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Why HR’s place is in the boardroom

HR has been at the centre of leadership discussions during the pandemic – we need to stay there.

Few business areas have undergone as much change as HR in the past couple of decades. Our role has expanded far beyond issuing contracts and making sure people get paid on time to thinking about attraction, retention, engagement and more recently, wellbeing.

We can’t rely solely on the new way of working to make the case for HR – we have to demonstrate how investing in your people is critical to business success.

Whilst the pandemic has led to many changes in our personal and professional lives, it’s also led to another fundamental shift in the role of HR teams. It’s not just been about the practicalities of figuring out how to keep companies working, but also the human impact of these unprecedented times.

When asked about the challenges they’d experienced in their workforce as part of our Divided Together research, HR teams had been helping employees with everything from stress (41%) and reduced productivity (36%) to loneliness (28%) and mental health issues (23%). As a result, employee wellbeing and support has gone from being an occasional agenda item discussed now and again at board level, to a business critical issue, getting the time and attention it deserves – and HR teams have become a vital part of the discussion.

Maintaining HR’s invitation to the boardroom

This invitation to the boardroom has been one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic, but it’s critical that, as we move from short-term crisis management back to long-term planning, HR retains their seat at the table.

In part, the permanent changes to the way we work will keep HR’s role visible and relevant. Of the HR leaders we spoke to for our research, 57% anticipate much of their workforce becoming temporary or freelance with almost two thirds (60%) predicting the end of the office within five years.

We can’t rely solely on the new way of working to make the case for HR – we have to demonstrate how investing in your people is critical to business success. We have to turn proactively discussing your people into a habit, an unquestioned boardroom agenda item. Going into winter and in the midst of this second lockdown, we should see it as an opportunity to start to look ahead once again and develop a longer-term wellbeing strategy that leverages our learnings from the pandemic.

Although globally we’ve gone through a shared experience, one of the biggest learnings to take from Covid-19 is how varied individual experiences of the pandemic and lockdown may be. These major differences mean we have to create policies that provide a set of overarching principles at a company level, leaving interpretation and implementation to department heads or team leaders to make sure day-to-day practices reflect the needs of individuals in that part of the business.

How to enhance workplace wellbeing

With over 8.2 million people living alone in the UK, work is a valuable source of social interaction. The time we spend chatting to colleagues and building relationships helps us not only to function better as a team, but also feel more connected to the work we do. Find ways to keep this sense of connection will be the biggest challenge this winter. Whether it’s team quizzes and virtual coffee mornings or one-to-one support calls, employees need to be acknowledged and supported on an individual-by-individual basis.

Taking a proactive and flexible approach can help boost engagement before issues emerge. HR policies need to offer company-wide principles with the flexibility to interpret and implement them at a department or team level where managers can take individual needs and preferences into account.

There also needs to be clearly signposted support in place for when people are struggling. Organisations should be training managers as mental health first aiders and encouraging regular one-to-ones with team members, as this can help them spot red flags early on and make sure people get the support they need.

Justifying wellbeing spend at boardroom level

The pandemic has increased expectations when it comes to wellbeing. Almost a quarter of respondents in our Divided Together research said they’d like more general wellbeing and mental health support, with 19% saying they’re also looking for physical wellbeing support.

With the median spend on wellbeing currently sitting at £150 per head per year and a third of companies increasing that spend during lockdown, companies that aren’t thinking long-term about their approach to wellbeing and committing budget and focus to develop a meaningful strategy will get left behind.

Getting, retaining and even increasing budget comes down to maintaining visibility and relevance at board level. To do that, you don’t just need a strategy – you need to be able to demonstrate the business impact. Data has become an increasingly important part of HR over the past few years, and this must become the case for wellbeing too. It might sound hard to measure something as individual as wellbeing, but there are metrics that can give a good indication of the impact of your strategy.

Before implementing any new support measures, create a baseline with an anonymised employee survey. Repeating this survey during and after intervention will give you an idea of whether it is meeting your teams’ needs.

Also, evidence how you’re spending that budget by tracking implementation: how many workshops have been delivered? How many outreach calls have been made to the most vulnerable team members? How many one-to-ones with line managers are taking place? These will give a good indication of whether the focus on wellbeing is permeating through to all levels of the company.

By creating a strategy and tracking its implementation and effectiveness, it gives depth and significance to that boardroom agenda item ‘people’. It clearly demonstrates why wellbeing must remain a business priority, the important role it can play in recovery and why HR’s place is very much in the boardroom.

Interested in this topic? Read Why HR is uniquely placed to boost innovation during a downturn.

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