Move from operational to strategic workforce planning

In the 1960s, workforce planning was driven by management surveys and management by objectives. In the 1990s, the trend of CFOs who also played a role in HR brought increases in management metrics and cost analysis. Human Resources was still more of a back-office function, not a business driver. The focus was on numeric outcomes.

Today’s organizations are transitioning to people-first workforce planning, linking organizational objectives to direct impact. This requires setting operational objectives and monitoring progress against them. Bringing HR out of the back office requires shared accountability.

"We don't always talk about retention, but it's a key aspect of workforce planning as well,” says Tom Balfour, Director General of HR for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. A large part of workforce planning is not just hiring new team members but nurturing the ones you already have. (via Public Sector Network)

Make room to grow

Learning new skills is important, but company culture often overlooks it.

It's important to understand how people can learn, grow, and thrive, and to empower employees to move both up the ladder and laterally, perhaps by taking on temporary assignments outside their normal scope. It's vital to build in flexibility and create conditions for interesting training opportunities. Sponsor your people to take time to learn new skills and then come back to your workplace—it's a literal investment in your team and talent.

Investments like this have shown strong returns time and time again. 3M encourages its employees to spend 15% of their time working on their own self-driven projects. The most famous result of that is the Post-it Note. Similarly, Google used to have a practice of allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on such projects—Gmail being one notable result. Adopting an innovation mindset fosters a thriving and dynamic workforce. It's valuable to consider long-term investments in lifelong learning that don't necessarily fit with more traditional models of workforce planning.

Training doesn't need to be linear or predictable. Encouraging grit, an agile mindset, and adaptability is the people-first way to continuously develop your team.

Got a problem that requires a high-performing team?

Button builds public sector digital services, delivering reliable, usable, and effective applications that meet the highest standards of approval—on time and within budget.

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