In today’s temperamental and fast-moving world of work, a robust HR strategy is a critical navigation tool. HR leaders today are challenged to lead their people through major shifts and rise to new challenges. Like:
- The widespread embrace of more flexible working models, like hybrid work or a four-day working week
- Navigating record-low employee engagement, escalating workplace stress and worse work burnout than ever
- Record inflation and the energy cost crisis driving major financial worry, increasing the burden of support for employers.
What is HR strategy, then? In essence, strategic HR is about your ability to hire, engage, manage and retain your people to achieve the business’ long-term goals, within the context of these wider changes and challenges.
‘Strategic HRM, or “people strategy”, is about creating a coherent planned framework for employees to be hired, managed and developed in ways that supports an organisation’s long-term goals. It helps ensure that the various aspects of people management work together to drive the behaviour and climate needed to create value and meet performance targets. […] It must also be a response to the evolving nature of work itself’.
The CIPD emphasises that ‘there’s no single HRM strategy that will deliver success in all cases’. As a result, ‘organisations must define their own unique strategy according to their specific context, culture and objectives’.
What should your HR strategy cover?
Strategic Human Resources Management (HRM) is a broad concept because it refers to the entirety of your talent management and development practices, from hire to retire.
You might have several other types of HR strategy that ladder into, or crossover with, your overall strategic people plan (which itself is connected to the business strategy). For example:
- Talent acquisition strategy
- Employee relations strategy
- Strategic workforce planning
- Internal communications strategy
- Training and development strategy
- Diversity, equality, and inclusion strategy
- Compensation strategy
- Environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy
- Digital transformation strategy
Depending on the size of your organisation and your HR resource, you might have distinct strategies with distinct owners. In these cases, strategic talent planning can be a huge task, involving a large cross-functional global team calling on sophisticated people analytics.
As HR specialists P3 People Management say: ‘All departmental strategies must support the main business strategy. It’s good practice for an organisation to include all departmental managers in the process’.
Even at a much smaller scale though, a strategic approach to HR is beneficial to ensure the business’ people practices truly support what the business aims to achieve. At its root, strategic HR is about understanding how talent management can help the business achieve its objectives, either by removing obstacles or by accelerating progress.
Let’s look at three great real-world examples of HR strategies and the lessons HR leaders could take from each.
What are the best HR strategies? Three real-world examples.
The University of Surrey’s strategy report starts by briefly setting context, outlining the university’s overall strategic plan: ‘to be a leading global university renowned for its excellence and the impact of its research and graduates, together making great contributions to society’ and detailing seven strategic business objectives.
Of these, one objective relates explicitly to people: ‘We will create conditions for all staff to have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and we will make this a wonderful place to work’.
The report immediately joins the dots between business strategy and people strategy, with a tightly-defined statement of purpose: ‘HR’s objective is to support delivery of the ‘People’ objective in the University’s strategy while also enabling recognition of the University of Surrey as a wonderful place to work’.
The report then outlines seven strategic priority areas:
- Organisational development
- Performance and reward
- Engagement, inclusion and culture
- Health, Safety and wellbeing
- Operating excellence
Each area has a dedicated section within the report, detailing a business-aligned objective, actions to achieve the objective and indicators of success with clear HR KPIs. For example:
The University of Surrey’s strategy is a good example of Deloitte’s guidance, that good people strategy should be ‘effective and actionable’, providing a clear ‘roadmap to create value through the organisation’s workforce’.
Hertfordshire Country Council (HCC)’s annual strategy is a good example of how a ‘large and complex business’ can still create a straightforward, engaging and change-responsive strategic plan.
The report starts with a foreword from the CEO, both giving context and emphasising the importance of HR as a C-suite priority. People strategy isn’t just an HR initiative: it’s fundamental to how the business operates.
Like the University of Surrey, HCC immediately connects people strategy to business strategy: ‘Our People Strategy is aligned to the Corporate Plan, with the same ambition for equal opportunity for our staff as we have for our residents’.
The report also explicitly identifies and links to wider strategies and approaches across the wider council, to avoid silos and misalignments:
In terms of priorities, HCC focus ‘on five key areas which form the employee lifecycle’:
The report then also summarises key people priorities for each Service Directorate (area of business), linking to a full strategic workforce plan within each. For example:
HCC’s report is also a reminder to consider the audience for your people strategy. Although a strategy’s major purpose is as an internal tool to guide how your HR functions, it’s also part of your image and brand, both for current and future employees.
Owen Mapley, CEO of Hertfordshire County Council, writes: ‘Hertfordshire County Council is a great place to work, where our staff really do make a difference every day. Whether you are an existing member of staff or thinking of joining us, thank you for taking the time to consider our People Strategy’.
Like the University of Surrey, registered charity Gene People’s strategy spans a three-year period (in this case, 2022 to 2025). The simplest of the three examples here, Gene People keeps their report focused with a tight structure that includes an introduction, business context, vision and values, an overview of the team, and the strategy itself, broken into distinct pillars.
The report includes a visual overview that summarises their strategy in a simple conceptual framework:
Any strategy is only as valuable as the action it inspires. Following Gene People’s lead and using a visual framework to make your approach memorable and practical is a great tactic. HR experts LighterHR put it this way: ‘A practical HR strategy is an actionable, visual representation of where you’re going, what you need to do and by when’.
Within their strategic pillars, Gene People clearly outline an overarching goal, aims to achieve the goal and a clear, straightforward set of actions to achieve those aims. Like the University of Surrey, Gene People’s strategy functions as a tangible roadmap to guide decision-making over the coming three years.
Finally, Gene People end their report with a call to action, inviting readers to further support their work. Like HCC, this is a good reminder that the audience for HR strategy isn’t always purely internal. A strong HR strategy can also be a branding or support tool.
12 lessons from these people strategy examples:
- Consider your timeframe
- Consider how structure impacts clarity
- Align to business strategy
- Get buy-in from top executives
- Set tangible objectives
- Develop a clear action plan to achieve those objectives
- Outline success indicators or KPIs
- Create a visually engaging report
- Consider a foreword to set up a compelling story
- Connect to other relevant strategies
- Consider the whole employee lifecycle
- Consider a broad audience
A strong HR strategy is a navigation aid for the ever-stormy seas of business, outlining your plan for hiring, engaging, managing, and retaining the workforce you need to be successful tomorrow. It’s impossible to conclusively say what the ‘best’ HR strategy looks like, because no two strategies are the same. But hopefully walking through these examples has given you some ideas of what can work well, to inspire conversations in your own business.