Now in its second year, Inside Housing and Dolphin Index’s survey of housing association innovation finds a sector that is learning how to embrace change. Simon Brandon reports
Last year, Inside Housing published the results of the first-ever widespread survey of innovative working cultures in the housing sector.
Working with Dolphin Index, a company that has developed a method to quantify and visualise organisations? cultures [see box: What is the Innovation Index?], the survey showed the sector to be much more innovative and forward-thinking than the UK average.
The results of our second survey are now in ? and they reveal that the majority of the housing associations, arm?s-length management organisations (ALMOs) and local authority housing departments whose staff filled in the survey are still well ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation and creativity. Overall, in fact, despite the pressures brought about by the rent cut, the sector has improved, with scores generally up on last year.
The index reveals each organisation?s deviation from the UK norm, which has been established by Dolphin Index as an average across multiple sectors.
However, the ranking of the organisations in and of itself is ?not too important? according to Pekka Rintala, development director ? operations at Dolphin Index.
?The main question is where the organisation wants to be,? he explains.
Being better than average on innovation is probably a good place to start, however. But despite the overall trend, a minority of providers, not listed on the table below, whose staff completed Dolphin?s survey have not done as well.
?The range [of scores] was truly amazing, ranging from places that are heaven on Earth to work in to some real dystopias,? says Mark Brown, chief executive of Dolphin Index ? and it?s the latter group he hopes will benefit most from this year?s results.
?It doesn?t have to be this way,? he says. ?We can give our tenants and employees a much better life. That?s one thing the Dolphin Index makes people realise ? for the first time people can have much more enjoyable lives at work in ways that drive more successful organisations.? (See box: Six steps to a more creative culture.)
?The range [of scores] was truly amazing, ranging from places that are heaven on Earth to work in to some real dystopias.?
Mark Brown, chief executive, Dolphin Index
For the second year in a row, the top-scoring organisation is Richmond Housing Partnership (RHP). The 8,500-home landlord says that last year?s success actually encouraged it to embed innovation even further in the way it works.
?The index was a starter not an end; it really helped us to accelerate our thinking,? says Amina Graham, RHP?s executive director of corporate services. Since our first survey, RHP has launched what it claims is the sector?s first digital-only housing service. On 6 October, RHP ? in partnership with Inside Housing and Dolphin Index ? is hosting an innovation event that will feature appearances from other innovative companies including Uber and Microsoft.
We profiled RHP in last year?s survey write-up, so this time we spoke to some of the other highest scorers (see case studies) to ask them what they do differently. But, overall, why does this sector appear to be so innovative? Gavin Smart, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, an organisation which itself scores highly on the index, suggests it might come down to necessity.
?The index was a starter not an end; it really helped us to accelerate our thinking.?
Amina Graham, executive director of corporate services, RHP
?The housing sector has been under a lot of pressure over the last few years and as a consequence we?re seeing organisations having to do things differently and find ways to do more with less,? he says. ?With the talent we have in the sector, I?d expect to see this ingenuity and resourcefulness continue, particularly as life looks set to remain challenging for the foreseeable future.?
The list of challenges thrown at the sector recently has become a familiar litany: welfare reform, Right to Buy and the 1% rent cut. But as consultant James Tickell points out, housing associations and ALMOs have had it relatively easy.
?It is local authorities which have had to deal with much larger cuts,? he elaborates. ?They have had to reinvent services completely and have shown a remarkable level of resilience and innovation that people don?t appreciate.?
If it?s true that external pressures can force people to become more innovative, it?s also true that businesses with an innovative culture in place are better placed to weather any storms.
?They have shown a remarkable level of resilience and innovation that people don?t appreciate.?
James Tickell, consultant
?Some organisations batten down the hatches and try to carry on as before, while others look at new ways of doing things,? says Mr Tickell. ?But given the changes in society, changes in technology and tenants? expectations, I think good organisations are doing that anyway.?
For those not quite there yet, Mr Brown hopes this survey can help to point the way, especially with the stakes perhaps a little higher in housing.
?This sector matters,? he enthuses. ?Let?s get everybody to the sort of level Richmond is at. Let?s make the world a better place.?
What do Post-It Notes and Google Maps have in common? Both were dreamed up by employees during time set aside specifically by their companies for staff to work on their own ideas.
The concept has spread from the corporate behemoths of 3M and Google to a 6,700-home landlord in High Wycombe.
At Red Kite Community Housing, all 120 staff take part every Wednesday morning in what the landlord?s director of operations, Alan Keers, describes as ?creative gap time?.
And just as important as the success stories, these pockets of time earmarked for innovation should be allowed to produce failures.
?It?s a dedicated 10% of everyone?s working time when normal activities slow down and teams come together to work on ideas and test new concepts,? Mr Keers explains. ?Given that time, and people being able to fail before they succeed, we are far more effective than we were a few years ago.?
One recent product of these Wednesday sessions has been the creation of a new database of processes, procedures and instructions for tenants. Now almost ready for launch, the database, to be populated by both staff and customers, will be used as a training tool.
Red Kite?s working environment has been designed to encourage an innovative culture. The association occupies one floor of an office block configured in a horseshoe shape. At the bottom of the horseshoe ? the middle of the office ? is an area called ?the nest?, where staff meet and cross paths both socially and for work. ?The environment is created to give people the opportunity to meet up,? says chief executive Trevor Morrow. ?Everyone knows everyone else. All of that is much easier with the size we are.?
Red Kite was selected as a case study as it was both a high-scoring organisation and one with a high response rate. Mr Morrow says that getting Red Kite to where it wants to be as an organisation has not happened overnight. Since its formation following a stock transfer from Wycombe District Council in late-2011, creating the culture staff enjoy today has, Mr Morrow says, been incremental, not least because of the time it has taken to hire the right kind of people.
?Clearly the vast majority are happy to be empowered, to be freed to innovate,? he says. ?Those that aren?t leave, and you get to a point where you have a group of people who are comfortable with who you want to be.?
Since reaching what he calls a ?tipping point? in terms of staffing around 18 months ago, Mr Morrow says it is now much easier to maintain the culture among its 132 staff.
?People come into the organisation and they can see the culture [is] everything we said it would be,? he says. ?We?ve cracked it now, but we will continue adding to it as we grow.?
Stockport Homes is the arm?s-length management organisation (ALMO) that looks after Stockport Council?s 11,000 properties. It?s one of the most innovative ALMOs, according to the index, with high scores in risk-taking and idea proliferation ? the latter being the perception by staff that their colleagues frequently generate creative ideas for the organisation.
Liz Chadwick, organisational development officer, says this is encouraged from the moment new employees undergo their induction: ?[Chief executive Helen McHale] says to staff, we want you to take risks ? albeit calculated risks. Sometimes they may go wrong but you learn and move on from them to make us stronger. That is embedded with all the staff who work here.?
There is a clearly defined process within the organisation to evaluate and progress new ideas once they have been cooked up, Ms Chadwick explains. ?We have pathways within the business and one of those is called the project pathway,? she says. ?Those people who have an idea that can make the organisation better, stronger and more dynamic can apply to go on the pathway; they pitch it to our business transformation group [a management-level group chaired by a senior manager] and if it?s viable they are given full support and backing to put it in place ? and ultimately they would run that project.?
The index also suggests Stockport Homes is a playful place to work.
?There?s a really good social culture,? says Ms Chadwick. ?If you work hard you can play hard.?
?There?s a good atmosphere here,? agrees Callum Rimmer, a governance officer at Stockport Homes, who started out as an apprentice last January. ?Everyone seems to bounce off each other, and you can always get other people?s advice. It makes it a lot more relaxed.?
Asked whether he feels his creative input is appreciated, Mr Rimmer mentions an internal group comprised of around 30 colleagues from throughout the ALMO. Known as ?staff voice?, this is the body to which senior managers must pitch their decisions and new policies.
?We can feed our own ideas through that and give feedback on decisions made by senior management,? he says. ?Our opinions are taken on board. Rather than thinking ?this won?t be taken any further if I raise this?, you are encouraged to give input. It?s reassuring.?
These initiatives are all very well and may make Stockport Homes a pleasant and engaging place to work. But, says Ms Chadwick, while the drive to become a more innovative organisation is never-ending, it is pursued with one aim in mind.
?We are always upping our game,? she says. ?[Our staff] have bought into the values of our organisation and they want to see it succeed, ultimately, to protect our heart ? which is social housing and our customers.?
?You shouldn?t be fearful of change - you should be fearful of not changing,? says John Wade, director of strategy at 28,314-home, Bromford Group. ?Those are the ones that go out of business: Kodak, Blockbuster, Betamax.
f you don?t restlessly look to the future you are doomed.?
Bromford scored highly across the board, and was the largest landlord in the top 10 by staff numbers. It rated particularly highly on playfulness, positive relationships, idea proliferation, and in its staff?s commitment (a measure of how emotionally involved staff are with their organisation?s goals and the extent to which they perceive their work as stimulating and engaging).
But with 1,149 staff across multiple locations, how does the organisation keep its staff engaged and in communication with each other? Mr Wade cites two initiatives that help keep everyone in touch.
?We have no offices,? he says. ?Even the chief executive sits in an open-plan space? we encourage people to move about and work anywhere ? to go and work with the human resources department, for example, or by the contact centre or the repairs team, so you understand what the pressures are on that side of the business.?
A second idea that has taken hold in Bromford?s offices is of a more technological flavour. Six years ago, the Wolverhampton-based landlord began using Yammer ? an internal social network described by Mr Wade as ?Facebook for the company? ? and it quickly gained traction among staff.
?We were really dispersed, in several locations, and Yammer is embraced by most parts of the business,? he says. It is completely uncontrolled; staff can post or say whatever they like. Recently, Mr Wade recalls, a Bromford apprentice posted pictures of the first kitchen he had fitted by himself.
?The photos were followed by a flood of comments of support and encouragement,? he says. ?People feel engaged with what is going on.?
Bromford also has a space ? known as the innovation lab ? dedicated to unfettered creative thinking. ?It?s literally an empty room with a whiteboard wall,? says Mr Wade. ?It?s much more about the thinking behind it ? to have a symbolic space that puts down a marker that says innovation is important.?
Over the past couple of years, he adds the way this space is used has developed and evolved.
Insoluble problems or unworkable ideas are quickly filtered out, while the landlord has pulled together what it calls an insight team from across the organisation with a brief to use data to better understand the problems and issues worth spending time and money on.
?We are constantly trying to outdo ourselves,? concludes Mr Wade. ?I would be worried if we weren?t changing.?
Each housing provider listed in the index is given a score based on their staff?s responses to the survey. This score represents the organisation?s distance from the UK norm ? an average of hundreds of organisations belonging to multiple sectors from across the UK.
Dolphin Index collects data on the culture of organisations using a 68-part questionnaire, which as many staff as possible are encouraged to complete online. The questions take the form of statements ? such as ?there is rarely a dull moment here?, or ?it is rare to see people laughing and joking here? ? after which the user is asked to respond on a scale from ?strongly agree? to ?strongly disagree?.
The questions are grouped by Dolphin Index into 13 categories, which are then represented visually.
Mark Brown, chief executive of Dolphin Index, suggests six straightforward changes organisations can make to foster a more innovative and less stressful workplace:
In the original version of this article, Stockport Homes was identified as the highest scoring ALMO. In fact, South Essex Homes was the most innovative ALMO, according to the Dolphin Index. Inside Housing is happy to correct the article.
In the original version of this article we stated Curo Group had 250 employees but it?s approx. 450. Inside Housing is happy to correct the article.