Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

I’m not one for New Year resolutions, they’re not worth the booze stained paper they’re written on. Whilst an arbitrary date might help some on the path to negating an annoying habit/chronic cake addiction, the reality is that most of us will fail to keep to those good intentions. Governments are not excluded from such foibles, especially when it comes to housing policy. Unfortunately, unlike the Konami games of old, you can’t just use a cheat code to solve a nation’s housing market problems. A pity really, given the way housing policy is currently heading we probably need all the ‘help’ we can get.

OK Time for Plan B

For all the positive vibes coming from the Barwell/Javid axis little has materially changed so far in May’s tenure as Prime Minister. The switch in rhetoric has been welcome, and you do genuinely get the feeling that Sajid Javid is sincere in his desire to improve the housing situation facing many in the UK. However rhetoric and reality have not quite met. At least not consistently. Indeed it seems at times that Mrs May is willing to do pretty much anything to help the housing crisis, apart from actually do things that will help on a practical level. Promises of a Britain that works for the many have so far fallen flat. That needs to change, sharpish.

Right to Buy, or at least its extension to Housing Associations, is seemingly getting kicked into the long grass (FYI check out Nick Atkin’s piece on why RTB has had its day here). Positive news over better regulation for parts of the PRS and the scrapping of lettings fees should help those renting. But policy and capital funding wise the Autumn Statement proved to largely be a bust. The vast majority of the £44bn earmarked for housing initiatives has been kept for demand side interventions. And of that all bar £15.3bn had already been announced.

A give away on Stamp Duty and a continuation of policies such as Help to Buy are not really what the doctor ordered. With Help to Buy being described by the Adam Smith Institute as being like throwing petrol onto a bonfire. Whilst the Stamp Duty cut is a great example of a policy that on the surface is great for individual households but is actually bollocks at the macro-economic level – a typical state of play for housing policy in the last 2 decades.

Elsewhere, although several million has been set aside to help with homelessness initiatives. Even here Theresa May has managed to piss me off. Her response at the last PMQs before Christmas showed just how little she understands the subject. She also showed that you can be right on a technicality, but utterly wrong on the bigger picture. Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sleeping rough. But regardless, the lack of a safe, secure and affordable home has serious detrimental effects. Still, shout out to Theresa May’s researchers for finding the one technical point where the homelessness situation wasn’t total crap. But make no mistake, as a country we’ve been regressing alarmingly on this issue since 2010.

Here Comes the New Sound, Just Like the Old Sound

Since the clusterfuck that was the Brexit vote and subsequent change of personnel in Government I’ve been hoping for a significant departure, in practical terms, from the clueless/ideologically driven housing policy under Cameron et al. Sadly, some honourable mentions aside, what we’ve had so far is more of the same.  Plus ca change. Some improvements have been made, but it’s all a bit piecemeal.

Still, it could be worse, the Conservative Party’s attempt at revamping its social media presence is nothing short of alarming. Honestly, Activate is probably the shittest thing I’ve come across on social media since Mogg-Mentum. It sounds like the start of a fight on Robot Wars for fucks sake. Who are these clowns? Have they met real life people? One only hopes that Conservatives spend more time on fine tuning their housing policy in the upcoming Housing Green Paper than they have on their current social media engagement strategy. Otherwise we really are fucked.

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

Photo Credit – Emil Athanasiou (2015) Same Yet Different

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Do Millennials Dream of Electric Sheep?

Organisations need to be smarter in how they approach general training, personal development and high level talent management if they are to get the best out of their staff.

Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want

When asked to prioritise what they want millennials tend to want jobs where they can make a difference, have personal development, as well as to be able to work flexibly and attain job fulfilment. Sometimes these are substituted for just being able to have a job. The first three points are consistently given as more important than simply getting a bigger paycheck.  Though on a personal level if you wanna chuck more cash at me, I ain’t gunna bitch about it. Joking aside, this is a change in priorities when compared to previous generations. It is something businesses are yet to fully get to grips with. That is partly down to how they approach personal development, something that needs to be worked on.

Don’t get me wrong, you shouldn’t believe all the hype. Millennials won’t solve all your organisation’s problems. But neither are they the complete shower that some would like to have you believe. My kith and kin have simply grown up at a time where one’s life goals and career paths have become increasingly fluid. An occurrence born out of necessity as much as design. Because after one of the biggest financial disasters occurs you take whatever work you can get.  This has had knock-on consequences in our outlook on jobs and life more generally.

Tailoring to fit

People may largely want the same thing (to get paid, to develop, to progress) but how that is achieved can vary significantly. For all of the talk of flexible working, and the desire for a job that fulfils malark, even we pesky kids still want steady jobs, regular benefits and paychecks from our employers. Presumably because sweet thoughts, dreams and unicorns don’t pay the exorbitant rent we have to cough up. But more broadly life approaches are different. That nuance is important when designing, delivering &  embedding in training and development programmes.

But all the above is moot if the culture behind the organisation stymies what your employees are learning. Because there is no point sending your staff on expensive training programmes if the culture, politics and environment back in the workplace nullifies any potential benefits/changes in approach at its source. For a case and point check out this article on leadership training and how it fails. It is, illuminating, but also beautifully highlights the point. In short, only when you get your house in order, will your flock, and business, grow.

This Is The End, My Only Friend, The  End

Fundamentally, understanding how your employees tick will enable you to go a long way in getting the best out of them. I’ve used millennials as an example in this blog because I am one, and they’re increasingly making up a significant chunk of our workforce. But the point applies across all your employees. Because, as this excellent blog from Tom Murtha points out, you don’t stop your development upon reaching the loftier levels of an organisation.

Obviously, the type and level of support of 40 year old director needs is very different to an apprentice new on the job. But they are part of the same whole. And in the end it’s just about people, their aspirations, and how that can be tapped into moving the organisation forward.

Photo Credit – Dickson Phua (2017) – The Spiral Into Desolation

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

A Hotel of Views

Talent management is essential to both the future of the sector and the organisations that make it. Consequently it makes sense to work together to provide what many cannot do on their own.

Let’s Push Things Forward

As Adam Clark noted we still have an issue with people ‘falling’ into the sector like it’s a good thing. Certainly it’s the standard joke at any housing event I’ve been to. But clichés aside we’re still behind on nurturing talent and promoting the sector as a career of choice. Part of the issue is due to the disparate nature of the beast. Whilst there are some behemoths about, the majority fall into the Small to Medium Enterprise category. Whilst not intrinsically a bad thing, it means it’s doubly hard to set up AND maintain talent programmes. They require time, effort and drive. Lose one or two key staff members and the programme falls by the wayside.

The NHF has the Young Leaders events, the CIH has the Rising Stars, both are great for highlighting the potential we have in the sector. Having met winners and finalists of both they are humble, ambitious and utterly talented people. But it strikes me that few have been able to slot into follow-on talent development programmes. The kudos gained from entering national competitions has helped get them noticed but what happens afterwards? Elsewhere the GEM Programme is an exceptional means by which to get graduates into the sector.  But again, what happens after the initial placements end? How do we, as a sector, manage the undoubtedly talented guys and gals that we have?

Ducks fly together

It’s normally at this point in a blog about personal development that Richard Branson is quoted. This blog is no different. For me, the two most notable ones from him/Virgin more generally are:

Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.

If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.

They’re great quotes, and great principles to work towards but where are Housing’s Richard Bransons? I fully agree with Nick Atkin that we need to change our shop window. But to do that we need to have an honest look at ourselves, at who we want to be as organisations and as a sector. I’ve no doubt that many organisations want to develop and invest in their staff above and beyond what they already do. But whilst that willingness may be there in terms of developing talent, the ability to do so might not be.

For me what is needed is a sector wide development programme. One that allows the participants to work within different organisations as well as between different departments as is usually the case. As I’ve said before, we’re pretty darn good at sharing knowledge and best practice. Why not share the nurturing of the talent that will drive us forward?

The advantage of working together is the shared benefits. Organisations without the ability to provide talent programmes of their own would be able to offer their staff an opportunity to develop that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Bigger organisations could benefit from an outside view of their systems and processes that could be otherwise drowned out.  There’s also potential to help even out the mix and match talent managment programmes the sector currently has. Everybody wins.

This approach might not work for all, but the worst that will happen is that we just return to what we’re doing now. Hardly the end of the world in terms of risk, so why not try?

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

Photo Credit – Eirik Refsdal (2007) Scaffold

Wolves

Since I was a kid I’ve always listened to an absurdly varied/eclectic mix of music. I’m as likely to listen to the ear-bleed inducing tones of Amon Amarth as I am BB King. Probably helped by the fact the old dear loved Fleetwood Mac as much as Chris De -fucking-Burgh, or Steeleye Span (who did a whole fricking song in Latin) as much as the Rolling Stones. The old Man has a more focused musical taste – essentially anything after the 1970s sucks.

A song I find myself returning to is by the Hip Hop group Dead Prez (you’ve probably heard one of their tunes without knowing it – it’s on this VW advert). Well, it isn’t actually much of a song, it’s a speech by Omali Yeshitela which itself is overlaid on a sample of ELO’s Another Heart Breaks. In his speech Omali uses a wolf hunting anecdote – where wolves are tricked to bleed to death by licking a blood covered knife blade – to highlight how the use of crack-cocaine (i.e. the production and selling of it) by African Americans to obtain material wealth has subsequently done enormous damage to their communities across the US. For the purpose of this blog it’s also an apt metaphor for the UK’s relationship with its housing market.

Too much of a bad thing is worse than too much of a good thing

With the Housing Market being such a significant part of our economy successive Governments have chosen to prioritise a superficially buoyant housing market over a sustainable, stable one. By focusing on one element of housing, home ownership, they have helped to create a market that is working for an increasingly smaller section of society. Just like the wolf in Omali Yeshitela‘s speech, what Governments have thought was a free meal will ultimately be their undoing.

The horrific scenes at Grenfell seem to have hit a nerve with the public in a way many in the sector have failed to do over the years. It shouldn’t need this sort of horror to to jolt the public consciousness, particularly as this has happened before. The front headline of Inside Housing was simply How could this happen. AGAIN. I must confess I share their disbelief. It is as appalling as it is preventable.

I am not going to go through the ins and outs of the technicalities on Fire Risk Assessments (and associated regulations) in high rises. Because frankly I haven’t got a clue on the subject. However, a worthwhile (non-technical) perspective on Grenfell is available here by the Municipal Dreams blog. I just hope lessons truly are learned this time.

Better the Devil you don’t know, ‘cos this one sucks

Much of the anger around Grenfell is tied to the lack of voice those who raised concerns have had. They reflect the broader sidelining of renters by successive Governments. Who have failed to provide adequate protection for those living in rented accommodation. Politicians have consistently riled at further state regulation of the most basic element of human need, shelter. With such moves often being portrayed as some sort of mad cap descent into Stalinist autocracy. Case and point:

The Revenge Eviction Bill’s first incarnation was filibustered by Philip Davies and Christopher Chope. When Labour’s attempt to ensure private renters were able to expect housing that was fit for habitation both the current Secretary of State for the DCLG, Sajid Javid, and our former PM David Cameron voted against it, one of 72 MPs registered as landlords that helped to defeat the bill. I’m sorry, but how the fuck is that controversial enough to vote down? The answer is it’s not. But politically speaking renters (like the young) are seen as easy enough to ignore. It’s simply been more politically expedient to ignore renters than help them.

Grenfell may well turn out to be a tipping point in housing policy in the UK. But that will only happen if the sector stands up for what is morally, financially and policy-wise the right thing to do. David Lammy’s comments on the future direction we as a society need to decide on are available here. They are heartfelt and, in my humble opinion, are 100% correct. It’s a discussion we need to get involved with. The sooner, the better, if we are to make the UK Housing market work for those at the top, as well as the bottom.

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

Photo Credit –Wojtek Gurak (2011) Celosia Social Housing

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)