A conversation with the Minister

I’ve had the pleasure of not one but two roundtable events this week on the topic of social housing tenants being heard by their landlords.

The first was hosted by my organisation and featuring Jenny Osbourne, Chan Kataria and Martin Hilditch, and the second was the Nottingham Conversation with the Housing Minister event.

Both events included discussions about the potential for increased regulation around resident involvement, from cries of bring back the Audit Commission, to leave us alone we know what we’re doing.

I pretty much agree with the second option, though of course there is room for improvement in some organisations but we must make sure any regulation changes don’t add unnecessary red tape, don’t just become the standard rather than the minimum, aren’t a one size fits all and do focus on outcomes rather than methods. Let’s also learn from things we already know work well, such as accreditation schemes offered by TPAS and Housemark and the provisions for leaseholder associations.

And we’ve got to make sure we do more than just listen to residents on our terms, effective listening happens out in the community where the residents and the issues are, working with them and not imposing our solutions on them. Only in this way can we hope to listen to the hardest to hear too, such as the housebound, disabled, those with English as a second language, etc.

I think almost all landlords get resident involvement and would happily do more, but whilst ever the Government focus is on development, organisations will also focus their resources on this and cut back as far as possible in other areas. More balance from the Government in its expectations from landlords was my ask of the Minister when the 5 of us that stuck around for his late arrival got to meet with him. Whilst building as many homes as possible is crucial, it mustn’t be at the expense of the millions of current social housing residents, who require increasing support from an ever reducing number of support providers.

My second ask of the Minister was a joined up Government where DCLG and DWP policies work in harmony and not in contradiction. Whilst residents are struggling without enough money to live on and living in unsuitable housing, often with physical or mental health issues, the last thing they will be interested in is how their landlord compares against its peer group for satisfaction with repairs.

Of course, it’s not just for landlords to listen to social housing residents, the Government must do it’s bit as well and it was encouraging to hear the minister speak so positively about his experiences so far in meeting residents and staff and that he’s been recommending that other departments do the same. But let’s not wait for them to call us, let’s all commit to inviting our MPs to meet with residents and make sure they are listening too.



We all chose housing

There have been a couple of thought-provoking blogs recently on the subject of housing as a career choice (one by Adam Clark and the other by Yoric Irving-Clarke. Both blogs focus on the well worn phrase of ‘I fell into housing’ and thoughts on how we could encourage people, especially young people, to actively pursue a career in housing.

This subject also came up at the CIH board away day a couple of weeks ago, and someone wisely pointed out to me that we did all choose a career in housing when we chose to apply for that job we saw. And this got me thinking about the way we tell our housing career stories, always focusing on the fact that no one has ever left school saying they want to work in housing, the suggestion being that they were forced into it?! Instead, we should focus on what we were looking for in a job, make a difference, change lives, work for a charity, tackle poverty/inequality, work for an employer with a conscience, etc, and how we found the housing sector was the best place to do that.

We obsess over making housing a career of choice and hoping one day hoards of graduates will be telling their parents they are going to be a chartered housing professional. But there are already hoards of graduates saying they want to make a difference, change lives, work for a charity, etc that we seem to be ignoring because they aren’t using the H word.

I think we could put a lot of time and energy into trying to put housing on the career map, and achieve very little. I think it’s always best to go to where people are rather than expect them to come to you (and use language they understand not our industry jargon, Estate Officer anyone?) , so let’s take our housing flag to those socially conscious school leavers/graduates/career changers who I’m sure would jump into housing.

And let’s stop bemoaning the fact no one knew as a teenager they wanted to work in housing, what matters is that when they saw an opportunity they went for it and hopefully have stayed in the housing family for many years making that difference.

So tell me, why did you #choosehousing?


All about the boss

Being a good boss is something that is really important to me and something that I put a lot of time and effort into. Being a manager isn’t about the status, the salary or the power; it’s 100% about the people in your team and making sure they can be awesome in their work (with a balanced home life too).

So it really annoys me when I hear stories of bad bosses, so bad that people have to take some time out or find a new job. We regularly hear about mental health now as awareness, reporting and attitudes improve, yet stress is the number one cause of workplace absence?

The role of a manager to someone’s wellbeing and mental health at work cannot be underestimated. In the last year, three of my amazing, talented and award winning friends have taken time out because of stressful work environments, two have moved on and one is still searching. In all three cases, the cause can be traced back to the manager failing to ensure their wellbeing in the workplace.

I’m unsure if there are any consequences for most managers who’s staff are absent or leave due to stress? Shouldn’t it be taken as seriously as bullying, harassment or even assault? Suffering with stress can be life changing: low self esteem, lack confidence, panic attacks, social anxiety and in serious cases suicide (the biggest cause of death in young males).

And it’s not just about wellbeing, a good boss is crucial for good performance. A friend recently told me about a two different teams in his office, one made up of three of the best staff in the organisation, the other made up of very junior and inexperienced staff. The performance came down to the boss that could get the most of out of their team (it was the latter in case that wasn’t obvious).

So to all those managers and aspiring managers out there, please respect the role you hold and the difference you can make to your team’s success and wellbeing. To CEOs and HR directors, please put a spotlight on workplace wellbeing and the role of the manager in achieving this and take a zero tolerance approach to anyone contributing to stress related absence; my three friends would have been very grateful to have had that support.



Faster horses?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of not only attending the CIH conference in Manchester, but also speaking at one of the seminar sessions alongside Boris Worrall. The focus of the seminar was Transformational Change and Innovation Culture and in case you missed it, here’s a summary of what I said.

I started with my top tips for transformation and innovation, based on my experiences of being on the receiving end of transformation and also being right in the middle of innovation work

  1. Many organisations claim to put customers at the heart of everything they do, but I don’t see this reflected in many KPIs. If customers were truly at the heart, surely we’d be measuring if our customers have enough money to live on rather than arrears, we’d be measuring how long customers have to wait for a new home rather than re-let time and we’d be measuring if customers know their neighbours rather than ASB, you get the idea. (For more on this, see my previous post)
  2. How many of us can say hand on heart we make decisions based on evidence rather then gut feeling? Let’s be objective and consider the facts, not the anecdotal stories we hear when making a cup of tea.
  3. Digital is seen as the silver bullet to our need to do more with less, but digital isn’t really a solution at all, it’s just a method of delivery. Buying another piece of software isn’t going to transform your organisation, it’s people that do that, just look at Bromford’s neighbourhood coaches
  4. Before you transform something, please take lots of time to make sure you are fixing the right problem, it’s no good decreasing your re-let time if the problem is the demand for the property rather than how long the voids process is. To misquote Henry Ford, you’re trying to make a faster horse.
  5. Attempts at transformation will be short lived if there is an expectation that the finished product will be delivered first time. Expect to get it wrong and for solutions to develop over time through testing and experimentation, make sure everyone knows it’s ok to get it wrong and to not always know the answer and that giving it a go is sometimes the best and only way to move forward
  6. Encourage disruption, welcome those who challenge why we are still doing things the same way, sack anyone who says new things can’t be done!

Next, I shared some examples of how to think outside the box, i.e. to be creative. Creativity is crucial to innovation as innovation can be defined as the execution of creative ideas.

I have previously been involved in something called Creativity Club. This was a group of staff that had gone through some creative problem solving training provided by the Ideas Centre. The group then offered their creative problem solving skills to others in the organisations, who would approach the group with any problem they were facing and we would apply one of our techniques to it.

The first step is to agree what the problem is through a process of brainstorming each word in the defined problem and agreed a redefined problem. This helps with point 4 above to make sure you are fixing the right problem. The brainstorming process is more like a game of word association and anything goes, be as crazy as you like! Sometimes the brainstorm is all that needs to be done as the problem owner sees the problem from a different perspective and can then see the solution.

The next step is to use a creative technique to brainstorm some wacky ideas. Finally, the creative ideas are brought back down to earth and hopefully the beginnings of a solution are identified.

The techniques:

  1. Reverse brainstorming – how would you make the problem even worse? Once you’ve come up with an apocalyptic solution, reverse the ideas. If you did this for the repairs process, you might suggest: never do any repairs, don’t tell anyone you are going, take the wrong parts, make it worse, turn up whenever suits, wait for at least 3 repairs, etc. The opposite of these ideas then become your suggested solution.
  2. Use an object – take the properties of any object, such as a pair of glasses and apply them to your problem, e.g. A pair of glasses, provide vision, focus, come in different shapes, sizes, colours, bespoke to the individuals, cheap and expensive options We’ve also used the properties of a fan (needs power, different settings, sharp edges, protective cage) and crisp packet (well known brand, colourful, traffic light information, fresh) to do this.
  3. Use lego or draw your solutions – we did this with some primary school children as we are at our most creative at about the age of 5 as we are not constrained by adult ways of thinking. We asked the children to draw a house of the future for our development team and they came up with flying houses so you didn’t have to book a holiday cottage, a free pet with every home, school lessons via your TV so you don’t need to go to school and my personal favourite houses with no toilets as you don’t need them anymore!
  4. Finally, superheros – use the powers of a superhero or a villain to solve your problem, I was once asked to do this using E Man, who I’ve never heard of, one of his characteristics was that he lives in a toaster, so my solution was free toast for everyone!

We had a really interesting discussion following the presentations on what has and hasn’t worked well for people in creating a transformation and innovation culture, and what’s stopping them from doing more. What’s stopping you from innovating?


Young people wanted

In this week’s Inside Housing, there is an article on the HR challenges currently facing the sector, it highlights that there are skills shortages in certain specialisms, as well as difficulties recruiting to senior roles. In certain areas, recruitment is made difficult due a small population and poor transport links.

This echoes several conversations that I have had at East Midlands Chamber of Commerce meetings as businesses of all shapes and sizes are also facing this problem during this time of near full employment.

It also highlights familiar solutions: attract younger people to the sector, grow your own, recruit for attitude from outside the sector, improve remote working options, etc.

Attracting younger people to the sector has been a hot topic for a while now, but for all the discussion of the problem, there seems to be little in the way of solutions discussed.

And the problem always seems to be discussed in terms of ‘how do we make social housing a career of choice?; we seem to regret the fact that so many housing professionals ‘fall’ into the sector. But maybe we are thinking about the problem in the wrong way? Does it matter if someone’s passion is to work for any ethical employer, rather than specifically to work in social housing?

Rather than obsess over promoting the brand and image of social housing in the jobs market, why not focus on selling ourselves using language that is already well understood? Language like charity, not for profit, property management, lettings, sales, rather than intensive housing manager, sheltered housing coordinator, welfare reform officer, etc; we criticise the sector for talking to itself and then use terms that only those in the sector can understand!

There’s plenty of research around the career aspirations and motivations of younger people, so let’s focus on these in our job adverts: work for a charity, make a difference, an employer that values and rewards you, attractive packages, a supportive environment, etc. As I mentioned in my last blog, we always focus on what we need as businesses, rather than what our customers/potential employees need.

But attracting people to the sector is only half the battle; retaining them is the other. My personal experience of housing is that whilst there’s lots of personal development opportunities, opportunities to climb the ladder are few and far between, particularly if you work in an area where few housing providers are headquartered (despite Sheffield being England’s 4th largest city, there’s only really two providers based here so I’ve spent the last 7 years commuting between 2 – 3 hours a day to the East Midlands).

To retain younger employees, it’s crucial they can see when and where there next step or two on the ladder will be, maybe there is an opportunity for providers to work together to facilitate this through secondments, ringfenced roles, project based roles, job swaps, better remote working options, etc. Charity Works and the GEM graduate programmes are good examples bringing and supporting young people into the sector that could be expanded upon.

There’s only so much longer we can continue to debate this problem without making some serious progress towards a solution if we are to continue delivering excellent service to improve our communities.




Red Nose Housing

I often watch programmes like Comic Relief, Children in Need, Sports Relief, etc, when they are on, but for some reason watching Comic Relief this year had a bigger impact on me.

Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all the negative stuff going on in the world: Brexit, Trump, Farage’s constant TV appearances, the Westminster terror attack, public sector cuts, increasing homelessness, this list goes on as you know.

Watching the footage of the UK projects tackling dementia, loneliness, self-harm, domestic abuse, homelessness, I asked myself what more can I do to tackle these issues, donating £10 by text just didn’t seem enough.

I feel very strongly that housing  is the cornerstone to everything else in life so I’m fortunate to work in a sector that has an opportunity to make a real difference to all these issues. And watching Comic Relief reminded me that we must never lose focus on our work to help as many people as possible have really great lives; with so many distractions out there (see above), that can be easy to do.

So that got me thinking, how do we maintain this focus? Our focus is often driven by business plans, KPIs and other targets, but these concentrate almost entirely on what the business needs to succeed, rather than what our customers need.

There’s a lot of talk of customer experience in the sector at the moment, if we’re really serious about putting customers at the heart of everything we do, shouldn’t this be reflected in our KPIs?

So rather than measuring rent collected, re-let time, ASB cases closed, number of evictions, repairs cost per unit, etc, maybe we could measure if our customers have enough money to live on, how many families we house from temporary accommodation, how long they had to wait for their new home, the cost of moving in, if customers know their neighbours, how many days it is since our older customers have seen another person, how many customers move out due to dissatisfaction or because there was a better offer with another landlord, you get the idea.

The housing sector already does fantastic work to offer much more than just a roof over someone’s head, and it’s vital that we never lose our focus as the number of people needing our help only ever seems to increase.



Opportunity in uncertain times

On behalf of the CIH East Midlands, I recently organised a leaders round table event on the subject of opportunity in uncertain times

It goes without saying, the pace and scale of change is out of this world in recent months and it’s easy to get lost in it all. So it’s more important than ever that we take time to look for the opportunities, the silver linings, in all this uncertainty.

The event featured three brilliant speakers, who provided thought-provoking insight at the start of the event to kick start the discussion.

Julie Fadden, Chief Executive of SLH Group and the current CIH President. Julie spoke very passionately about the role of housing providers, housing professionals and the CIH to bring about the change our customers and communities need and deserve. Julie challenged everyone to leave the world a better place every single day, to do something new, as leaders to bring out the best in those we work with and to focus on our response to the uncertainty, rather than getting wrapped up in the detail of it all.

Chan Kataria, Chief Executive, emh group, who focused on opportunities for unity among the increasing diversity and opposition that we see, such as haves vs have nots, cities vs counties vs regions, housing associations vs local authorities, renters vs home owners, etc. What I took away from Chan’s speech was that we need to recognise the gulf between the views of housing sector employees and board directors (a load of lefty liberals if you believe the stereotype) and those of our customers/tenants/residents (delete as preferred, who voted for Brexit in their droves). For the sector to have customers at their heart, it is vital that we take some time to understand and respect their views and tackle the underlying issues where possible. Chan highlighted some useful research that details the contrasts between the have and the have nots, see here

Lucy Pedrick, Policy Officer (Brexit Specialist), National Housing Federation very kindly joined us on the day of the Supreme Court judgement regarding Article 50 and kept us up to date with the latest announcements. Lucy has an exceptional understanding of her subject and its importance to housing. She explained to us that Brexit is not a risk, it is a certainty, that brings both risks and opportunities with it. It is also a really interesting lens through which to view the world, focusing our attention on things that until now have been on the periphery and which we ignore at our peril. It is also a catalyst, enhancing existing problems, such as the skills gap in care and construction, but also creating increased pressure to tackle them.

A really interesting debate followed the opening remarks by our speakers, and some of the highlights for me were:
– the enthusiasm of all parts of the sector to work together to make sure there are enough homes for everyone
– the recognition that after a few difficult years, our relationship with the Government seems to have turned a corner. Many in the room agreed that doors are open for us to push against and ideas/proposals are welcome. To continue on this path with Government though, it is vital we deliver on the promises we have made in terms of housebuilding
– that we are not as powerless as we sometimes think we are
– don’t get distracted by everything that is going on and some of the digital fads, the important thing will always be humans helping fellow humans, providing homes that people can have really great lives in.