Wherever I May Roam

As work/life balance becomes an increasingly important consideration for employees the role of the traditional office setting is changing. Remote working and flexible working have reduced the need to have an organisation’s workers based in an office. The challenge for organisations is to adapt their culture, as much as their IT infrastructure, to get the best of both worlds.

Most people could work from Timbuktu provided they had a reliable internet connection and a phone with a good international dialling plan

The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step

One of the most significant stumbling blocks regarding remote/flexible working for organisations is not the physical infrastructure, although that can always be improved, but the culture of the business. Far too many see working from home, or at least away from the office, as something to be avoided at all costs. It is reflective of a failure to have a grown up relationship with your staff and the ability to be adaptable in the workplace. Most people could work from Timbuktu provided they had a reliable internet connection and a phone with a good international dialling plan. In all likelihood they’d be doing their job just as well as if they were sat in an office in Milton Keynes.

Personally I’ve always been a fan of treating staff as grown ups until they prove otherwise. Yes there will always be those that take the piss, but a happy workforce is a productive one. And if as an employer you can help ease part of the day to day stress inducing clusterfuck that is life by allowing staff to work from home or pick up their kids from school, why the hell not give it a try? If you’re unsure as to the benefits, here’s a link to a blog I quickly Googled to pad out this paragraph. It’s actually quite useful. Elsewhere here’s a good piece on why offering flexible working also helps.

Getting away from walk-in traffic is occasionally invaluable

A Word of Caution

Working remotely is not all plain sailing. Working from home or in a different office to your usual one will always require a small amount of adjustment. Even if it’s just for basic things like knowing where the non decaf coffee is kept (honestly who drinks coffee without the caffeine content). It is also important not to underestimate the value of relationships built up by face to face contact. Different personality types will cope better than others.

What helped me during the few weeks this year when I had no office to call home (it was undergoing a refurb) was the fact that I’d been working from home 1 day every 1-2 weeks for the last year. Whilst forcing myself to get away from walk-in traffic is occasionally invaluable for ‘admin days’ or mini projects, it also meant there was less of a shock for me on day one as I had already sorted my routine. It meant that my line manager and I also knew what to expect. For every diligent worker there will be one who ends up eating ice-cream in their PJ’s watching Jeremy Kyle rather than working. Easing people into such changes, as well as setting up clear boundaries/expectations, is therefore a must.

That’s a Wrap

As with many aspects of modern work there have been many improvements made to make our jobs easier. As employers it is also important to try and create a working environment that facilitates productive workers. For some this means office based working. For others it means 2 days a week at home so they can pick up the kids on time. Sticking rigidly to one way of working is simply nonsensical, backward and will ultimately have a negative impact on your organisation. Evolve a little, the results may surprise you.

Photo Credit – Michal Scuglik – Abandoned Office (2011)

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Warm Smiles Don’t Make You Welcome Here

Housing Associations are increasingly trapped by their own ambitions and whilst Mr Hilditch is right to highlight mission creep, the sector’s problems go deeper than simply chasing dollar signs. It still does not understand how to deliver good customer service based on the needs of its end users. Continued failure to address this issue will further erode credibility in the sector and ultimately the very values it claims to uphold.

Customer Service

For those blissfully detached from the internet over the last couple of weeks the power of failing in the very basics of customer service was beautifully highlighted by United Airlines. A fee paying passenger was physically, and very forcefully removed, (getting injured in the process) on a flight that was overbooked. Whilst initially unrepentant and largely unapologetic. Sharp drops in the company’s share prices, alongside a massive social media backlash forced the CEO Oscar Munoz to apologise. It is an extreme case, but highlights that get customer service wrong in the private sector and you will, literally, pay the price. And that’s before the inevitable lawsuit.

For me this is where a large number of the problems with the sector lie. The main focus of a business, social or otherwise, should be to ensure that the customer gets a good service. That comes from a culture that accepts and embraces customer service as a necessity. Something that social housing orgs, without the type of competition seen in the private sector, have struggled to come to terms with.

The Power of the Market, but Beware of the Dark Side

Some of the most popular apps have been developed out of a perceived need. I can order an Uber, book a table, hunt for houses to rent all on my smart phone (another need based development). Yet when it comes to social housing how progressive have we been in our service offer? As Tim Pinder has noted, only a modest number of social housing organisations offer customers the rather simple ability to book a repairs appointment online. I think he was being polite regarding his nod to the fact that in reality most of these were actually ‘fancy emails’ with a scheduler still required to actually sort the appointment. Not only does this save time and effort for customers, as Tim notes it can also deliver savings for the organisation. The two factors are not mutually exclusive.

Elsewhere opening hours continue be highly restrictive and inflexible. Opening 9am-5pm is next to useless for most people who work. So too is being open Mon – Fri. Letting agents in the private rented and home ownership sectors are open on a Saturday. This is because they recognise the need to be available at times that suit potential customers. So why aren’t social landlords who own and manage tens of thousands of units doing the same? Even banks have changed their opening times to be more customer friendly (admittedly dragging their heels the whole way). Again, why aren’t we looking at this seriously? Flexible hours of working should not just be for the benefit of staff. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting a marketisation (is that a word? It is now) of social housing, anyone who’s witnessed the basket-case of New Labour quasi-markets in the NHS will know the perils of trying to create a state-led market out of thin air†. Certainly not all organisations act in the best interests of their customers, or even the long term viability of the business. However, the lack of a need for invention combined with the nature of many of the organisations that provide social housing has inevitably left the UKHousing sector wanting in a number of ways.

Talk is Cheap

We’ve often talked about embracing the better elements of the private sector. But in reality these have largely been confined to pursuing activities that make more money (not a bad thing in and of itself). But not on the relentless, necessary drive for developing and improving products/services* or the need for good, responsive customer care. Or the requirement to design services around the needs of the customer, not around the business, or worse still – what the business thinks the needs of the end user are.

I will let others rally around the Big is Bad, Developer is bad arguments. There are truths and falsehoods there. As this documentary by Adam Curtis has noted the problems highlighted by John Harris and by Steven Hilditch on build quality and customer service are nothing new in the development of properties for the social housing sector. As with housing policy more generally these issues have a depressingly predictable tendency to come round full circle.

As ever, it depends on the organisation, the culture and the desire to improve as a business, and yes – the profit motive if you wish to improve the services you provide. Key to this is putting the customer at the forefront of what you do, otherwise it’s just lip service. A stance that ultimately will erode your service offer, trust in you as an organisation and the very values you should be standing up for. The choice is simple one, but it’s yours to make.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Picture Credit – Wojtek Gurak – Bouça Social Housing

†That and , you know, pretty much every single ‘communist’ country, ever.

*There are obviously some caveats here, I’ve lost count of the number of tech firms I’ve come across directly and indirectly that are flogging a bit of kit that last saw major investment when Tony Blair was still PM. But you get the gist.

 

Arguing With Thermometers

Fact, fiction or managing the narrative? Housing has long had an image problem, one that has been embedded by failure to counter powerful narratives to pervade public discourse and, to a large extent, public policy initiatives. Is it time for the sector to get down and dirty?

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

A recent train of thought I’ve come across is the (statistically backed) claim that we need to stop pretending that everyone is a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. This is largely because there are real and significant differences in the chances of someone becoming homeless. These heavily (but not exclusively) depend on one’s age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. My only problem with above argument is that despite being technically correct, such approaches miss the point.

The dominant narrative around homelessness has been that individual pathology i.e. our own choices and behaviours are by far and away the main driver for one’s housing situation. This message has been picked up and rammed home to such an extent that it largely goes unchallenged. This has problematic consequences for housing policy because it impedes the ability of people to back ‘progressive’ policy changes i.e. it makes our job a lot harder than it should be. Something Campbell Robb nailed in this post whilst still at Shelter.

Hypocrite

Simply stating technical arguments isn’t going to reverse this wet dream of the centre right. Because it assumes that evidence based arguments have got us to where we are. Quite bluntly they haven’t. Emotive, ideologically driven bullshit has. We’re not really living in a post facts age. People have just refined ways of finding what they perceive to be evidence based support for the way they view the world. However, what has been interesting about the gradual change in the tide of public opinion in housing (both here and over in the US) is that it’s become less of an ethereal problem that effects others. Everyone has family, colleagues, and friends who have been affected or know someone affected by housing affordability problems. It brings home a policy issue that previously been on one’s periphery. This offers a way in for those looking to influence public opinion.

Homelessness is more of a tricky beast. Those working in the sector have long been alarmed at the rising rates of homelessness. But this doesn’t engage with the public. Don’t believe me, casually observe people’s behaviour when they see street homeless. Better still, observe your own. There is a real detachment here, from empathy and acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

Whilst people don’t care about technical arguments, they do care about what affects them, their friends, their families. They also like to believe negative life events happen to other people, preferably due to their own poor choices rather than an ingrained unjust system in which they play a part. It’s more of a convenience to blame other individuals rather than structural problems associated with our drug like dependency on the housing market. Whilst many of us have friends struggling with their housing situation. Few know a homeless person.

It Ain’t What You Do It’s the Way that You Do it

I’ve long argued for the UKHousing sector to own the narrative, to control the image relating to it. It has routinely failed to do so. But more recently progress has been made as better lobbying and a different Government, with its head at least partially out of the clouds, providing a tweak in housing policy. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has also shown signs of change. Albeit one that will be utterly insignificant if we do not build more social housing. Honestly kids, that part of the housing crisis is the easy bit.

As ever it’s the PR and Marketing side of things that has let both the housing and homelessness sectors down on occasion. Too much facts, not enough empathy. Particularly at a time where one can easily twist publicly available information to meet their own desired view of the world. Our message needs to be clearer, simpler and more accessible. That doesn’t mean diluting the truth, but it does mean refining the message.

A massive thanks to Beth Watts for both initial discussions and some very useful reading material. Also to Burcu Borysik for tweets from #CrisisConf which helped to frame this blog. As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Birgit Kulbe (2012) Homeless

Music References

Arguing With Thermometers – Enter Shikari (2012)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip (2007)

Hypocrite – Midasuno (2002)

It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do it) – Bananarama (1982)

 

Walking Into The Sunset

tommurtha

As I approach my 65th Birthday I have been thinking about the next stage of my life.

Walking Into The Sunset.

It is London Marathon time again and my Twitter lifeline is full of brave women and men who will be running it for the first time. I wish them well. I ran my first London Marathon in 1983, the year our son Kieran was born. I dedicated the race to him. I ran regularly for the next 15 years until my body could take no more. A combination of a trapped sciatic nerve and knee problems forced me to stop. So I began walking instead.

I have always looked for new challenges in my life. Five years ago on 13th April I gave up my Chief Executive’s role at Midland Heart, to make way for the next generation. At the time I wondered how I would adapt to my…

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Don’t worry our values will save us.

tommurtha

Profit for purpose, social business, business head social heart, value driven, social enterprise. I am sure you will recognise these terms. They are all used to describe housing associations in the new era. They are intended to show that even though housing associations are diversifying, entering new markets and becoming more commercial they are doing it to continue to deliver social values.

When I speak or write about the risks of diversification I am often told that there is nothing to worry about as the sector is still committed to strong social values and that its leaders will ensure that this continues to be the case. I have argued elsewhere that history shows that organisations who have gone down this route, even though they begin by making this claim, often end up by being driven by their financial imperatives and not their values. The reply to this is that I…

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Right To Bye

The Welsh Government has begun the process to scrap the Right to Buy in Wales. For the social housing sector this will be an important victory if it makes it through the Welsh Assembly. It highlights the fascinating splintering of approaches to housing across the UK, and whilst not universally popular, it is a decision that (it is hoped) will help with the shortage of social housing in Wales. Along with similar measures already put through in Scotland case studies of scrapping the Right to Buy are abound for those in England to mull over.

It’s a Numbers Game

There is a stat I have regularly used to put things in perspective regarding Right to Buy, and it’s one that is worth repeating. In 1980 UK had just over 7 million permanent dwellings rented from LA or Housing Associations*, by 2014 that figure was under 5 million (DCLG Live Table 101). In 1980 the number of social housing units started and completed by HAs* or Councils was 109,930. In 2014 it was just 30,090 (DCLG Live Table 211). In broadly the same period (1980/81 to 2013/14) 1.8 million properties were bought under Right To Buy. Put simply we’ve lost too much and replaced too little social housing (see the chart below).

If the Government was willing to ensure Councils got the full market value of the property and all the receipts, or even facilitated the tenants buying a house elsewhere at an equivalent discount, and crucially guarantee a 1:1, like for like replacement I’d be all for it. But historically that simply hasn’t happened, and improved noises from Barwell et al aside, I don’t see this changing any time soon. And therefore neither will my opposition to Right to Buy.

More’s the point research has consistently shown that 1) Right to Buy has had an adverse impact on the housing benefit bill, diverting resources to (higher cost) private renting than would have been the case 2) crucially through the loss of social housing Right to Buy has intensified problems of housing affordability. In London the problem has been particularly acute.

Dwellings by Sector new
Source -DCLG Live Table 101 [Dwellings] by Tenure (UK) Historical Series
As a side note, the IFS did some interesting modelling work on Right to Buy prior to the Voluntary Version coming into play. It’s worth a read.

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way that You Do It

Subtle changes have been occurring with the current UK Government’s approach to housing. Gavin Barwell has admitted, at least in part, that replacements for RTB have not always been secured fast enough and has sought to increase capital funding for non-market rent properties. And it seems the urgency for the roll out of VRTB has been somewhat tempered.

Elsewhere the passing of Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill has been heartening, as has the interest being shown by Sajid Javid in the Housing First approach to treating vulnerable homeless individuals. 18 months ago this was frankly unthinkable. They show a more mature approach to tackling the various housing crises in this country than has previously been the case since 2010. Albeit with continuing issues on Welfare provision, which is an intrinsic part of the picture.

Conclusions

Ultimately the scrapping of Right to Buy in Scotland, and now potentially in Wales are unlikely to influence the current Government. But they will provide the opportunity to test how to end a policy that has, for the most part, benefited the individual at the cost of the wider community, and by extension society. If we are to have a more balanced, long-term approach to housing in the UK it needs to go. Whether there is the political will to do that remains to be seen. Either way it’s a fascinating, if endlessly frustrating, time to be a housing policy geek.

 *What the DCLG wraps up under the umbrella of a Housing Association.

Eyes Wide Shut

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” (Dalai Lama, Ages Ago)

The words above are one of the most insightful quotes I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It is also a quote I have to work very hard at acting on. Putting my personality flaws aside it is a quote that also needs to be taken on board by the housing sector when looking at their Customer Feedback programmes. Because quite often listening isn’t the end game. It’s figure chasing.

If You Book Them, They Will Come

At one and the same time being a landlord is actually very simple and incredibly difficult. You collect rent, you carry out repairs, put in place planned works to upgrade old/defective kitchens/boilers etc and you ensure tenancy conditions are kept. The only thing(s) in the way are people, processes and the organising of the two. As a result, whilst on the surface being a landlord is simple, doing the above on time, in budget and in a manner that provides excellent customer service is actually damned difficult. Worse still, get it wrong and your customers will let you know in no uncertain terms.

One of the mistakes people make with customer satisfaction is the fixation on improving the score. This might seem odd, particularly as KPIs, Performance Reviews and even parts of Contractor Performance Payments can be reliant on these measures. But often such a focus results in measures being tweaked, targets being dropped, time periods of performance reviewed. None of which solve the underlying issues impacting on performance i.e poor quality service/dysfunctional service delivery/expectation management failure. Resolve the problems impacting on service delivery and the satisfaction score will look after itself. Not the other way round.

Knowing Me, Knowing You (Aha)

The problem with putting the voice of the customer front and centre, is that it goes against the ingrained nature of many housing associations. Attitudes regarding the relationship between the customer (tenant etc) and the organisation get stuck in a paternalistic prism. At best they’re put up with, at worst they are marginalised. We expect to be able to provide the answer and give it to our customers. Whether they like it or not, or whether it solves the problem or not.

But as Paul Taylor quite rightly notes – individuals and organisations can be pretty crap at identifying and solving the real issues affecting us and our customers. Such a scenario is a complete waste of everyone’s time. But if we treat customers as the grown up, informed individuals (and their families) that they are and marry that up with ‘hard measures’/metrics of performance.  Our chances of identifying, and then solving, the right problems (thus improving customer satisfaction) will be greatly improved.

Closing the Loop

One of the things that genuinely pisses me off is that often organisations allude to customer engagement. But fail to understand the nature of the beast. Most are content with sticky buns and coffee on a wet Wednesday afternoon. That’s fine, it’s a part of the puzzle. But if someone has bothered to provide you with feedback on a service, that is engagement. The very least you can do is take on-board the problems they’ve identified, check if it forms a part of a wider set of issues and do something about it. Otherwise what is the point of having a Customer Feedback programme if you’re not going to use the information it provides?

Wrapping it up – Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Customers don’t whinge for the sake of it (for the most part). They are on the receiving of the services you provide. Anger, distress and upset are symptoms of service failure. Identify the root causes and nullify them. But you can only do that if you’re willing to take on-board what is being said and tie it to your service improvement activities. What we think are the issues might not actually be the case. Be humble, open your ears and learn something new. Otherwise you will just carry on making the same mistakes.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Lisa @ Sierra Tierra (2012) Customer Comments Chalkboard