St. Leger Homes: How building trust with staff led to improved tenant communication

Leadership Through the Pandemic

In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to Jane Davies, Head of Housing Management at St. Leger Homes of Doncaster.

Jane describes how the pandemic has helped to embed a stronger, even more trusting relationship with colleagues. Which ultimately led to a better year for rent arrears and tenant communication than ever before.

Related reading: Digital inclusion: A paradigm shift in social housing

Arm’s-length management organisations

Jane has spent her career working at St. Leger Homes. Here, she tells us how St. Leger Homes have made such a success of the arm’s-length management organisation (ALMO) business model and what’s kept her at the company for so many years.

“St. Leger Homes became an ALMO in 2005, after extensive consultation with tenants. Since then, we’ve gone from strength to strength and are one of the few remaining ALMOs —which is testament to us and how we have made this business model work.

“Part of this success is down to the fact that we stayed very aligned to the Council and their objectives but still retain autonomy and independence; we’ve made good progress: achieved decent homes, helped the council build new homes, and taken on private landlord services. We’re a very successful organisation, and that’s why I’ve stayed. I have thought about trying somewhere different for a change, but when it comes down to it, I would never want to leave this great organisation and borough.

“I first started working here when we were still with the Council. I loved seeing the positive impact we’re able to have on people’s lives – that’s my passion. Since then, I worked my way up through the ranks via many different jobs, to where I am now, Head of Housing Management. It’s my perfect job really: managing the services that I love. Of course, I still get my hands dirty, getting on the phones and doing case reviews – I’m passionate about getting things right for our tenants and being the best that we can be!”

Related reading: How Greatwell Homes are using digital tools to provide excellent customer service

Trust and pride in a team committed to caring for its residents

For Jane, her staff’s safety and mental health were the initial priorities heading into the pandemic. There was also a focus on number-crunching to stay abreast of financial targets and tenant engagement. What these numbers revealed, however, contrary to outdated misconceptions about potential decreases in output from remote colleagues, was a bumper year for tenant support and reducing rent arrears.

Agile and remote working plan

“Keeping people safe was our priority. In that context, we needed to develop our agile working plan to continue to deliver our services. So right at the start of the pandemic, a lot of my communication with staff was around finding new ways to deliver our services.

“Our IT team were probably the busiest people in the company, making sure everyone had the tools to work from home, that they had laptops and were supported to use them to the maximum – when I think back, I don’t know how we did it, but we did! In the first week, 90% of the company was mobile, and that’s a massive achievement that I’m so proud of.

Mental wellbeing and trust

“I manage circa 200 people, so of course, the mental health and wellbeing of my teams was high on my agenda. We had cascades of daily check-ins with everyone initially, making sure colleagues were alright, asking the question ‘How are you today?’ Of course, that intensive management isn’t sustainable long term, but it was important to us to make sure everyone felt cared for.

“In the early days of the pandemic, as we were adjusting to working from home, we did some monitoring around number-crunching of phone calls and how many tenants we were speaking to, as well as monitoring outputs and outcomes, such as financial gains for tenants. To be honest, though, the numbers were really positive. We were engaging with just as many tenants as we did before, and if not, more. And so, after three months, we stopped doing the tedious number crunching; the trust was there.

“We’ve absolutely smashed all of our targets and achieved amazing results with regards supporting our vulnerable tenants. The number of tenancies sustained after six months and after receiving intensive support has increased to 97.25% and we have resolved 95.14% of all anti-social behaviour cases reported to us, despite a steep increase in cases. Some of the outcomes we have achieved for tenants are: 633 tenants received intensive support, 120 DHP’s applied for, £460,000 delivered as financial gains to tenants, 230 food bank referrals, 159 food parcels delivered and 135 grant applications.  We’ve even reduced our rent arrears, which I can hardly believe – but it’s true, and that’s down to the sheer determination of our staff, making more phone calls and more analysis and increased focus on to trying different things. 

“We did have some difficulties around workload; it was manic at times; we had some difficult conversations about this. But these incredibly positive numerical outcomes are a testament to my teams pulling together and feeling motivated and passionate about wanting to do a good job. I am so, so proud of them – they knocked it out the park.”

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A changing digital offering

To ensure that Jane and her team could continue delivering services to tenants, she and her team adopted several new tools that they hope to grow and continue using as we head towards a new post-pandemic normal.

“We introduced WhatsApp to contact customers, which we now use to video call some tenants. We began to use Microsoft Teams to engage with tenant groups, which we trained them on how to use. And our property and tenancy sign-ups went digital with Adobe Sign – we’re looking to push this further in the future.”

Strategic priorities to continue caring for residents in a post-pandemic world

As we head towards a new normal, Jane paints a picture of her strategic priorities for the future: from retaining agile working to developing the patch-based working model.

“We will continue to hold on to the agile working model. An essential facet of being able to do this is the trust we have developed in each other over the past year. Most staff worked just as hard at home and some harder.  I know that from my staff, the tangible outcomes of tenant’s support needs motivate them massively. My team 100% just want to help tenants.

“The other priority for us is to rebuild communities. We do a great job supporting communities and support over 200 groups, which has been a challenge during the pandemic. We want to help those get up and running again as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do.

“While we performed well against our KPIs for the last financial year, with the end of furlough and the end of the £20 universal credit uplift looming, this financial year is going to be really challenging. So, we will prioritise how to support tenants through this in the best ways possible.

“Lastly, but by no means least, we’ll be thinking about the social housing white paper and, in particular, the increased focus on listening to our tenants. With this in mind, we’ve decided to rethink the model of having lots of different roles out in the field, such as housing officers and housing assistants, and we are now thinking about reducing their patches. This will mean that the remit of staff will need to be a bit more generic, but working with a smaller cohort of tenants will mean our colleagues have more time to devote and listen to each resident. This is a big change for our staff, and at the moment not all are convinced, but this is not about change for change’s sake; it’s about being progressive and not resting on our laurels! It’s about finding new ways to get better!”

Take the resident experience to new heights

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