With new lockdowns in force across many of its communities, including some Tier 3 restrictions, North West housing provider Plus Dane knows it can’t let its guard down against COVID yet, as Acting Chief Executive Ian Reed explains
How has your way of operating changed?
The Plus Dane offices have been closed since March, with the vast majority of colleagues working from home. The two biggest changes in the way we operate have been in how we interact with customers – who we would usually see face-to-face – and keep our colleagues safe.
We made more than 2,000 additional welfare calls to customers in the first weeks of lockdown. Our repairs teams were limited to emergencies and compliance work such as gas safety checks until June, when we began to clear the backlog of non-urgent jobs.
In addition to our usual responsibilities, as a response to the pandemic we joined forces with other housing associations in the region to prioritise housing the homeless in our void properties, a partnership that has so far provided homes for more than 300 people.
What kind of digital transformation did you undergo?
Our IT team moved quickly enabling us to equip colleagues throughout the business who were previously unable to work remotely, resourcing and configuring nearly 100 laptops to allow people to work from home. We were already in the process of rolling out MS Teams, so we accelerated this to ensure we stayed connected.
The business continuity plan we had in place highlighted potential issues to address, such as ensuring printer access for colleagues and that we were always striving to improve the ways in which we contact customers.
From there, we identified areas we found we needed to shift to digital quickly – like using DocuSign for tenancy agreements and making more use of text message services.
Our board and governance committees shifted to virtual meetings straight away, and this has worked successfully throughout.
How has the way in which you interact with customers changed?
For customers, a lot has changed as we can’t go into their homes and they cannot come into the office to see us. So, we have made more of using our digital capabilities. Incoming phone calls and social media enquiries, for example, have increased significantly.
“The offices have been closed since March – the two biggest changes in the way we operate have been in how we interact with customers and keep our colleagues safe”
We have also carried out more direct communications to tenants through text and email to supplement the information we are putting on our website and social channels.
Our supported housing network shifted from face-to-face visits to making daily phone calls to our shielding customers and others vulnerable to the virus. Our lettings team is able to complete tenancy agreements digitally now, too.
What was your policy regarding remote working before the pandemic? How has it since changed?
Plus Dane had been moving toward a more agile way of working before lockdown ahead of a pending office move, so the pandemic forced us to move quicker to meet the challenge.
A temporary working-from-home policy was made available to colleagues. Even before the pandemic, we believed our values and behaviours promoted a culture of trust with a focus on delivering the very best service to our customers, and agile working enables behaviours that help these values come to life.
Agile working also helps deliver benefits to our business, our colleagues, and the environment.
Staff survey results have given us quite positive feedback on the mental wellbeing of colleagues since March, and we are continuing to support colleagues who will be working from home for a longer period now to enable them to keep doing so safely.
What have you found to be most challenging?
One of the biggest challenges has been keeping up with the latest guidance, and with that making sure we are protecting the business.
There was also the difficulty of ensuring we were always able to support some customers who might not be online or have access to us digitally.
For colleagues, we were part way through rolling out MS Teams, and while we expected some apprehension, colleagues embraced it, which really helped.
We also launched Intro, our new digital workspace. While not an ideal launch, we have seen great take-up of the new platform as it provides a central point at which colleagues can find out what is happening in a timely manner.
What issues have been brought to light that you were previously unaware of?
For us, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on aspects of both our internal operation as well as the enduring impact on the communities that we serve. In the first instance, this meant simple things like ensuring everybody’s IT kit was running on the same programmes.
Similarly, the impact that COVID has had in terms of health, mortality, and exclusion has greater exposed the deep inequality in our society.
What key lessons have you learnt?
The biggest lesson has been our capacity to react to a crisis and transform our way of working in a matter of days while continuing to deliver services to our customers. I don’t underestimate what it took for colleagues to think and respond as quickly as they did, finding solutions to issues that, in other times, would have no doubt taken us longer.
“The impact that COVID has had in terms of health, mortality, and exclusion has greater exposed the deep inequality in our society”
Internally, the roll-out of a number of new digital platforms has been taking place, and while we had planned this to be structured and methodical to avoid change fatigue, the reality is we have had to accelerate our rollout to make it easier for colleagues to carry out their duties. Colleagues have pulled together to overcome problems and do what they can to make it work.
If you were to go through it all again, what would you do differently?
In many ways, we continue to go through it on a daily basis and continue to learn. There aren’t many things that with hindsight we would do differently. The only exception for me would be that we could have harnessed the power of working in partnership earlier on in the initial lockdown.
What preparations are you making for future spikes, like we’re seeing at the moment?
Using our experience of earlier in the year as a blueprint, we have plans in place for future waves and are taking an agile approach with regard to the size of our response.
We operate over a wide geography in the North West, and the situation currently means we are working across Tier 2 and Tier 3 areas. We have set up a strategic recovery group, which meets to make decisions that impact our policies, procedures, and processes; and we run a half-hour business continuity meeting three times a week, during which we look at operational issues and potential solutions.
We also have all of the necessary risk assessments in place so that we can achieve our main priority in all of this: to keep colleagues and customers safe.
Main image: Ian Reed, acting chief executive, Plus Dane
Want to get involved in the Keeping up with COVID series? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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