A critical part of publishing has always been projecting the time, cash flow, and workload associated with publication schedules. Historically these tasks have been managed with elaborate spreadsheets. Recently, however, many publishers have been implementing tools like Smartsheet or Adobe’s Workfront, or using scheduling and workflow components built into well-known publishing systems like Klopotek’s STREAM Scheduling and Notification Dashboard.

These process management tools offer many benefits. They can help finance departments to calendarize cash flows around external expenditures for author advances, freelancer fees, and vendor costs, linking invoices to dates and purchasing systems. They can also enable easier coordination for the entire enterprise, connecting marketing plans to content development and operational plans. One often-overlooked benefit, however, is that these tools can help to ensure sufficient capacity exists in editorial, art, design, and production departments, which means capacity shortfalls don’t lead to increases in time-to-market and missed on-sale dates.

This last point has become much more crucial with increased market volatility, changing publisher economics, the growing prevalence of work-from-home, and increasing employee dissatisfaction, particularly as publishers adjust their output volume up or down or try to get by with fewer staff in key positions. Workload planning tools can help address such concerns as how many titles editorial, art, design, or production staff can handle; how many people will be needed to produce an upcoming list or editorial plan; and assessing the likelihood of unexpected delays or backlogs. Resolving these concerns is particularly difficult for creative work involving iterative workflows, large teams, and the highly variable quality and timing of incoming manuscripts.

One approach is to tie workforce planning into these process management solutions. Here’s how a publisher would proceed:

• Develop a publication schedule

• Segment the schedule by type of book

• Time-phase the work that goes into each type of book

• Estimate workload by task or phase

• Address shortfalls or excesses to avoid last-minute surprises

• Update the plan, and keep it current

The process begins by developing a publication schedule. This may be derived from an editorial calendar or a financial plan; most publishers will know what they plan on publishing, even if they’re not certain of the specific titles.

Each type of book planned will have a unique process structure—the sequence, duration, complexity, and resource requirements of steps—to take the title from concept through publication. Common examples of these book types might be novels, reference books, illustration-heavy how-to books, and textbooks of various types. Each publisher will likely have an intuitive feel for which books require the most and least work by different departments.

The work is then time-phased by process step (acquisition, development, production, and manufacturing). The key is to determine how long each phase requires and when those phases will occur. Some publishers may have a detailed Gantt view of schedules showing each task that goes into the creation of a book, with durations and predecessors and the department responsible for execution. This view is particularly valuable because it is the task that drives effort. It also provides the ability to see the milestone view of the production schedule that is so prized by production staff.

Next, workload is estimated by task or phase and department. This is the least straightforward of all of the processes and is often iterative based on estimates from surveys, time sheets, or other tools. Some publishers adopt the agile software design technique of “T-shirt sizing” (S, M, L, XL) the workload for each task. It may be an actual estimate of hours, or percentage of time required by a resource for the duration of the task. When these estimates are added up to get a total picture of workload in a given period, the results will likely be far off the mark and require an ongoing process of adjustment. One good way to accomplish this calibration is to look at historical periods to identify what would have been unreasonably high or low estimates of effort versus actual effort expenditure. This exercise should provide a baseline that’s reasonably accurate, but it too will require ongoing adjustment. Eventually, estimated duration and effort based on book type and complexity will give an expectation that matches reality.

It is not uncommon for workforce planning to identify peaks and valleys of workload—after all, that’s one of the main purposes of doing it. Valleys can be used to accomplish required but non-time-critical tasks, non-critical-path activities, schedule vacations, etc. Peaks represent more of an issue, particularly if they exceed current staff levels. For these periods, it may be possible to cross-train staff to pitch in, recruit vendors or freelancers, or move assignments around among divisions to balance workload with capacity. Carolyn Pittis, of Welman Digital, implements visualization and gamification in her Veloscore tool to make these situations transparent and to encourage team members to jump in and help. “Resource or capacity planning may be one of the most under diagnosed issues in publishing,” Pittis says. “Workflow issues are solvable in ways that build collaboration and reset expectations about what amount of work is both possible and reasonable. You just need to make what feels like an emotional exercise into an analytical one. We built our tool to help publishing people quickly use their existing data to predict what their future bottlenecks might be and help publishers update the organizational design of their staff.”

As the editorial plan changes, and as more detail becomes available on each of the titles, schedules and workload demands will also change. It is important to keep the plan up to date to avoid surprises... and even then, it’s a good idea to keep some spare capacity, some slack, to handle emergencies.

In implementing workforce planning, it is vital to maintain transparency for key stakeholders and to utilize good change management practices. Alison Maclean, formerly of Wiley, puts it clearly: “This kind of program should be designed to help staff manage workload, provide advance warning of difficulties, and enable colleagues to achieve their goals. Hidden motivations of measuring or driving productivity will quickly cause the effort to go astray.”

Another key consideration applied to scheduling and workforce planning systems is to avoid excessive amounts of data entry. Hachette Book Group’s Michael Gaudet explains HBG’s philosophy on this: “We don’t want our staff accessing multiple systems to enter data or manage their jobs. To every extent possible we build integrations between systems to eliminate redundant data entry and capture the results of activities in the background to try to eliminate any data entry at all.”

Workforce planning is a necessity for publishers with what Pittis calls “the perfect storm of changing work expectations: the increase in remote work, the urgent need to diversify the workforce, and the agency, reach and power of online connected industry professionals.” It is not difficult to get started—significant benefits can be achieved in Excel—but many publishers are using tools to help with all aspects of the development process, including workforce planning. Correctly used, humane expectations and high productivity can both be achieved by empowering work teams using real-time data. Don’t put this off until staff leaves for other publishers that can do a better job of balancing the needs of staff and workload!

Ken Brooks is the founder of the consulting firm Treadwell Media Group and is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners. He has served as chief content officer at Wiley and COO at Macmillan Learning.