Do boards need people people?

People issues are the central challenge of our time. As the 2021 AGM season comes to a close, some of the same issues continue to dominate, such as boardroom pay and lack of diversity, but this year they’ve been joined by the impact of the pandemic. 

All of these issues have something in common, they are all ‘people issues’. Some organisations already have HR experience on the board, the question is where next for HR professionals?


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Riding the pandemic rollercoaster of the past 18 months, UK organisations have seen people issues dominate; the mental health and wellbeing of remote or furloughed employees, possible reorganisations and redundancies and hiring over zoom. As an employee, change has become the norm and a potentially deadly virus a constant concern.

These are all ultimately issues for the boardroom. Last year many boards assigned a non-executive director (NED) as ‘owner’ of the employee stakeholder, working closely with the CPO or HRD. In some cases, this would have been a NED with direct HR experience, but today this still remains the exception rather than the rule.

Boards are about broad business oversight, concerned with strategy and growth; does the business have the right assets and plan to succeed and grow? But increasingly the board agenda is leading to culture, purpose and the well-being of an organisation’s principal asset – it’s people.

This shift in agenda started long before 2020. Organisations have been developing employee value propositions since the start of the noughties and measuring engagement soon after.

It’s about creating organisations that people want to work for, competing for the brightest and the best – but not just with a cheque book. This is highlighted by a recent survey from Russell Reynolds which found that 73% of “next generation leaders” are increasingly interested in new employment opportunities; talent retention just got that much harder.

This of course is a major priority for the board - ensuring the sustainability of your principal asset. The change of pace in recruiting or ‘sourcing’ your workforce represents both risk and opportunity to the board. Once organisations off-shored call-centres, now entire IT, sales, HR and legal teams are being off-shored; individuals are encouraged to work from anywhere in the world.

Collaboration and digital transformation mean that increasingly networked organisations are transforming what is possible in how we get work done. For many office workers, Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 in the office will now be the exception, not the norm.

These issues are not just housekeeping, they are redefining corporate culture and the future of work and are questions that boards must address now. Furthermore, the role of the board is to ensure that the people/HR team are keeping up with these issues, staying ahead of the game and ensuring that the organisation is making the right decisions to benefit from these opportunities.

If the board’s role is to challenge the business, it will be looking increasingly closely at people strategy. They might even ask why we’re still talking about human resources rather than people, which has already changed for many as we continue to redefine that employee proposition.

These changes represent a dramatic shift that has gained huge momentum in 2020 and it is an issue that boards must understand and tap into effectively to survive and compete. Not only that, but the next wave will be arriving shortly as 5G and massive advances in AI will mean that what’s shiny and new today will very quickly be old tomorrow.

What this means for employees depends on the sector, but let’s be clear, we will all be affected. While these are about changes in technology, at the heart of the challenge for organisations is how they will impact their people.

Engagement used to be the annual employee survey. Now we can get real time feedback on everything from corporate strategy to the pets-at-work policy through an app. We have a wealth of data on employee views and motivations, likes and dislikes.

As a chairman in 2021, I would have a lot on my mind and much of it would be related to my employees; how to recruit and retain them, how to unite and motivate them through an inspiring common purpose, how to evolve hybrid and flexible working models and perhaps above all else, ensure their wellness and resilience. Am I likely to want more or less HR expertise and specialist skillset on my board?


Ali Gill is a board advisor and evaluator and behavioural psychologist