Ongo CEO Steve Hepworth reveals how his organisation has adapted to the Coronavirus crisis and how it plans to stay strong in the face of continued adversity
How has your way of operating changed?
Before the pandemic Ongo had agile working and digital systems in place, but these were only taken up by some colleagues and customers. Post-COVID, every single colleague has successfully worked agiley, and the numbers of tenants accessing our digital platforms has increased significantly.
We have responded by improving our internal and customer facing systems – for, example by extending the range of repairs that can be reported through our My Home app, by improving the synchronisation systems our mobile devices use, and introducing Microsoft Teams.
What kind of digital transformation did you undergo?
We’ve had a significant increase in tenants using our My Home digital app, up from 35% last September to 49% this September – a total of 1,424 users.
Since re-opening our responsive repairs service after lockdown, we are seeing 70% of repairs being booked using our online system. These changes were deliberately encouraged by the way in which we re-opened our services following lockdown.
How has the way in which you interact with tenants and customers changed?
Despite the challenges a pandemic brings, we’ve found new, safe ways to offer assistance virtually. We shifted resources at the start of lockdown to concentrate on identifying our tenants most at risk of isolation and who lack access to food shopping. This resulted in us conducting over 21,000 safe-and-well calls and providing over 6,000 food parcels.
We have made increasing use of text messaging, too, both to survey tenants to assess needs and to keep in touch. Over 32,000 text messages were sent to our 10,000 tenants during the lockdown period.
“We actually had a company-wide work-from-home day arranged for 24 March – the day after Boris Johnson announced the lockdown“
We were able to maintain our most important support arrangements but deliver them digitally or via phone throughout lockdown. This meant we were still able to deliver money and benefits advice (582 tenants), employment support (259 tenants), and mental health support (116 tenants) – even without face to face contact.
We maintained contact with our involved tenants and kept tenants involved in their decision-making capacity, but moved events online using digital magazines and Facebook and video meetings.
The Ongo tenant group, Community Voice, made key decisions on how we would tackle backlogs of repairs and how we would phase in the re-opening of services. All backlogs have been caught up and gas safety inspections are back to 100%.
What was your remote working policy before the pandemic? How has it since changed?
Ongo already had agile working arrangements available for all colleagues, with no core hours for office-based roles and expectations of measuring outcomes rather than times or locations. Office roles involved hot-desking with no assigned desks or private offices.
We actually had a company-wide work-from-home day arranged for Tuesday 24 March – the day after Boris Johnson announced the lockdown on the evening of the March 23.
However, the lockdown period demonstrated that teams with previously limited agile take-up were able to cope successfully.
Our only significant change has been to introduce a web-based desk-booking system so that, now our offices can operate at a reduced capacity, we can ensure people know how many workstations are available before planning their work day.
We intend to continue allowing colleagues to choose the location and timings of their work days to meet the needs of our customers and their roles.
What have you found to be most challenging?
Communications has been a priority for Ongo, but making sure that we get the right communications via the right channels to all parts of the organisation is an ongoing challenge. We are monitoring engagement with different teams and believe that we need a range of channels to suit different roles.
That’s why we’ve introduced live Q&As with our leadership team, weekly video and email briefings from myself, and why we are using existing mediums such as our intranet to their fullest potential.
“Previously, our business continuity team was established by role – in future we will design it based on the nature of the emergency”
Although it has been a challenge, it has also been hugely successful, with a recent internal comms audit finding 98% of staff felt very or fairly informed.
Moving forward, maintaining our strong Ongo culture when we don’t see people every day is going to be a challenge. The way things ‘felt’ in the old office environment with all those unplanned interactions need to be translated into new virtual interactions that re-inforce the culture and values of the organisation.
What issues have been brought to light that you were previously unaware of?
The extent of food poverty and isolation among our tenants. That’s why we have sought out and succesfully obtained external funding to continue our work in providing food parcels and social-isolation contacts.
What key lessons have you learnt?
That values and principles matter more in times of uncertainty and emergency. We established three guiding principles at the start of the pandemic, which were:
- To keep customers and colleagues as safe as possible
- To keep providing essential services for our tenants and customers to help them get through this period
- To keep our Ongo businesses operating in the most appropriate way that means we can recover quickly and still be a viable business once the crisis is over
Referring back to these when faced with new situations or decisions proved invaluable in helping us through the difficult periods.
Further lessons learnt:
- Virtual visibility and communications rise in importance as physical visibility is removed
- The flexibility of being able to deploy people across the group is invaluable – tradespeople removed from building-site work were able to deliver food parcels, for example
- Being given the chance to press the ‘pause’ and ‘reset’ button is a very rare opportunity – as well as dealing with the human and organisational needs in the midst of the pandemic, creating time to think imaginatively about effecting lasting change in the restart period has been incredibly beneficial
If you were to go through it all again, what would you do differently?
A quicker review of the key people needed in business continuity (BC) meetings to separate the planning from the doing. Previously, our business continuity team was established by role; in future, we will design it based on the nature of the emergency. This has been a great lesson to take forward.
What preparations are you making for future crises?
Our BC plan and recovery plan is modular, with different areas and teams moving through lockdown and release stages individually to suit their particular needs.
We will continue this approach in reverse if needed, so we can move different teams to different stages of lockdown and release without applying a blanket approach.
Main image: Steve Hepworth, CEO, Ongo
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