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What makes housing associations such great places to work: Part 2

Following on from our earlier piece, we explore why housing associations are such great places to work.

Zone in on purpose and values

The factor that makes the biggest difference in housing associations dominating the not-for-profit list, says CEO of Best Companies Jonathan Austin, is their wider purpose. “They are very clear about what they are there to do,” he explains. “People feel proud to work in an organisation that makes a difference.”

"There’s more to housing associations than letting properties out and collecting rent,” says director of corporate services at SLH Tony Russell. “We want the message to get out there about what we do as a sector: improving people’s chances in life and creating an environment for people to get on.” 

Ian Munro, chief executive of New Charter Housing Trust Group adds: “As a sector we are socially responsible, which provides us with a set of values that helps to drive the culture and character of the organisation. Most housing associations have a social purpose and that gives a sense of organisational self-worth.” And that purpose has to be more than profit. “Ruthlessly profit-hungry organisations only last so long,” he warns. “Unless there’s clear human-centred values at the heart, it isn’t going to be a good place to work and it probably won’t be self-sustaining.” 

At Wales & West Housing, number five on the 2014 list and whose CEO, Anne Hinchey, won the award for Most People Focused CEO in last year’s HR Excellence Awards, HR manager Giles Taylor says the focus is on “embedding our culture through everything we do, being clear about communicating our mission and following through on that”. Wales & West Housing doesn’t have budgets, for example, operating in a “more fluid way” with rolling forecasts. 

Most of the associations explicitly tie performance and values together. “We base performance-related pay and appraisals on the how as much as the what,” explains B3 Living’s CEO John Giesen. “You’re judged on how you do things,” he adds. “The same core values run from me and the board, all the way down.” 

But if all this sounds a bit too feel-good, Austin is clear that isn’t the case. “What separates the top [in the list] is that people aren’t frightened to tackle issues,” he says. “The best organisations are better at dealing with difficult conversations.”

That’s certainly true at Wales & West Housing, says Taylor. “We expect our leaders to lead by example, and we openly challenge people if they are not following those values,” he says. 

And at New Charter, dealing with underperformance is critical for engagement, says Munro: “People like to be told how well they are doing, but they also like to be assured that those who aren’t achieving as well are being dealt with and supported appropriately.” 

Truly total reward

Stating the obvious it might be, but few people get into social housing because they want to earn mega-bucks. But reward at these organisations appears to be about much more than money – it involves, for example, an emphasis on personal development. “There’s a cultural ethos of wanting to grow and develop,” says Best Companies’ Austin. “Many feel like learning organisations.” 

At RHP, much of L&D’s focus is on developing inspirational leaders, says Chloe Marsh, learning and development manager, so once a month, an inspirational external speaker comes in to speak to managers. “The idea is to encourage managers to have a point of view and broaden their perspective,” she explains. “Even big corporations are impressed we invest in that. We believe it has ROI.” 

New Charter invests in coaching training and offers extensive secondment opportunities. “We have secondments on secondments. You sometimes think: ‘What’s their proper job?’” jokes Munro. But there is a serious aim. “We are trying to help people identify what they want to achieve and to align that to the needs of the business,” he says.

Wales & West Housing champions flexible working for everyone, not just those with caring responsibilities, and takes a progressive approach to career development. “Everyone is at different life stages, so it’s about making sure the job is right for them,” says Taylor. “Progression could mean stepping down or sideways, or taking on more or fewer hours.” 

And when it comes to benefits, SLH’s Russell says what’s important is flexibility and the ability to enable a switch if staff ask for something different. Financial pressures can hit reward, but Russell advises honesty as the best policy. “We do keep talking to our staff about the pressures,” he says. “They understand we have to create value in different
ways. For example, we introduced a salary sacrifice scheme so we can save on NI but still have a similar employee offering.” 

Stop, collaborate and listen

Wales & West Housing’s Taylor used to work in the legal sector. He says the biggest surprise in switching to social housing was the collaboration between organisations. “I’ve never worked in a sector that’s so openly sharing,” he explains. “Although we are all competing for talent, residents and rents, at the same time we all have the same aim: to help vulnerable people. Sharing best practice and benchmarking are refreshing and a noticeable difference [from the private sector].”

No surprise then that Best Companies’ Austin also praises this trait of the sector: “They are competing, but they are open to sharing with other organisations.” 

Naturally, this collaboration is as important internally as it is externally. New Charter creates plenty of opportunities for people to get together on a “regular, worthwhile basis to have business-oriented conversations,” says Munro, while annual staff events help people “feel part of a bigger whole”.  Meanwhile, RHP’s ‘personal promises’ help bring staff together across departments, as do regular learning events. 

On the HR magazine website earlier this year, Helen Giles, HR director at Broadway Homelessness & Support, outlined what the commercial sector can learn from not-for-profits, citing housing associations’ “incredible degree of networking and collaboration”. And The Hyde Group’s Neville Hounsome, who has previously worked as a group HR director in the public and private sectors, believes both have much to learn from this “pragmatic” approach. 

“The private sector can be let down by its governance, and the public sector wants to do the right thing but is sometimes let down by its management capabilities,” he says. “[Housing associations have] the best of both worlds; the public and private sectors could learn to blend these approaches: a mix of speed and commercial accuracy, with good governance and a focus on the long term, and with people at the heart of everything.”

For part one of this feature, click here.