Broadacres Housing Association has fared reasonably well during the COVID-19 crisis. Though, as its director of Business Transformation, Chris Fawcett, explains, a fortuitous run-through of a pandemic scenario just last year couldn’t have hurt
How has your way of operating changed?
In truth, there has been no major shift in our operational approach at Broadacres. We are an agile rural housing provider of around 6,500 homes, spread across North Yorkshire.
We deliver high quality services to our customers, and where possible we do this in-house, so not being reliant on contractors has really helped us to stop and restart services safely.
Believe it or not, we ran a business continuity test in 2019 on a scenario of no offices and a pandemic. We practiced running our contact centre from home. We occasionally get snowed in, but a bigger scenario of a pandemic was more fun. We certainly didn’t ever expect a pandemic for real just a year later.
What kind of digital transformation did you undergo?
In summary, it’s been a shift in mindset from colleagues toward the opportunities that arise through using technology more actively.
Our remote workers had technology that they were not fully utilising, for example, as they were keeping habits from their old ways of working. But we’ve seen a huge change in colleague attitudes toward using video calls and electronic post.
“We ran a business continuity test in 2019 on a scenario of no offices and a pandemic – we certainly didn’t expect a pandemic for real just a year later”
Our in-house trainer has been really busy trying to keep up with the demand from colleagues to learn more about how they can make best use of their apps on the iPhones and laptops.
How has the way in which you interact with customers changed?
COVID-19 has caused some real differences across our teams in regard to how they interact with customers. As ever, flexibility has been key!
For example, in extra care, catering and cleaning have worked hard to deliver great customer experience during staff shortages, while wearing additional PPE and keeping their social distance. Some of our housing colleagues have switched roles to help deliver meals in extra care homes, while the main dining rooms are closed.
Some Broadacres staff changed roles to ensure quality service was maintained
Elsewhere in Broadacres, colleagues have taken on befriending services and call up those customers identified as vulnerable to check they’re okay and have the support they need at a difficult time. We’ve also worked closely with our local partners to ensure people have the right support.
What was your policy regarding working from remote working before the pandemic? How has it changed?
We’re still working on this: when you need the policy there’s often something wrong, and we’ve not needed it yet!
Previously, we removed some of the bureaucracy and empowered colleagues to make decisions on the frontline, which has really helped us in the short term.
Two-thirds of our workforce are mobile workers, so for them it’s been nice to take the office away from the desk jockeys and see how they respond to mobile working. Desk-based colleagues were familiar with working from home the odd day, but they’re now doing it full-time, and mostly they love it. It’s helped us feel more like one big team, knowing we’re all in the same position.
Managers are giving more flexibility to colleagues to manage their own working times and targets, too, which is great.
What have you found most challenging?
The conflicting messages from government and lack of certainty on when the virus will reduce has been a constant challenge.
We practise business continuity and, as I’ve stated, we even rehearsed a pandemic scenario that would see office closures. But in any BCP recovery, you look to establish the impact and the length of time to plan your response accordingly.
As a senior team, we’ve had to meet daily to understand the different messages coming from government. Our focus at Broadacres has always been to communicate with colleagues in a way that is clear and simple.
What issues have been brought to light that you were previously unaware of?
We didn’t appreciate as a business how agile we already were. Some colleagues hadn’t ever used their laptops fully from home and were surprised when everything worked!
Also, we’ve realised just how reliant we are on the frontline workers and how we must appreciate the difficulty of their roles. Colleagues have joined bubbles in extra care teams and volunteered to keep those services running.
We’re all really proud of how the various partner organisations and colleagues have all pulled together to look after our vulnerable customers.
What key lessons have you learnt?
Communication, communication, communication! The importance of keeping messages simple and trusting colleagues and managers by giving more flexibility has been the real lesson for us here at Broadacres.
If you were to go through it all again, what would you do differently?
From a technology perspective, I’m really pleased: this crisis has given the ICT team a chance to shine and show what they can do.
Communications would be different next time around, though. We now know much better how our different teams prefer different methods of communication.
“We didn’t appreciate how agile we already were – some colleagues hadn’t ever used their laptops from home and were surprised when everything worked!”
If we did it again, we’d alter the communications based on the recipient team, using a variety of vlogs, social media, and short email messages. When speaking to Property Services with what I thought was an inspirational leadership update, they said: “Ok, Chris, can we just have the risk assessment please.”
This was great, though. Many teams just wanted to do their job and needed to know if there was any changes they should be aware of.
What preparations are you making for future spikes/pandemics?
We’ve agreed we like this way of working and that we won’t go back to the old Monday-to-Friday office routine.
We’re also looking at how we can create more flexibility around the frontline by sharing skills so we can help each other better if there are shortages or spikes in certain teams or services.
In the office, we’re creating more collaboration spaces and reducing the number of desks. We’re working hard to make sure colleagues take their holidays and get some rest, as it’s been tough on everyone.
Main image: Chris Fawcett, director of Business Transformation, Broadacres Housing Association
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