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Redefining the workplace

We need to think creatively about work in order to encourage fresh blood into the sector, says Nick Atkin



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Redefining the workplace, by Nick Atkin

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It’s a hard fact to accept that no one grows up wanting to work in housing. How many times have you heard the phrase “I stumbled into housing by accident”?

Many of us who work in housing can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a hugely rewarding and challenging place to be, with no two days ever being the same.

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) also highlighted this as an issue through its CIH Futures Programme, as outlined in a recent blog by Adam Clark.


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When speaking to a colleague as I was planning this article, she shared her impressions of what it would be like to work for a housing association.

“When I applied to work here I thought I was going to be surrounded by grey filing cabinets and spider plants. I couldn’t believe how different it actually was.”

And therein lies the problem.

Earlier this year I wrote an article for HR magazine, which set out the approach Halton Housing has adopted. At the heart of this approach is the principle of ‘work is something you do, not somewhere you go’ and ‘you don’t have to be in work to be in work’.

“How do we encourage new and talented people into our sector?”

We are not alone in this way of thinking. Paul Taylor at Bromford recently laid down one of his many challenges to think much more creatively about where and how we work and break the cycle of presenteeism.

So how do we encourage new and talented people into our sector?

First, we need to change our shop window. Does what potential applicants see from the outside looking in truly reflect what it’s like to work in housing, or in our individual organisations? What do our websites and social media profiles such as LinkedIn and Twitter say about what we do and what it’s like to work in housing?

Then, we need to change the way we recruit. This is no different to how we need to radically overhaul the way we let our homes. Compare many of our housing application processes to the alternatives such as Zoopla and Rightmove. They are worlds apart.

This is the same for our recruitment processes. These are elongated and focus far too heavily on skills and competencies, while overlooking the most important elements of any recruitment process: attitude and organisational fit.

As potential employers, are we keeping track of how applicants increasingly form their views on who they want to work for? Do we know how both current and former employees are rating us on Glassdoor (the jobseekers’ equivalent to TripAdvisor) and what they are saying about us?

We need to sell housing as a career to everyone, not just those already in the sector. This needs to start in schools and colleges, targeting the majority of students who are undecided upon their career pathway. Housing needs to be viewed as an aspirational and viable option in the same way other professions are. We offer a gateway to a profession that doesn’t demand years of additional study and the associated costs.

You can train most people to do most things, but you can’t change what makes them tick and their core behaviours.

The forthcoming move to Halton Housing’s new office has led to a fundamental rethink of how we work, and how this fits with our customer service offer. Gone are the days of people wanting a 9-5 service that they have to travel to. People want to access services whenever and wherever they want, as easily as possible. Last month 86% of all Halton Housing’s customer-generated transactions were delivered via online service routes.

“Why do we insist on nailing people to desks for eight hours each day to bang away on a keyboard or talk on a phone?”

So, why hasn’t the way we work shifted in the same way? Why do we insist on nailing people to desks for eight hours each day to bang away on a keyboard or talk on a phone? Do we consider the costs of providing each desk space? Do we also consider how much time and money our employees spend commuting to and from an office? Why aren’t we thinking more creatively about how, when and where people work?

The workplace should be somewhere people come for a purpose – to collaborate on a particular aspect of work or a project.

Surely it’s more important that we enable people to deliver the objectives we want them to achieve for the business, rather than how many hours each week they sit at a desk?

Housing offers a fantastic career with a huge variety of opportunities as well as an unrivalled ability to make a positive difference to the lives of so many people. The challenge is how we adapt our offer as employers to recruit and then retain the very best people we need to deliver this.

Nick Atkin, chief executive, Halton Housing Trust

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