· 3 min read · Features

Housing associations: why they are great places to work

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Housing associations are popular organisations to work for and are frequent recipients of people awards. In part one of a two part feature, experts from the sector explain what makes them successful.

As the founder and CEO of engagement specialist Best Companies, the organisation behind The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For, Jonathan Austin knows good practice when he sees it. And with the rankings spanning a range of industries and company sizes, he has a bird’s eye view of how sectors compare. So, when he says social housing “is probably the sector I enjoy working with most”, you sit up and listen.

The reason for his view is deceptively simple: “They just want to do the right thing and do right by their people."

Every year, housing associations dominate the Best Companies not-for-profit list. This year, the only non-housing association in the top 10 is Teach First, and 70% of the top 20 organisations are involved in social housing.

Part of this is undeniably down to the fact that the associations enter themselves – Austin says 39% of applications in this category come from housing associations, compared with 32% from the public sector and 27% from charities – but this doesn’t explain why 54% of those that enter make the list (pretty good odds). “They do a lot better [than organisations from other sectors] in making the list,” confirms Austin.

So why are these organisations such great places to work for? HR magazine spoke to several from the Best Companies list, and a few that have won other accolades such as Investors in People Gold, to see what other sectors can learn from housing associations.

Encourage open debate – and act on it

According to John Giesen, CEO of B3 Living (eighth in this year’s Best Companies not-for-profit list), staff engagement is all about learning. He says: “When we do a survey, it’s great to do well, but it’s more important to learn what your staff think of you and how you can change.” That means encouraging people to speak their minds, and then acting on the results – or, if not, explaining why.

Giesen, who runs regular ‘tea with’ sessions for staff, says even the smallest things can make a difference. “One ranger from an estate asked me why we had fresh milk at the head office, while he had to have UHT,” he recalls. “You could argue it didn’t need a meeting with me to change that, or that it wasn’t an appropriate discussion, but the fact is it was on his mind and it was so easy to change.” 

At southwest London’s RHP Housing, which is accredited IIP Gold and was last year named ‘employer of the year’ in the European Call Centre and Customer Service Awards, staff are encouraged to have a voice. “We want employees to not be afraid to say what they think,” says learning and development manager Chloe Marsh. To enable this, RHP runs ‘live lounge’ sessions, where expert employees lead debates on areas such as mental health. 

RHP’s ‘personal promises’ initiative explicitly promotes autonomy, Marsh adds: “We want to encourage leadership in the moment, at employee level. Escalating problems to management slows down the process and leaves employees feeling disempowered, when they are often the best person to make the decision.” To avoid this, the initiative encourages employees to get advice from their peers to solve problems. 

Best Companies’ Austin says: “The top organisations are really focused on listening. Employees have a voice.” Neville Hounsome, HR director at IIP Gold-accredited The Hyde Group, agrees: “We spend a lot of time meeting employees. There’s a lot of listening.”

Leaders have to be visible

"People always want a piece of me, and I try to put myself out there, in the nicest possible way,” says Ian Munro, chief executive of New Charter Housing Trust Group, ranked seventh in this year’s Best Companies not-for-profit list. “I meet everyone on their first day and on their last day, to hear what they have to say about the organisation, and I’m always wandering around the building.” 

Austin says great leadership is one of the main reasons housing associations do so well. “There’s confidence and faith in the senior management team. People are inspired by them and believe they really do live the values,” he adds.

This comes down to showing, not telling, and these truly people-focused CEOs spend most of their time out and about in their organisations. Tony Russell, director of corporate services at Liverpool’s SLH Group, which took the top spot in the not-for-profit ranking this year, says CEO Julie Fadden is “a massive part of what makes us different”, adding: “She’s very visible, has a direct message and likes to keep things simple. That direct approach sets the tone and culture.” Last year, Fadden held one-to-one coaching sessions with every manager in the organisation, and she chairs the staff forum so employees without management responsibilities also have access to her.

At B3 Living, Giesen’s ‘tea with’ sessions allow employees from every part of the organisation to meet him in groups. “Some people thought I should do one-to-ones, but however friendly I think I am, I thought it might fill some with dread,” he laughs. “‘Tea with’ is a different way of achieving the same goal.”

For part two of this feature, click here.