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PEOPLE matters


More than a numbers game

Terri Morrissey and Dr Richard Plenty consider the challenges of workforce planning in times of crisis.

Airports place a lot of emphasis on planning and designing their physical and infrastructure requirements and invest heavily in ensuring that the physical airport is fit for purpose and delivers an excellent customer experience. But is the same amount of thought and investment put into the design and planning of the human resource required to run it effectively and smoothly? 

Take recruitment as an example. When someone is taken on for an airport job, is much thought given to the fact that they could be with the organisation for the next 20, 30 or even 40 years – or are they taken on simply to fill an immediate vacancy with little attention given to their adaptability, flexibility and longer-term potential? 

Or consider succession planning. How many airports have robust plans in place to ensure people are being developed so that the airport always has cover for key leadership, operational and technical roles and is not over-reliant on a few individuals? 

The fact is that some airports have excellent track records when it comes to strategically planning for their workforces – others not so. And these differences can become even more apparent at a time of crisis when major changes take place in levels of demand and the volumes of airport activity dramatically shift, as has happened during this pandemic. 

In the face of the current crisis, all airports have had to take a hard look at their workforce as passenger numbers dropped dramatically and the future remains uncertain. Who should they keep and who should they let go? There are immediate pressures to reduce costs, but at the same time releasing skilled people – who may be difficult to re-engage when business picks up – is a problem. Airports can’t afford to keep all their staff, but can’t afford to let them go without a great deal of thought. That can be quite a headache when the recovery timeline is unknown and passenger demand uncertain. 

It’s a tricky balancing act which is still playing out in some parts of the world as employees return from government subsidised periods of furlough. 

Those airports which seem to be managing the situation best take a strategic view to workforce planning, following principles such as: 

  • Always keep the future vision in mind when taking any workforce decisions
  • Wherever possible, look for opportunities for new ways of working, For example, flexible hours, short time working or automation possibilities, rather than releasing people 
  • Try to keep core competencies whilst looking for opportunities for multi or reskilling to deal with changing work patterns
  • Treat people as individuals, ensuring they remain connected to the organisation even when working remotely, with ongoing training and support
  • Pay attention to their values when implementing any change, ensuring there are clear criteria and processes which are transparent and well communicated so that a ‘felt fair ’process is maintained 
  • Bear in mind the need for airports to remain ‘employers of choice’ for future generations, reinforcing their connections with schools, colleges and universities 

Workforce planning is not only about taking a longer-term perspective, but about the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. Trust broken in difficult times cannot be easily repaired. The employee experience impacts on retention, engagement and ultimately on customer satisfaction. 

About the authors
Terri Morrissey and Dr Richard Plenty are directors of This Is…, authors of the book Uncertainty Rules? Making Uncertainty Work for You, and deliver ACI World’s Airport Human Resources training. You can contact them at info@thisis.eu  

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