By switching roles with employees from other housing providers, four social landlords are hoping to learn some valuable lessons. Simon Brandon investigates
On a hill above the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, sits an angular, lime green building called View Tube. It is a community and arts centre, operated as a social enterprise at arm’s-length by east London landlord Poplar Harca.
The park appears deserted, making it difficult to picture the crowds from last summer’s games - but today at least one visitor has made the trip.
Sitting at a worn wooden table in View Tube’s café is Patricia Quinn, a housing and economic co-ordinator at north west housing association Bolton at Home. She is in the third week of what organisers say is a brand new venture for the housing sector: a staff swap.
Ms Quinn has changed places for a month with a counterpart at Poplar Harca. Two other social landlords are also involved in the swap - Plus Dane in Liverpool and Tower Hamlets Community Housing in east London. Each swap lasts four weeks.
Today’s visit is part of a tour of social enterprises within Poplar Harca’s area. ‘It’s about understanding how Poplar Harca is supporting and proactively developing social enterprises - how it is looking at its assets to see how it can turn them into income generators,’ says Ms Quinn.
She hopes the experience will prove useful when she returns to Bolton. ‘Supporting social enterprises is on [Bolton at Home’s] agenda as an organisation but it’s not something we have prioritised thus far,’ she explains.
That could change as a result of Ms Quinn’s experiences in London, however. ‘The economics are different in Bolton but there still has to be a way we can use some of the assets we are not using at the moment for more productive purposes,’ she says.
Learning from others
This cross-pollination of ideas and working practices is only part of the reasoning behind the staff swap experiment, as Jon Lord, chief executive of Bolton at Home, explains.
‘As a host you hope to learn from the person coming to you, and you hope that the people doing the exchange are picking up loads of new information and skills they can take back with them,’ he says. ‘And from a personal development point of view it’s better than any training course or conference. To actually immerse yourself in a different place and a different organisation for a month: it’s a unique opportunity for many people.’
The scheme had its genesis at the International Housing Summit in Rotterdam in 2011. It is the brainchild of Darryl Lawrence, a director at what he calls ‘a strange little company’ called Rochdale Housing Initiative (it’s actually a strategic partnership between the six main housing providers in the borough of Rochdale). Mr Lawrence’s job, as he explains it, is to ‘add value to everything Rochdale’, and in order to generate income to fund the Rochdale work Mr Lawrence dreams up ideas to pitch to the wider sector.
One such idea was to replicate the job swaps organised by businesses in other sectors. ‘I kicked it around with Jon Lord [at the conference] - we thought, why don’t we do something in England? He mentioned his links with the east end and we thought - yeah,’ says Mr Lawrence.
The chief executives at the other three participating landlords knew each other already and took little persuading. ‘We had networked for years,’ says Steve Stride, chief executive of Poplar Harca, who describes this group of colleagues, which also includes Ken Perry, chief executive of Plus Dane Group and Michael Tyrrell, chief executive of Tower Hamlets Community Housing, as ‘a pretty crazy bunch’.
‘They are all pretty innovative in what they do,’ Mr Stride explains.
‘It was just nice to find a group of people prepared to give it a go,’ says Mr Lawrence. ‘We all recognise it might fail, but let’s try it. What’s the worst that could happen?’
The swap doesn’t involve much financial outlay as the only cost is renting accommodation for a month. It’s cheaper, as both Mr Lord and Mr Stride point out, than sending a staff member to a big housing conference.
But this is a pilot, and areas for improvement have already been identified. Equality of accessibility, is one of them: four weeks is the right length of time, according to the participants, but it’s a long stretch to spend away from home for anyone with pressing domestic responsibilities.
‘A week or two wouldn’t be long enough. I feel quite settled here now, and you do need to feel comfortable and relax,’ says Rebecca Cahill, a housing services officer at Bolton at Home, who is spending a month with Tower Hamlets Community Housing.
‘But if they want to include people who have other commitments maybe they could open it for shorter time periods. I reckon a lot of people might have seen it and thought, a month is along time to be away from the kids.’
Other options are already being discussed to overcome this, such as swapping staff between areas with a high contrast but a short commute. ‘There could also be issues with people with certain disabilities,’ says Mr Lawrence. ‘We’ll need to address those after the pilot. We’ll put them forward as a priority next time because we’ll have the processes ironed out, and we’ll try to find a solution.’
Choosing the right time
Kimberly Miller, a housing support officer at Tower Hamlets Community Housing who swapped with Ms Cahill at Bolton at Home, also suggests this might not be the optimal time of year to swap jobs: ‘It’s [financial] year-end so everyone is really busy tying up loose ends like invoices and rents,’ she says. ‘In the summer I could probably have shadowed more departments and seen how they work as well.’
These gripes aside, the feedback from the staff involved has been very positive. The chief executives are already talking about the next round of swaps. ‘I can’t imagine we won’t be rolling it out and continuing with it,’ says Mr Lord. Mr Stride is looking even further ahead - what about swapping between sectors?
‘I’d love to do this with health and education,’ he says. ‘Health especially, with the massive change they are going through at the moment. Good, positive, joint working could come out of health and housing; there is really good practice around but there could be so much more.’
He would love, he goes on, to exchange one of his middle managers with one from a GP practice. ‘It would be such an eye-opener for both of us. I can see really great ideas about change coming out of it.’
It is still too early to pronounce proper judgement; after all, when Inside Housing meets some of the participants, the swap is still underway. It will be a while before the value of swapping staff, and the new learning and professional connections that generates, can be properly gauged.
‘There will definitely be a flow of information [between the partner organisations] afterwards,’ says Ms Quinn, ‘but it’s not going to happen as soon as I get back.’
‘Sometimes you can’t see the results straight away,’ says Mr Lord. ‘It may take someone a while to absorb what they have learned, for example. It’s a long-term benefit - but I am absolutely convinced these experiences can be life-changing.
‘If you are going to be serious about developing your staff then you have to be willing to do this sort of thing, to expose them to new opportunities and new challenges,’ he continues. ‘For all of us involved it was a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you do it?’
For more information on the project, visit http://staffswap.wordpress.com/
Rebecca Cahill, housing services officer at Bolton at Home, swapped with Kimberly Miller at Tower Hamlets Community Housing:
‘I was nervous because it’s like starting a new job, but they made me feel like part of the team and have completely put me at ease. The nerves went after the first day.
‘They don’t have a specialist income management team here but they’re looking to set one up, so they have learned a lot from me.
‘While I’ve been here I’ve been based at the estate office, whereas in Bolton I am normally at the head office, so there is more interaction with the customers. I’ve learned about things like repairs - things I wouldn’t deal with normally.
‘One idea I thought to take back would be a tenant swap; I’m doing a course in mental health and one of the main causes of depression is being in the same environment, so maybe you could swap tenants. I don’t see why not.
‘My goal is to be a housing officer. Being here has made me think a little more about what I want to do and how to develop, so from that point of view it has been fantastic.’
Kimberly Miller, housing support officer at Tower Hamlets Community Housing, swapped with Rebecca Cahill at Bolton at Home:
‘I thought [the exchange] would be a great experience - not just for my personal development, but to bring back ideas to THCH. I would definitely recommend it - it has gone really well. The four weeks have flown by.
‘At THCH we are generic - we do everything - whereas in Bolton they have specialised teams. We are forming a new rents team in Tower Hamlets because of welfare reform. As of October benefits will go straight to residents rather than us, so it will be harder to collect. I’ve been based in the income management team at Bolton - it’s been the perfect place to learn and pick up ideas that I can bring back.
‘Doing it with a buddy might be a good idea. My brother lives in Manchester, and colleagues have been kind enough to invite me out. But maybe for someone on their own, doing it with someone else might be easier for them. Everyone at Bolton at Home has been so friendly and welcoming though, it has made it much easier for me.’