‘You will need to work flexibly with no specific start/end times; whatever it takes to get the job done, fitting around the customers’ availability.’ This is how the profile for our new neighbourhood coaches reads.
And this isn’t uncommon. For several years now housing associations have seen a shift to more mobile and agile working. Many of us are moving away from traditional office thinking and embracing new approaches. That may mean dispersed smaller work bases, collaborative shared working areas, and encouraging more people to work from home or from other places in the community. The traditional expectation that everyone has a single full-time job is changing, with some employees now working on a multi-tenure basis.
At Bromford we’ve been doing some of this for years, but our shift to our neighbourhood coaching approach and current radical review of the purpose of offices means we’re having to think very differently about what it means to ‘go to work’ at all.
Our colleagues are loving this flexibility and autonomy, but it raises a number of questions. Principally, how can leaders avoid committed colleagues working crazy hours and burning out? How do support services need to change? And crucially, if colleagues are rarely physically together, how do we protect the positive culture and sense of belonging that has been key to our success?
The biggest challenge here is working out which bits of that previously successful culture we need to find a way to protect, and then being prepared to let go of some of the rest. Once that is clear we can start to develop a leadership model for this very different working environment and prepare our leaders to deliver it.
Leaders now need very different skills from those I was taught. We can no longer rely on knowing what our people are doing by being alongside them. We have to lead through trust, setting clear outcomes and holding people to account for delivery rather than telling them what to do and watching them do it.
Today’s leaders also need to be able to work with six or seven generations within a single workplace. So communication skills need to be much more varied and leaders must be able to use mobile apps, video streaming services, webinars and social media. We’re asking our leaders to shift from managing inputs to coaching and accountability for outcomes, so we can harness the creativity of our people. Operating in a regulated environment where we must be accountable brings additional challenges to making this work. And the sector will have to find new ways to meet the expectations of the future workforce if we are to continue to attract the brightest talent.
There are plenty of learnings to be taken from companies who’ve had a less traditional approach to leadership for many years. Online shoe and clothing shop Zappos is often cited for its holacratic model based on self-managing teams. Closer to home, shoe repair firm Timpson devolves huge power to its branches – even allowing them to set their own pricing strategies. Yet, despite this highly-dispersed operating model, Timpson still has a strong organisational culture and feels like a family-run business whichever store you visit.
Changing our approach to leadership doesn’t mean losing our culture. But it does create a need to be really clear about which bits of it we must protect.
Philippa Jones is CEO of Bromford