New Workplace Survey, Same Old Question: Is it Half Empty or Half Full?

Survey art from Dreamstime

One thing you’ll find if you read a lot of studies or research on workforce trends is this: the positives or negatives you take away from the study depends a lot on your point of view.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Accenture, the giant global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, released a survey today showing that “more than half of large, downsized U.S. businesses plan to rebuild their workforces to pre-recession levels by 2012.”

Specifically, “more than half (54 percent) of large U.S. businesses that reduced staff in the past 12 months plan to rebuild their workforces to pre-recession levels within two years,” according to the study released by Accenture. The Accenture High Performance Workforce Study “found that among all U.S. companies surveyed, only 13 percent of executives said that they plan to reduce their employee base over the next 12 months.”

Yes, that all sounds good, but the question I have is this: If a little more than half of large U.S. businesses that reduced staff due to the Great Recession plan to add some back in the next two years, doesn’t that indicate that slightly less of these companies DON’T plan to do so?

In other words, if roughly half the large organizations surveyed are hiring back people, the other half aren’t going to do so. Does that mean that this is a positive trend or a negative one? Is the glad half empty or half full?

Accenture is spinning this survey of executives from around the world in the most positive way with the most positive headline possible of course, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. We can all use a little good news about the economy no matter where it comes from.

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But dig a little deeper and you’ll find information from the survey that says:

  • Nearly one-half (47 percent) of executives do not anticipate changing the size of their workforce in the next 12 months.
  • Almost two-thirds (65 percent) have reduced the number of full-time employees in the past 12 months.
  • When asked what criteria they used to determine which employees to let go, the top reason cited by 53 percent of executives was low-performing employees. Following closely behind, 52 percent of executives said they let go of employees whose skills were not critical to the future direction of the business. Only 11 percent said high salaries were the determining factor.
  • Only 14 percent of companies indicated that their workforce is extremely well prepared to adapt to and manage change through periods of economic uncertainty.
  • About three in 10 companies said they either cut back or completely eliminated campus recruiting, recognition programs and incentive compensation in the past 12 months.
  • Only one-fourth of respondents strongly agree that their company has the leadership necessary to help the enterprise navigate periods of economic uncertainty and the leadership development programs to prepare the organization’s future leaders.

All that information tends to make this survey seem more of the glass is “half empty” variety, but you should take a look at it yourself and see what you make of it.

“Companies need to rethink how they equip employees with the skills required to be competitive today,” said David Smith, managing director of the Accenture Talent & Organization Performance practice in a press release accompanying the survey. “They must also consider new strategies for hiring and developing untapped talent currently available in the market.”

He’s right, of course. The big challenge for managers and HR pros everywhere is how they can help workers adjust and improve their skills to be more useful and productive in our ever-changing economy. That’s the big thing I took away from this survey, but if you’re like me, you probably didn’t need more research to tell you that.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.