Leadership Through the Pandemic
In this edition of our Spotlight on Housing series, we spoke to Dewbien Plummer, Head of Housing Strategy and Improvement at the Royal Borough of Greenwich. Dewbien describes the human element that she and her team experienced in coping with the pandemic and explains the tactics she employed to overcome the practical and emotional challenges brought about by the various lockdowns.
A career in housing
With a career spread across housing associations, arm’s-length management organisations (ALMOs) and now the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Dewbien introduces herself and her Council and describes times of change afoot for the Greenwich team.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years working for Housing Associations, then ALMOs. Now, I’m right in the heart of things at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, where we manage 26,000 homes – comprised mostly of general needs tenants and 5,000 leasehold properties.
“In my current role as Head of Housing Strategy and Improvement, I am responsible for policy and strategy performance, and business intelligence. I also manage our housing ICT teams and oversee the digital programme for housing and safer communities.
“It’s a really exciting time for us. We’ve recently appointed a new Assistant Director of Digital and Customer Services, which marked the start of a real change in how we’re approaching the delivery of our services. Within this context, we’re investing significantly in our ICT and the development of staff.”
Balancing the emotional and practical challenges of the pandemic
For Dewbien, the most significant workplace challenge of the past 12 months has been balancing the emotional aspect of coping with the pandemic, alongside managing the tangible challenges the lockdowns brought about, such as the rapid switch to remote working.
“Of course, you can’t say anything about the past 12 months without mentioning Covid. Through the pandemic, as a housing service within the Council, we’ve been right at the forefront of everything that’s happened.
“The first significant obstacle was that we didn’t have any agile working capacity pre-Covid, so we had to go from zero to fully remote working almost overnight.
“Then, as a leader with a lot of responsibility, the challenge was to navigate my own fears of the pandemic while leading and having to get things done to continue delivering essential services to our residents.
“However, once the initial stress of the pandemic settled, the challenge presented by the later months was mostly about the emotional toll and the human element involved; humanity could not be ignored.”
Creating time to talk
Within the context of this balancing act, Dewbien adapted her leadership style and forced herself to be as self-aware as possible to juggle the emotional strain the pandemic put on her and her colleagues. Alongside this, she made a conscious effort to ensure colleagues were coping with the practical challenges of agile working.
“Thinking about the human element, a lot of this was about diversity, equality and inclusion and about looking at people as individuals.
“I had to manage myself, then my staff and take each one on their own individuality and feelings. I had to take time to get to know people and manage them as individuals, and then encourage them to manage their direct reports in a similar way.
“For us, it was vital to make time to know how people were doing. It’s hard to pick that up via online meetings, so I had to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to speak. It was important to carve out the time and to create a safe space for people to talk. It happens organically in the office – there are those natural water cooler moments – but it’s harder online, so we had to foster that consciously.
“For me, there was also an element of role modelling and showing how one can be vulnerable and effective at the same time. I found that a lot of this was about ‘being the change you want to see’. That includes, for example, not sending emails at all hours of the day whilst telling people to find a work-life balance – self-awareness is critical!
“Beyond the emotional element, there was the practical aspect too, and that included making sure that everyone had the right tools and equipment to continue working remotely. It was night and day for us to move to agile working, which we did virtually overnight. As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention!
“But from there, there was a lot of training involved to make sure that everyone knew how to use the equipment and establish how we could work collaboratively with these tools—I mean ‘training’ in the loosest sense of the word. For us, this meant fostering an environment where we would share ideas or YouTube tutorials.”
Changing mindsets towards technology
Of course, as for so many social landlords, the pressure of the pandemic to move to digital alternatives for services that were traditionally face-to-face affected a change in mindset towards technology for both staff and residents. Dewbien describes the unexpected benefits of digital tools that her team had deployed to continue supporting their residents through the lockdowns effectively.
“The last 12 months pushed us into piloting several different digital tools, so our digital programme going forward will be about embedding those tools. One notable outcome of this time is it’s helped our residents – and us – to realise there are different ways of doing things. Traditionally everything has been face-to-face or on paper, but we have started to get people’s heads around the idea that there are different options.
“Some of those different options have been really effective with regards to engagement. For example, our resident meetings became virtual. This meant more people could attend, so ultimately there were greater inclusion brackets (notwithstanding the difficulties surrounding a small element of digital exclusion).”
What we can learn from the private sector
Dewbien reflects on the customer focussed nature of the private sector and how, as we build back towards a new post-pandemic normal, emulating this private sector customer-centricity will enable social landlords to navigate regulations and the directive of the social housing white paper without getting bogged down in red tape.
“Thinking about recent legislation, the white paper and everything that has come to light on the back of the tragedy at Grenfell. Going forwards, I think we should avoid focussing on this law or that regulation and think about what the spirit of all this stuff is.
“The spirit of everything we do is about engaging with our residents, having them at the centre of what we’re doing and the services that we’re providing. Private companies who are providing, for example, entertainment services are super driven by the needs of what their customers want, constantly making the customer journey better and easier and delighting their customers. We need to be emulating that.
“Of course, for private companies, there’s a focus on profit. But for us, we’re providing real life-changing essential services for people. So, I think we’ve got to be even more passionate and purpose-driven about the work that we do; to stay focussed on why we’re here and on the importance of the work that we do.”