Ethics and Governance

Resetting the board agenda

Jul 30, 2020

Níall Fitzgerald explains how boards can use the current crisis to take stock and, where appropriate, reflect new priorities.

While the COVID-19 crisis continues, organisations are preparing for the uncertainty ahead. This process presents an opportunity for organisations to rethink their priorities, how they deploy resources, and the way they do things.
In the months ahead, boards will face new challenges that can give rise to major concerns. This article examines some of those challenges, the responsibility of boards in facing them, and questions board members can ask to help focus on what is important.

Going concern

Irish and UK company law requires directors to act in the best interests of the company, which includes promoting its success and ensuring that it continues as a going concern. Past corporate collapses have revealed instances where directors failed in this duty. Failures attributed to directors include having unquestioning optimism rather than a challenging mindset and succumbing to groupthink.

Given the current uncertainty, threats to going concern are more likely to feature higher on the risk register in many organisations. Oversight is a key role of the board, and this requires directors to have a questioning mindset, apply their skills, experience and knowledge to challenge management appropriately on their judgements, and ensure that they have sufficient evidence to support those judgements. Having a range of skills, experience and knowledge (in addition to diversity in other forms) on a board will help ensure that a range of perspectives and practicalities are considered. Basic good governance practices such as reviewing meeting papers in advance, arriving to meetings prepared, and an effective chair who allows sufficient time for discussion will make a big difference to the quality of the decisions or actions arising.

In June 2020, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) published COVID-19 – Going Concern, Risk and Viability: Reporting in Times of Uncertainty. The paper highlights how challenges that would normally relate to building resilience and flexibility (e.g. sourcing short-term cash resources) have pivoted as a result of the pandemic to threats relating to survival and, therefore, going concern.

Other examples of current threats and challenges to going concern include:

  • further restrictions that limit the return to normal operations;
  • restrictions placed on government (or other) capital;
  • timing and continuation of government schemes and support packages;
  • short-term impacts of pricing changes to revenue and expenses; and
  • impacts on human capital.

An Institute article titled Going Concern Considerations for Members Preparing or Auditing Financial Statements in the Context of COVID-19 is available on the COVID-19 Hub on Chartered Accountants Ireland’s website.

Social responsibility, and public and employee welfare

Directors have a duty under company law to have regard to the interests of employees and will therefore be involved in making important decisions in relation to workforce policies and practices. In addition, corporate governance codes (e.g. the UK Corporate Governance Code) and sustainability frameworks (e.g. an environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework) highlight how a board’s consideration of all stakeholder interests, including societal impact, is important to ensure the organisation’s long-term success.

The COVID-19 crisis forced many organisations to rapidly transform the way they work. In many cases, anticipated obstacles to business continuity either did not arise or were overcome with adjustments to how work and people are managed, as well as investment in ICT infrastructure, connectivity and cybersecurity. In April 2020, The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) released statistics revealing that 49% of adults in employment were working from home. In May 2020, an Irish survey of remote working during the COVID-19 crisis by the Whittaker Institute at National University Ireland Galway and the Western Development Commission revealed that 51% of respondents never worked remotely before the COVID-19 crisis. Of these, 78% would like to continue to work remotely.

As public health restrictions are lifted, boards – or board chairs, at least – should engage with CEOs and executive management to support the restoration of operations and plan the safe return to the workplace of employees, suppliers and customers. Executive management and boards should be aware of, and follow, national and local government protocols issued on returning to the workplace.

No plan survives the battlefield, so expect adjustments along the way. Updating the board and seeking direction at every turn is not practical, however. It might, therefore, be wise to establish an oversight working party with regular executive engagement and delegated responsibility for overseeing the implementation of plans to restore operations. Decision-making authority should be clearly defined to ensure issues are, where appropriate, referred to the board for a decision. As boards plan for the return to the workplace, directors should consider the following:

  • what work can be done remotely?
  • do certain internal policies need to be rewritten to support new or future ways of working?
  • are there opportunities for automation or digitalisation?
  • what impact could remote working have on organisational culture, and what changes are necessary to align it with the organisation’s mission, vision and values?
Boards also have an opportunity to consider how their organisations can have a greater positive social impact. During the crisis, some organisations went further with social responsibility by redirecting their resources to provide support, services and products to the fight against COVID-19. Charities and other not-for-profit organisations excelled in meeting the social needs of many vulnerable people affected by the crisis. Many organisations incentivised staff to get involved in volunteerism to help with, or raise funds for, good causes. In fact, organisations such as Volunteer Ireland and the Royal Voluntary Service reported a surge in registrations, resulting in a surplus of volunteers.

Sustainable ‘reset’

An important principle set out in the UK Corporate Governance Code is for a board “to promote the long-term sustainable success of the company”. This involves considering how the organisation generates and preserves value, and contributes to wider society over the long-term. It also involves considering the sustainability of the business model – weighing up resilience with efficiency to achieve long-term success. In times of uncertainty, some efficiencies may be sacrificed to achieve resilience. A board’s macro perspective can make a significant contribution in helping the organisation achieve a balance between these two factors.

As part of pre-recovery planning, many organisations will engage in horizon scanning to anticipate changes, sources of uncertainty, and future threats and opportunities. While the effect of the COVID-19 crisis on operations may dominate risk perception, organisations also have a unique opportunity to consider how they can rebuild better, greener, and for a more resilient, sustainable world. Boards are well-positioned to lead and encourage innovation on how organisations can adapt to expectations of sustainability from key stakeholders such as investors, customers and regulators. These expectations are apparent in changing social behaviour (e.g. support for global climate protests), investor conditions (e.g. ESG goals or investors’ adoption of Principles for Responsible Investment), and regulator mandates (e.g. the development of standards for ESG disclosures for financial market participants, advisers and products).

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a blueprint that can be used to define an organisation’s sustainability objectives. The World Economic Forum refer to this opportunity as the ‘great reset’. We all have a vested interest in averting further global crises. When boards are resetting their agenda to focus on new priorities, sustainability must be a key consideration in more ways than one.

Conclusion

Organisations can expect further challenges in the months ahead. This is not ‘business as usual’ and boards are adapting as the situation unfolds. Whether an organisation is struggling or thriving in the uncertainty, key priorities for any pre-recovery strategy must include going concern, social responsibility, employee and public welfare, and sustainability.

Níall Fitzgerald FCA is Head of Ethics and Governance at Chartered Accountants Ireland.