Leadership through the pandemic
In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to James Hill, Director of Housing, Neighbourhood and Building Services at Portsmouth City Council.
James spoke to us about the business continuity plan he led over the past year or so, the changes to his leadership style brought about by the pandemic and the Council’s priorities as we begin to head into a new post-pandemic normal.
A career in Councils
James sat down with Futr to reflect on the past year and began by introducing us to himself, Portsmouth City Council and explaining the benefits of retaining their own housing stock.
“I’ve worked for Portsmouth City Council, a unitary authority, since 2001. Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city located on the South Coast with a rich naval history and still home to the Royal Navy. I started as a frontline manager working in housing services and progressed through various roles. The council retains its housing stock of about 14,900 units. One of the great benefits of retaining our stock is that it gives us a lot of flexibility to use our housing in an integrated way – our partnership with health and social care is really strong.”
Remembering the earliest days of the pandemic, James recalls the challenge of managing the demand bought about by the sustained impact of various extended lockdowns. He cites an integrated partnership between public services as the guiding force that lead Portsmouth and its residents through the pandemic.
“Business continuity events typically tend to be short-lived, and usually – for example, with adverse weather events – there’s a clear sense of the response and recovery that’s required. But the lockdowns went on for such a long time, and non-business-critical services were still essential, such as cleaning and grounds maintenance. A key challenge was to adapt our whole service delivery model at pace.
“The extraordinary demand on infrastructure bought about by the pandemic saw a remarkable response from the voluntary sector and other partners as we realised that on our own, our organisation couldn’t address all of the issues we faced. An integrated partnership approach was needed and that was forged very early.”
Leading by example
With a sizeable directorate, James cites leading by example and with decisiveness as crucial to his leadership style through the past several months.
“I have a large directorate of about 1,000 people, plus contractors, and I like to be a visible leader. So, initially, adapting to the new remote working environment made me feel disconnected because everything felt out of sight. To get through this, communication was vital, from regular on line meetings with senior staff to e-bulletins, in other words remaining as connected as possible in a virtual way.
“The pandemic has certainly tested my leadership skills to the maximum in particular prioritisation and communication skills. I felt the benefit of having an adaptive leadership style and I have needed to use different leadership styles throughout the pandemic in a fluid way. Some points required a very directional decision-maker to make decisions at pace, sometimes without the complete information.
“It was a hectic time in the beginning, and in the early days, we survived on adrenaline as we worked long hours and often seven-day weeks. But we realised that this was a marathon—not a sprint—and we needed breaks to recharge the batteries, and I needed to lead by example, and ensure we focussed on the well-being of ourselves and our teams.”
“I remain incredibly proud of how we have supported our residents throughout the pandemic. Our staff and contractors have adapted so well and shown great determination and resilience. It has been tough, but we should feel very proud of the part housing services have played and the vital role they have in continuing to support residents and communities.”
Adapting to digital
Reflecting on how both his staff and residents managed to adapt to new online processes, James points out that we have been living through extraordinary times, and we cannot assume these behaviours will stick.
“The beginning of the pandemic was a light-switch moment for us as many of our staff moved to working-from-home. The volume of staff logging on from home over-burdened our IT system at first, so much so that we had to restrict connections from home in the earliest days of the first lockdown.
“However, we resolved that quickly, and we were able to connect with residents by rerouting phone calls over the internet, which meant we could continue many of our services as business as usual.
“Just as we quickly adapted to virtual Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings internally, our residents became quite capable at joining and engaging in our virtual, democratic resident processes. We also saw a spike in usage of our online self-serve tools.
“We’re curious about how digital behaviours have changed. As we head towards a new post-pandemic normal, we will need to be mindful of how unique the environment the pandemic created was. Some pandemic-born behaviours may hold, in which case, we’ll respond to that. But we need to make sure we’ve got very strong measures in place to understand truly how our customers want to interact with our services going forward.”
A new normal
As it finally feels as though we might be able to lift our eyes over the parapet, James cautiously outlines Portsmouth’s priorities from tackling homelessness to the social housing white paper and building safety.
“It certainly feels now we can start to lift our eyes and plan our recovery—we’re not only dealing with the immediacy now. From a housing point of view, we created a response to the ‘Everybody In’ initiative by commissioning hotels. Now, we’re moving to a very different model of looking after rough sleepers—the previous model had beds in a shared environment.
“As part of the new model, we purchased some former student accommodation with around 110 self-contained rooms, where we’ll be able to wrap support around the provisions. So, it’s a sort of an ‘accommodation first’ model with support. This means we’ve vastly reduced the need for people to sleep on the streets in effect, and embedding that model is an absolute priority for us.
“With regards to the Social Housing White Paper, we continue to review what that means to how we engage with our tenants, although we already have a lot of work underway. At the same time, we’ll be responding to changes around building safety, we had a couple of tower blocks in the city with cladding which were removed—managing that is a key priority this year too.”
The wider UK Housing sector
“More broadly, the pandemic has brought about lots of opportunities to reset and reimagine how services are delivered. I’d hope to see a continuation in partnership working. It’s something the pandemic really brought to the fore—the shared purpose and integrated approach to issues was so successful.
“Also, I certainly foresee a change in the relationship social landlords have with their customers and how their customers interact with landlord services. How we can use technology to engage with our residents will be at the front and centre.”
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