Over the past two weeks we have all been presented with challenges which many of us thought we would never experience. As a society and as a business community we have been required to adapt quickly, efficiently and safely to combat the spread of Coronavirus. Housing Associations are on the frontline - supporting over 6 million residents across the UK and often the most vulnerable. Tom Neely, Berwick Partners Housing Practice Lead spoke with three Chief Executives in Social Housing, Nick Atkin (NA) of Yorkshire Housing, Nigel Wilson (NW) of Gentoo Homes and Ruth Cooke (RC) of GreenSquare Group, to see how they have immediately dealt with this crisis and how their services have differed over this extraordinary fortnight.
How has the transition been from moving to home working? Have there been any key learnings for the organisation?
NA: For Yorkshire Housing, we were already on the journey to a fully agile working approach, but this has acted as an accelerant. We have found people adapt much quicker than you can imagine in the face of a crisis. From a digital perspective, we utilise video calls to prevent feelings of isolation and to maintain the work family feel. MS Teams is a great tool for this and has also been the backbone of our Business Continuity Plan. We can’t communicate enough – we have set up a dedicated micro site for colleagues, but we also need to use a variety of written and visual tools across a range of platforms.
NW: For Gentoo, it’s been a big operation to equip everyone in short order to deliver from home the various services; whilst we have some capacity, it is nothing on the scale needed, hence the purchase of extra licences, laptops and tablets etc. A huge amount of credit goes to our teams who have worked all hours to build capacity and test. Clearly the other aspect is understanding exactly what can or cannot be done remotely. No amount of Business Continuity Planning prepares one for this situation.
RC: For GreenSquare, the tech side of things by and large went very smoothly. The key learning was around how we moved our Contact Centre to home working, and that took us longer to achieve than some other teams. There has been lots to think about in terms of the colleague experience though - how can we make sure people feel connected to their manager and to the organisation, how do we make sure we focus on colleague wellbeing, and how do we try and recreate some of the fun, informal contact that happens in the office.
How has your ‘digital first’ offer changed to your customers over the last week?
NA: We are still on the self-serve journey, but we have been able to move our Customer Service Centre to taking calls at home within a very short period. In addition to this, there has been a need for more in-person conversations with customers as the calls have shifted from repairs to rent payment queries.
NW: We were only at the beginning of digital service roll out so, to be honest, it has not been a big slow down. We have maintained phone contact; the neighbour coordinators have been contacting their tenants and all vulnerable tenants are getting daily contact.
RC: Customers seem to have naturally migrated to this. We’re already ahead of our 5-year target on digital take up, and customers seem very keen to engage with it.
How have you adapted your housing management function, and has this changed over the last week?
NA: Several of our customers have lost their jobs and income - literally overnight. Many of these customers have never experienced this situation before and need our help, advice and support.
NW: We have taken the decision to suspend all new allocations apart from emergency lets, which in turn helps the local authority. This, in turn, allows our housing teams to safely work from home but still allows them to do their jobs and give our customers advice and support.
RC: We’ve become focussed on business-critical activity, and anything that can be done remotely. We have had to stop some services as there is no way to deliver them safely or appropriately via home working; however, staff are now using that time to make contact and offer support to our most vulnerable customers.
How have you changed your repairs offering to customers?
NA: We made the decision early on to move to emergency repairs only however there has been a significant reduction in repairs requests. We are, however, experiencing some issues with access from customers who understandably are concerned.
NW: We are only undertaking critical repairs and we have paused any compliance works for a minimum of three weeks in homes until we understand more. Our customers have been incredibly understanding and our repairs calls have radically dropped over the last two weeks.
RC: We are now only delivering emergency and essential health and safety related repairs, as well as essential compliance checks.
What skills and/or attitude are you looking for from your senior leadership team in this crisis?
NA: Resilience and flexibility are both key factors. Also having a visible leadership presence at a time when people are all working from home. It is a time that people remember how you have reacted, as well as you are remembering the actions of those around you. Many have really stepped up and we have some shining stars. However, the actions of a minority have been disappointing, but we need to accept people react differently at times of stress – both at work and in their personal lives.
NW: It’s important that our Senior Leadership Team remain calm and continue to plan to navigate us through this extraordinary time the best we can. It’s also vitally important that we keep everyone connected. We are working more collaboratively than ever before across our organisation. . We are looking for our SLT to communicate well and safely to colleagues and tenants…and smile when we can and keep a sense of humour in these difficult times!
RC: A can-do attitude is probably the most important thing. I’ve been hugely heartened by how well our team have responded to this, and how seamlessly we’ve moved to a new way of working. This crisis has absolutely brought out the very best in people.