Wednesday, 18 November 2015

#housingday - working in housing

Today, Wednesday 18 November, marks the third annual #housingday. I've spent over half my professional life working in housing and am pleased to be able to add my voice and thoughts to the collective movement today. 

To find out more about #housingday, have a look at this link. It's not the only thing happening in housing this week to raise its profile, but it's the most visible and in all likelihood will involve the most people. As coordinated social media campaigns go, it's a biggie and an important one. 

In 2014, as the article showed, #housingday was very successful at raising the profile of the sector, the work it does, and the issues it faces. It was followed by other well-run and successful campaigns in the run up to this years General Election and, so it seemed at the time, there was a shared view between politicians and housing organisations about the issues facing the sector and society at large. 

Regardless of ones political persuasion, the Conservative majority government came as a bit of a surprise and hasn't been a good one for housing and those working in housing. Whatever thoughts the housing sector had about shared understanding of the problems faced by social housing, evaporated as it became clear that there was nothing like a shared understanding of how to tackle said problems. 

The summer budget in July brought this sharply into focus. You can read more about it in short form here - although there have been longer and more informed posts since which outline how housing can and could respond to this. 

Suffice to say though that this years #housingday is a tad more important than the last, as it needs to show a sector united in purpose and voice, and one not in crisis. 

I don't mind admitting that I fell into housing by accident. Probably, so did many people, as I don't recall housing even being mentioned as a career option when I was at school or university. I'm fortunate that I'm in a profession, HR (or OD, L&D, whatever you prefer and whatever is the focus of what I'm doing most of at any one time), that spans most sectors and my skills and knowledge are, by and large, transferable to other roles in other sectors. 

Come to think of it though, I don't recall HR being mentioned as a career option at school either, so it's not like I had any kind of grand plan aside from my oft-mentioned desire to be a professional wrestler for WWE or play for Manchester United.

But I found myself applying for an HR role in a new housing organisation, one about to be spun off from its local authority parent and become a standalone organisation. The prospect of working in a "new" company, and helping to shape it's culture, it's transformation and its development over the years was a big attraction. The opportunity to work with a group of people who wanted to do the same was pulling me there. 

At the time I didn't care what the organisation did. It happened to be social housing, but for all I cared it could have been nuclear weaponry, taxi driving or the worlds largest search engine. 

I gave myself two to three years to work my magic, make an impression and get out of there to something bigger and better. 

And I told people this. My goodness, I was arrogant. 

But I stayed because housing and housing people have a kind of way of making you feel comfortable and as though you're making a huge difference at the same time, that there is another massive challenge around the corner where your unique skills will be needed. 

So the job satisfaction has been immense. And here I am nearly 12 years later still here. Ok, housing has played to my ego at times and that's been great, but in that time I've helped people and housing organisations to do great things. 

And I've enjoyed it. Mostly, at least. 

And I do a range of things in the social housing sector that spread beyond my main HR duties and which I see as contributing to the growth and development of the sector through its people, in whatever small ways I can. I've been involved in mentoring via CIH and HDN, and helping talented and enthusiastic housing staff develop their skills and thinking and make connections to help others do the same. I've delivered training workshops to groups of aspiring housing professionals helping them to be more effective in their working and personal lives. I work directly with the CIH on their education programmes, helping to train and prepare a new generation of housing professionals. And I sit on the CIH regional board in the north west, looking at how we can all work together to raise the profile of social housing, it's work and its staff and collaborate together on important issues.

During those pieces of work, I have often asked housing staff why they came to work in housing, or more importantly why they have stayed working in housing. The answers are always strikingly similar, and lead well into a discussion around motivational theory and in particular Herzbergs theories. Housing staff will usually tell me why they work in housing and, without prompting or reference to the Herzberg model, will accurately describe its motivators as the reasons they continue to work in housing. 

Usually it's about making a difference and being able to see that. Often it's about the variety of the work and the support from colleagues. Sometimes it's about the development they get and the recognition their work brings. Occasionally people will reference the hygiene factors without realising and talk about their level of satisfaction with working conditions, supervision and the like. 

And yes, housing has changed over the years. Very few people would have mentioned commerciality or efficiency 12 years ago and get now you wouldn't get very far if you didn't grasp and value these principles. Its worth pointing out though that no-one ever says they came into housing in order to generate efficiencies, or to develop their commercial skills.

And yet that's what housing work, at many levels, now requires.

And the budget changes mean that housing organisations are going to have to be ruthless in many areas of service delivery and even in many areas of people management and development.  Efficiencies and commerciality may become core areas as housing organisations pare back services to essentials only and seek to manage and reduce their cost bases.  Making a difference to people's lives might be considered a nice to have in the future?

I suppose one can draw comparisons with public sector cuts in recent years and one could say that housing has got off lightly in that time, and that many public sector organisations have had to make tough decisions about public services and the staff who deliver them.  All very true.

Also true though was that the public sector lost a lot of talented staff, aswell as (obviously) a lot of staff who may not have been the most effective and whose approach no longer fitted in with the new organisational ethos and culture.

And so the same may happen to housing.  Already I see some staff choosing to leave the sector - not leaving a specific employer for another because the same issues are facing all housing organisations - but leaving the sector altogether because the things that got them into the sector are diminishing.  Again, professions like Finance, HR, IT, Communications, are all fortunate enough to be able to do so.  Already I see many long serving staff in housing-specific roles choosing to leave organisations because they can see how the organisation will change around them and the bits of their roles they enjoy starting to diminish.

There is a danger at the moment that the work that many housing organisations do that is considered "value adding" or could be termed "non-core" and not critical to the efficient operation of a social landlord will reduce or even cease.  So much of what social landlords currently do DOES add value though, and comprises much of the things that its employees say attract them to continue to work in housing.  And these things may not be there in the same quantity in the future.

Housing organisations may have little choice at the moment on what they have to do, faced by challenges brought upon them from external influences.  But they can choose how they behave towards their customers and staff, how they communicate changes and how they keep their staff involved and informed in making the changes.  Doing so is likely to reduce the flow of people leaving the sector aswell as managing the profile and reputation of the sector and its employees.

There is a role for professional bodies and employers bodies like the CIH and NHF to get more involved with organisations and help them to manage such changes aswell as marshalling resources on their behalf and looking at the sector-wide issues created at the moment.  Both such organisations can usefully help individuals to improve their skillsets at a time of major change and provide support to organisations seeking to do so.  Both have started to do so and deserve praise for this.

Individuals working in housing need to ensure they keep themselves motivated and keep their skillsets up to date.  However they also need to be honest with themselves and ask themselves whether they will still be motivated by housing work in the future if such work is to drastically change.  I suspect many will choose to leave the sector rather than do work they aren't motivated by, so the sector needs to consider how it can respond to that.

The government seems set on its current path, unlikely to change.  The housing sector is bracing itself for unprecedented turbulence.  Will #housingday change any of this?  Unlikely, but it will be interesting to see what people in the housing sector are saying and doing about what is happening.

I will be watching and reading with interest...

Till next time...


PS in other news, I've entered all my races for 2016.  Eight of them.  I may need to blog about my rationale for this and how I'm preparing for them...

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