It’s no secret that organisations are increasingly taking a more strategic approach to workforce planning, and the power of big data analytics means that HR leaders can now benefit from gaining a bird’s eye view of both internal and external talent, which can be hugely beneficial. However, at a time when HR decisions are increasingly based on big-data, we mustn’t forget the value of human analysis.

The BBC’s former reality TV show, Back to the Floor – where top bosses of big brands went undercover as new employees at their organisations to find out what’s happening on the ground – may have been entertainment, but CEOs always left with valuable insight into their firms.

Since the show first aired over two decades ago, the explosion of technology means that leaders now, in theory, have access to information which is far more comprehensive than a week spent on-site can offer. However, even in the digital age, the concept of hands-on research to improve talent management strategies is still worth exploring.   

Often, the best way to determine the reasons behind a fall in engagement and productivity – or to begin developing a strategic workforce plan – is by getting back to basics and shadowing individual team members for a day.

In my experience, employees usually respond incredibly well to being offered the opportunity to share what’s happening on the ground – and by digging deep into a workforce rather than taking a helicopter view, it’s easy to spot the root cause of HR challenges. For example, a bad workplace layout, problems accessing supplies, temperamental technology or senior managers not pulling their weight.       

And in the healthcare sector in particular – which is contending with talent shortages, disengagement and wellbeing issues – this type of hands-on consultancy means that problems can be spotted before they escalate into mass-resignations.

By getting closer to day to day operations, strategists can identify areas of concern or which require improvement or change. By reviewing a ‘day in the life’ of key members of staff, organisations can find out first-hand each individual’s roles and responsibilities including how much time is spent on the ward and carrying out administration. This approach clearly identifies and highlights non value-adding activities and has a direct link to patient outcomes.

We recently worked with a leading mental healthcare charity which has over 900 patients, including some of the most complex and challenging mental health needs in the UK, after the Care Quality Commission requested that it put in place evidence-based planning for ward staff. As part of a wider ‘diagnostic’ consultancy project, we undertook a ‘day in the life’ type analysis of the workforce, the results of which were used to inform future strategy.

Ultimately, we were able to have a positive impact on patient outcomes through the redistribution of staff, reducing the impact of smoking breaks and improving medication consistency and nutrition frequency. This, in turn, improved staff engagement, provided a safer working environment and reduced agency usage by 25%.

Yes, machines enable HR leaders to access a level of workforce analytics which would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago. But this data should be used in conjunction with qualitative, real-world insights to gain a three-dimensional perspective of what’s really happening behind the scenes.

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