Space & Move Management

Headcount planning for a distributed workforce

Brina Martens
March 1st, 2022

Headcount planning for a distributed workforce can be a complex process without the right tools and technology.

Hybrid businesses now have to accurately assess and predict their staffing needs across many physical locations. Whereas headcount planning traditionally only involved workers in the traditional office, companies today need to predict not only what types of staff they need in the future, but where and how those staff will be able to work, too. 

In the following article, we explore headcount planning. We also look at how it can help create a better distributed workforce for a more functional hybrid office.  

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What is headcount planning?

Headcount planning is the critical process of assessing:

  • Your current business needs
  • Anticipated goals and future needs
  • Your current employees and their existing skill sets
  • What skills you require from your people now 
  • What skills you’ll need in the future
  • The staffing positions required to meet those skills

In other words, this isn’t simply counting your current workforce. Headcount planning is what workplace leaders use to ensure they have the right people for the right jobs, both for their current and forecasted situations. 

This includes understanding any existing skills gaps, along with the right number of trained people necessary for the existing and planned organizational structure.

The headcount planning process is sometimes called ‘org charting.’

The term is also sometimes synonymous with ‘workforce planning.’ Although, as we’ll cover below, headcount planning is just one component of the workforce planning process.

And the term is sometimes confused with succession planning. This is the plan of action used to pass on skills and knowledge to develop a company’s next generation of leaders.   

How does headcount planning fit into facility planning?

Remember, headcount planning is about accurately assessing whether your people have the skills and resources to meet both your current and future needs. 

As such, it’s a critical component of facility planning, the systematic approach to using data to understand and optimize your real estate portfolio and related resources. When done properly, it can lead to better space utilization, as well as ensuring greater adaptability and efficiency overall. 

Similar to the three basic elements of space management, headcount planning for a dispersed workforce requires effective planning, effective implementation, and effective tracking. Given the talent retention, attrition, and acquisition issues surrounding the Great Resignation, it has never been more important. 

It has also never been so complex, given our new normal future of remote working and hybrid work. 

That’s because, as we’ll explore in this article, a distributed workforce makes certain elements of headcount planning more challenging, while also demanding more from the process. 

What is the difference between headcount and staff size?

Headcount and staff size are essentially the same thing in human resources: a basic counting of your people.  

Headcount planning, on the other hand, is more focused on the positions themselves. This is rather than a focus on the people who fill any particular role. It’s about both understanding the skills and abilities required of your existing positions, and imagining what they might look like in the future. 

This in turn helps ensure that the workforce can be an integral part of overarching growth plans. 

What is the purpose of headcount planning?

The main goal of headcount planning is the same as most other strategic planning initiatives: future proofing the office 

Given our increasingly competitive work environment and labor market, along with the challenges of managing a hybrid workforce while also maximizing employee experience and promoting health and wellness, it’s never been more important to understand the big picture when it comes to building out your team. 

Ultimately, companies should commit to an on-going and systematic headcount planning process. This will better prepare them for future challenges, which are certain to arise. 

distributed workforce

What is a dispersed workforce?

A dispersed workforce is one spread out over multiple locations, which may or may not include shared office space.

This can look like satellite offices, co-working spaces, and working from home or on the road.

It can also look like a fully dispersed workforce—i.e.. one made of entirely remote workers—which used to be mostly associated with start-ups and tech companies. 

Thanks to COVID-19 and the near overnight pivot to hybrid work across so many industries, distributed teams have now become the norm for companies ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 enterprises We’re well past the stage of debating the advantages and disadvantages of a distributed workforce. Instead, we’re focusing on how to optimize the working experience for all team members.

Now that we can expect an overwhelmingly hybrid workplace experience for the foreseeable future, companies will need to think critically about not only what skills they need from their workers, but also where employees can best perform these skills. 

Headcount planning for a dispersed workforce must include an assessment of where and how different skill sets will be needed and/or best optimized. 

Managing distributed work

Managing employees spread out across different time zones and widely varying office environments is a challenge for businesses, especially for HR, IT, and facility management (FM) teams. As such it typically requires good collaboration in the workplace between these departments, as well as any other stakeholders.

Managing a distributed workforce means asking tough questions, such as:

  • Do our remote workers have the same access to people and resources as workers who are regularly in the office? 
  • Can we still have impromptu team meetings at the drop of a hat?
  • How can we reimagine team building to connect our far flung people? 

Companies need to address all of these issues. At the same time, they must also help all employees achieve a positive work-life balance and productive workday, no matter where they’re logging their hours.

Good hybrid working tools like flexible seating, video conferencing apps like Zoom or Google Hangouts, and collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams can help improve work, wherever it’s done. Especially when these tools exist within a team’s existing Integrated Workplace Management System (IWMS). 

So much of work today happens online or over shared desks, so that all employees need access to a digital experience that will easily move with them from space to space. A more collaborative workspace is therefore both a product of and a requirement for a good digital workspace

Finally, the most important element to managing distributed work might simply be mindset. 

With distributed work, there’s no longer one centralized ‘home base’ that unites employees and allows employers to literally ‘see’ if they’re working. 

Employees therefore need to feel connected to an office they may never go to, or that might not even exist. Connection and collaboration will need to flow from shared purpose, not from shared space. 

Trusting employees

Meanwhile, employers have to trust employees to ‘do the work,’ even when they’re not face-to-face.

“If you lead from a trust-first perspective, people will do the right thing,” says Angie Earlywine, Director in the Total Workplace division of Global Occupier Services at Cushman & Wakefield. She highlights the fact that productivity has soared during the pandemic as more companies have embraced the hybrid workplace experience

In other words, people can and should be trusted to work outside an office where they’re continually monitored. As long, of course, as they have resources and a company culture that supports them.  

strategic workplace planning

Strategic workplace planning for a hybrid workforce

Headcount planning is a critical component of strategic workforce planning, where companies work to ensure they have not only the right positions, but also the right office technology and workplace strategy to meet their goals. 

Again not surprising, hybrid and distributed working further complicates this. 

A pre-pandemic survey of HR leaders found that 60% reported the need to improve their workforce planning capabilities.

But only 37% of human resource executives are very confident about HR’s ability to move forward with workforce transformation. 

That’s why HR teams and FMs specifically should work together to pool resources and align hiring plans and goals with occupancy data, utilization data, employee experience, and other data points.

This may mean creating floor plans to accommodate any number of emerging hybrid workplace models

It may also mean adopting easily adaptable work environment types. The right work environment type can grow with an increasingly diverse and remote team, such as:

The reasons for this type of granular workplace and headcount planning are wide ranging. But it boils down to future proofing the office, as discussed, while also ensuring productivity and cost savings.

In particular, when companies are able to predict and optimize the right mix of remote workers, they can usually reduce office density.

Given the outsized costs typically associated with corporate real estate, this often leads to a more affordable office. Not just a more productive one. 

planning using data

Using data to meet business goals

Headcount planning is likely to fail because of two reasons: lack of attention, or lack of data. 

Business leaders and project managers need to prioritize processes like headcount planning if they want to meet their company goals. 

They also need access to key workplace analytics to make headcount planning viable.  It’s critical to always have real-time data and the right metrics at hand. It’s informed forecasting that is most likely to make a difference. 

With a hybrid workplace and distributed workforce, it’s even more important to use data in the planning process in order to make insightful decisions on space and staff

This means using reports and analytics that provide meaningful reports about how the hybrid workplace is being used. 

It means using space management best practices to improve space utilization and streamline wayfinding.  

And it means using tools like stack planning, scenario planning, and portfolio reports to create better plans for the future.    

floorplan roadmap

The roadmap to a better employee experience

The future of work is one in which both human capital and improving the employee experience will be increasingly important. 

When you accurately assess your staffing requirements and adjust as needed for remote work, you can ensure that you have the right number of people for the job—while also ensuring those people have the skills needed to maintain workflow and a positive working environment. 

Client Story

Learn how Syneos Health safely managed key locations throughout the pandemic

OfficeSpace provides tools for better headcount planning and managing a distributed workforce. Reach out for a free demo.

Photos: Thirdman, Julia M Cameron, Kampus Production,