In the second instalment of the Keeping up with COVID series, Johnnie Johnson’s Executive Director of ICT, Data & Digital Transformation, Steve Allcock, lends insight into how his organisation has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic
How has your way of operating changed?
It’s changed significantly. Like most businesses, we were preparing our pandemic business continuity plans before the UK lockdown hit in March and were able to swiftly mobilise when announcements were made.
The immediate plan consisted of closing our head office, vacating colleagues from our independent living schemes, and operating as much of our business as usual from home.
What kind of digital transformation did you undergo?
Certain aspects of our ICT and digital development roadmap were brought forward to support our contingency plans. This included rolling out Microsoft Office 365 and Teams so our colleagues could stay connected.
We have since been optimising those platforms to work for our business and have introduced lots of new features, including Planner, OneDrive, Stream, Sway, and SharePoint.
“Making sure our colleagues have the right IT kit and office equipment for them to work comfortably from home has been critical to our success”
We have also moved our telephony services into Microsoft Teams and have been exploring what third-party apps we can use to monitor and track call performance.
Making sure our colleagues have the right IT kit and office equipment for them to work comfortably from home has been critical to our success. This has included upgrading from desktops to laptops and rolling out mobile phones to those users who need them.
The pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to reassess our ICT and digital strategy plans to ensure the priorities still stand – after all, the world has moved on significantly.
Our plan will still focus on cloud technology, redesigning our website and secure customer portal, optimising our housing management systems, and investing in our data and insight.
How has the way in which you interact with tenants and customers changed?
Our top priority is always to keep our residents and colleagues safe and well. We’re watching and monitoring the government guidelines at all times and are focusing a lot of our communications with residents on the latest advice and guidance.
We have always been proactive with communication at Johnnie Johnson Housing (JJH), and our residents are very invested in working with us to improve our services through our various forums and panels.
Previously, these forums were held face-to-face, but they have since moved online. We have supported residents with upskilling on how to use Teams, Zoom, and Webex so they can attend as many our digital engagement activities as possible.
We held our first digital forum at the end of July, which opened up attendance to a whole new customer group that hadn’t previously engaged with us. In addition, we mobilised a new Facebook community where we post regular updates for residents, and we continue to display important and useful information within communal spaces of our schemes.
Finally, we have continued to offer the more traditional ways of communicating with residents – via phone, letter or email, as we recognise that not all residents have the confidence and skills to transact online.
As such, we’ve supported over 50 people with free online IT training so they can get more involved through a project with We are Digital, and we are now looking at how we can enhance that offer for customers in the future.
What was your policy regarding remote working before the pandemic? How has it since changed?
We have always wanted to be more agile and have provided our colleagues with the flexibility to work from home and from our offices and schemes, albeit ensuring that business priorities and residents’ needs always come first.
However, in order to make remote working a permanent feature in our business, we’ve needed the technology, people, and our property to be in the right place at the right time. The pandemic has given us that opportunity.
Since lockdown we have mobilised a new initiative called MyFutures, which consists of a group of representatives from across the business and is driven by colleagues.
The scheme is all about how, where, and where we work and aims to tackle some fundamental questions, such as:
- Can we make remote working a permanent feature at Johnnie Johnson Housing?;
- What support would our colleagues need to make this happen?
- What changes (if any) would this mean for our residents?
- How do we maintain the same excellent #OneTeam culture that we have?
- What tools, technology, and processes would we need to make this a reality?
The team worked extremely hard to answer these questions, and we maintained full transparency of our thinking and progress with colleagues.
We’re now piloting our new ways of working via a draft set of lifestyle guidelines that have been shared with colleagues via an engagement and thank-you pack sent to their homes.
The core principles of the guidelines is that colleagues have choice, flexibility, and are empowered to make the right decisions and manage their time effectively.
What have you found to be most challenging?
The biggest challenges have been around getting the right IT equipment out to colleagues and supporting them with whatever digital upskilling they have needed.
There is a big difference in working alongside a colleague whom you can lean on for support and working remotely at home, where you can feel isolated. To manage this, we’ve kept our internal communications tight and punctual and have provided colleagues with useful hints and tips on how to use the new technology. Our internal ICT Help Desk has played an invaluable role in helping colleagues transition to this new way of working.
What issues have been brought to light that you were previously unaware of?
Not so much an issue but more a challenge is how to track and measure productivity and colleague health and wellbeing.
We take both extremely seriously at JJH, which is why we’ve sent out regular surveys to gauge performance and mood among our workforce. Our leadership team also spend part of their regular catch-ups with colleagues, chatting about general health and wellbeing, and making sure colleagues are happy and feel supported.
“We hope that we never have to implement our contingency plans again, but if we do, we are ready”
These two features form part of the measures we will be monitoring over the next three-to-six months as we pilot the concept with some of our colleagues.
What key lessons have you learnt?
It is fair to say that we have a good success story, but that is purely down to the incredible resilience, hard work, and flexibility of our colleagues. We have all been on this journey together.
Two lessons we learnt very early on, which have been key to our current success, are:
- There is no one-size-fits-all – everyone has very different needs, so presenting a binary choice to colleagues will never work
- Communication is key – take colleagues on the journey with you and let them feel part of the decision-making process
If you were to go through it all again, what would you have done differently?
If we were to try and redesign our operating model in the future, there is always benefit in having face-to-face discussions with people. The pandemic hasn’t afforded us that option, but we’ve done our best to deliver at pace and keep people informed throughout the journey.
What preparations are you making for future crises?
Our business continuity team consists of leaders from across the business who have met daily throughout the pandemic. They have delivered some exceptional work, including a full plan for handling any future spikes and events, which may affect our day-to-day operation. Our plans are broken down across the different divisions within the business and these have been shared and supported by the executive team.
We obviously hope that we never have to implement our contingency plans again, but if we do, we are ready.
Main image: Steve Allcock, Executive Director of ICT, Data & Digital Transformation, Johnnie Johnson
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