Leadership through the pandemic
In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to Ewelina Sorbjan, Head of Housing Services, Enfield Council.
Ewelina describes how the past year pushed her to communicate even more with her team and drive flexible working practices, ultimately fostering deeper trust amongst colleagues.
Passion and excitement for social housing
Ewelina Sorbjan, Head of Housing Services at Enfield Council in London, sat down with Futr to explain where her passion for social housing stems from and why Enfield Council is such an exciting place to work and live.
“Currently, Enfield Council is going through a period of significant change, and at pace. We are working to try and make a mark for the future on how services are delivered, as well as building homes, changing town centres and reclaiming brownfield sites – it’s really an exciting place to work and live!
“I’ve been in social housing for a few years; my first job was with Southwark Council, and from there, I developed a passion for the difference we can make to people’s lives, which is what has kept me in social housing.”
Communication is key for employee welfare
For Ewelina, managing safety and welfare were two of the most significant workplace challenges of the past 12 months. Here she explains how listening to colleagues and maintaining strong communication helped her overcome these challenges to continue providing essential resident services.
“I manage our frontline services, from caretakers to housing officers – these are colleagues who are out and about and have direct contact with residents. So the biggest challenge, to begin with, was balancing the needs of residents with the safety of all.
“Of course, we had all the necessary risk assessments and safety precautions in place to ensure the physical safety of residents and staff. But, on top of this, we wanted to make sure that staff felt okay.
“As part of that, it was vital for me to stay in touch with my teams every day, and we ran sessions listening to staff about how they wanted to do things. Visibility was also crucial in the early stages of the pandemic, and that meant making sure managers, including myself, were out and about on the ground.
“Overall, I was amazed by the initial and continued response of our staff. While they did, of course, have concerns, the overarching feeling was one of a national emergency in which we all needed to pull together; the sense that we were there to serve permeated throughout.
Trust and flexibility
Ewelina found that in navigating the pandemic, adopting a less formal leadership style and encouraging greater flexibility in working patterns had the unexpected benefit of fostering greater trust throughout her teams.
“My leadership style has always been quite open and authentic, but over the past year, I took on a less formal approach. This allowed me to bond more with team members even though we were communicating online.
“For the sake of our mental health, we took more time to discuss personal details, for example, how someone’s room in the background of their video calls had changed; or to just have a moan, be that work-related, or not!
“Of course, flexibility has been vital too. We all had to be more flexible working with colleagues who were home schooling. We also had no restrictions on where people could work, so some went abroad to be closer to their families or friends – within government rules.
“This taught us that it’s not about going green 9 am – 5 pm and that people don’t have to be ‘seen’ to be working. Ultimately the greater flexibility fostered deeper trust across our teams, and that’s something I really hope we’re able to hold onto going forwards.”
The benefits of going digital
Of course, as with so many social landlords, to continue delivering effective services to her residents, Ewelina and the Council adopted a number of different digital approaches, here she recounts the benefits of these changes.
“From the second week of lockdown, we started health and wellbeing checks for every resident, including leaseholders and those subletting. If we couldn’t get through to people or didn’t have a number, we implemented a door-knocking system to find out their number to then have the full conversation over the phone.
“Digital tools enabled several neighbourhood officers to make those outbound calls from home, while they were shielding, throughout the lockdowns. That ended up being a two-fold success story: keeping our shielding caretakers (who are often such sociable people) gainfully employed and caring for our residents.
“We made better use of other existing technology such as our text SMS system. For example, if a lift went down in one of our properties, we’d introduce additional texts to keep tenants up to date.”
“Also, we moved a lot of our tenant meetings onto digital platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and we held our annual conference for leaseholders and tenants online, which was quite successful.
“In fact, we recently ran a tenant survey. The results showed that residents would like to continue attending meetings online going forward, which makes sense. Running the meetings online saves so much time, is much easier and more flexible. So, we’ll keep them online and just have some face-to-face meeting in the future.”
Reintegrating back into the office
As we build back towards a new post-pandemic normal, in the coming weeks and months, Ewelina’s most pressing priority is reintegrating her teams back into the office amongst various other planned changes. Here she explains why.
“Enfield is going through a ‘Build The Change’ programme – redesigning buildings and service delivery. But my biggest priority is reintegrating people back into the office efficiently. Changes to working methods were already on our agenda, and covid has sped up the process; it showed us that it’s possible to work from home and still deliver services. But our office is undergoing a redesign and we’ll be going down to 10 people per 4 desks, with colleagues working out and about, or from home more. For me, it’s essential that get the re-adoption of the office space right.“
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