Leadership through the pandemic
Helen joined Futr’s housing lead, Kitty Hadaway, to reflect on the challenges and successes of a year like no other and her predictions for the future.
For Helen, social housing presented an ideal career, combining her interest in property and housing with a social purpose. Now, as Director of Customer Service, she’s able to focus even more on that human element of housing – and with Estuary, customer focus permeates throughout the business.
“I started my career in housing thirty years ago; I’d always had a strong interest in housing; I think I got that from my father because he was a builder. My career began as an estate agent, but then I realised I wanted to be more people-focused, so when I saw a role as a housing officer, I went for it, and the rest is history, as they say!
“Since that first housing officer role, I’ve worked in Councils, Housing Associations, Consultancy both freelance and with Campbell Tickell, a mixture which I view as a privilege to have experienced.
“Now, I am Estuary Housing Association’s Director of Customer Service, which means I’m responsible for all things customer, including our care and support service. If I had to nail what’s so great about working at Estuary, it would be how extraordinarily nice everyone is. And it is a cliche to say, but everyone truly puts the customer first.”
Overcoming the initial challenges of the lockdowns
In Helen’s mind, there were two very clear challenges in the early days of the pandemic. Firstly, safety. And, secondly, workforce mobilisation. Here she describes what this looked like for the teams at Estuary.
“Keeping residents safe was our absolute number one priority. It was so stressful because there was no blueprint, even all the simple things became more challenging. For example, having enough people timetabled to work was difficult because staff often had to self-isolate, and getting enough PPE was a real struggle at first too.
“Second to the challenge of safety was the hurdle of getting our staff mobile. Our IT team was terrific though. Our mobilisation was rapid, which was no small feat, but now it seems crazy that that was such a massive test because we’re all so used to remote working these days.”
A communicative leadership style
Over the past several months, Helen found that evolving her leadership style helped her navigate her team through the pandemic and its challenges. Here she outlines the changes and describes why she will look to retain these.
“During the pandemic, being adaptable was vital, as was being resilient and, of course, keeping virtual communications channels open. Particularly during the eye of the storm, staying in the present with a cool head was essential. Once we were through the worst, being mindful of our strategic objectives returned to the fore.
“At Estuary, despite all the pressures brought about by the pandemic, productivity increased since March last year, and I put this down to the fact that we trusted and empowered our staff to get on with their jobs.
“We were able to do this with regular Microsoft Teams meetings, daily at the beginning and then moving to weekly. Checklists were important. As was listening and just ‘being there’ more, so that colleagues knew they could turn to their managers when they needed help, or so we could just give them a little extra confidence.
“I’m very conscious already of the need to retain this trust and confidence outside of the crisis.”
Adopting Digital Solutions
Of course, as with much of the UK Housing sector, Helen and her team adopted a number of new digital solutions to continue providing essential services to their residents.
“In terms of using digital tools, overnight all of our face-to-face meetings went online via Microsoft Teams – that was a lifeline in keeping the business going. It would have been so challenging to communicate effectively without video calls.
“We’ve also had to rethink our day-to-day tenant service offerings and fast track our digital transformation. We adopted digital sign-ups and proceeded with property viewings using FaceTime. If you’d have said we’d be doing this this 18 months ago, we would have thought you were mad!
“But all this change has proved that we can do it if we put our minds to it, which is fantastic. So now we need to work out how to hang on to the bits that have worked well. As part of this, we’re at the first draft stage of our new customer strategy. Essential to this is thinking about what our residents would like to do digitally in the future. Going digital is not going to happen overnight or for everyone, but for many residents, there will be a great choice.
“In the vein of making things easier for our tenants, we’ve just started a pilot with an app that residents can report ASB through. We’re about to start working on the customer journey for Repairs and Income Collection too, so that clients can self-serve reporting a repair as well as making rent payments and setting up their own direct debits.”
Beyond the digital advances Helen hopes to make as part of her resident services offering, Helen postulates on changes she foresees for Estuary and across the broader sector in the coming years and months.
“We want to make sure we’re a financially strong business – resilient and robust. So, we’ve been doing some work with our board exiting and outsourcing services that are not core business for a traditional housing association such as nursing services and a children’s’ nursery.
“As for the wider sector, there’s the risk that at the end of the furlough, residents will lose their jobs, and that could have a significant impact be on income collection. We’re doing stress testing now.
“Of course, fire safety and the building safety act will permeate through the sector – particularly for those organisations with high rise blocks.
“For ourselves as well as the wider sector, we will – no doubt – all be making sure we’re adhering to recommendations outlined in the white paper and making sure the customer has an even bigger voice than before.
“Lastly, we all need to start talking about the green agenda and getting to carbon neutral.”
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