Orbit Housing: Using tech to communicate with residents across 45,000 homes

Leadership Through the Pandemic

In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to Andrew Richmond, Head of Communications at Orbit Group.

Richmond recalls the leadership challenges faced in the initial lockdown and how listening to customers will guide Orbit towards a new post-pandemic normal.

Please could you give a brief introduction to yourself and Orbit Group?

“Throughout my career, I have always worked in communications or marketing. Early on, at the inception of universal credit, I worked for the Department for Work and Pensions.

“I also spent some time with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders! There are quite a few similarities between cars and homes, actually – not least the need for constant maintenance!

“Those two ends of the commercial spectrum were really different, but both heavily influence my role now.

“Orbit has been such a refreshing place to work. It’s an organisation that genuinely cares for its customers and how we do business, from our impact on the environment to the social value of everything we do.

What was your initial response to the current pandemic?

“My initial response was one of absolute disbelief and bewilderment that this was happening! I remember watching the situation unfold on the news in January in China. As more and more countries had their first case, the full lockdown was announced here in March, it felt almost like a bad movie.

“Within that context, Orbit was swift in its response. In particular, the business was really quick to offer agile working; we switched to working from home almost before the government announced the lockdown. Previously agile working had been offered to us as part of our employee benefits package, but the pandemic massively sped up adoption of that.”

“IT has been the enabler through all of this.”

“Our colleagues in the IT department worked so hard to ensure that we could continue to function and serve our customers. From the small things like having the right kit to being able to log onto our computers safely over home Wi-Fi networks without the system falling over, IT has been the enabler through all of this.

“Once we were all working from home, there was so much innovation beyond the initial switch to agile working. For example, our Lettings Team began to work with customers online for digital viewings and using video calls for property inspections.

“Right across the business, colleagues were working on new ways to do things with digital technology. These advances are great leaps forward, and I think we will want to hold onto these post-pandemic.”

Related reading: Inside Housing survey reveals where social landlords are in their digital transformation plans

How did you have to adapt your leadership style?

“I think the pandemic has presented a real challenge for every leader. Previously we could get together in a room, create a team buzz and easily work collaboratively.

“Suddenly, human interaction had to happen on Microsoft Teams. I found that ensuring colleagues felt engaged was challenging because 90% of communication isn’t just about what you say; it’s about tone and body language.

“I don’t think you can ever replace face-to-face communication”

“It is much more challenging to pick up nuances of communication over a video call. For example, when you’re together in a room, you can almost sense when a team member has something to say and invite them to join the conversation – you lose that on a video call.

“How can you try to make sure the Team feels included, feel able to collaborate and take part actively in discussions – that’s been a leadership challenge. Ultimately, I don’t think you can ever replace face-to-face communication or the buzz of sharing ideas together in the same room.”

“We’ve all had to adapt and find new ways to put ideas across to teams to allow them to develop those further.”

Related reading: London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham: How digital transformation has improved resident services and engagement

Given all of this, how do you envision the future and a new normal?

“In terms of our colleagues, I think we’ll continue to work from home two or three days a week. We’re going to have to learn how to make the most of our time together for collaborative tasks, while using our time at home for admin heavy tasks, for communications teams or for writing – working from home is quite conducive to writing!

“We will only get to our new normal by speaking and listening to our customers”

“In terms of our customers, we have always tried to ensure that our communication is caring, helpful and gives added value. We put a lot of thought into what our customers’ current priorities are.

“So, as we navigate the roadmap out of the pandemic and search for what the new normal will look like, we will need to continue focussing on what is relevant and important to our customers.

“Ultimately, we will only get to our new normal by speaking and listening to our customers, and that comes down to good resident engagement.”

Follow our Spotlight Series in the Futr blog to discover how social landlords in the UK use technology to transform the resident experience. If you are interested in using automation to drive digital transformation in your organisation, contact the Futr team to see how live chat and chatbots for housing providers can help you. 

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