Author Archives: Sarah Thomas

Timely debate presents unique opportunity

In her latest blog, Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie reflects on the need for a considered approach to defining the future shape of our sector.

With social housing issues grabbing their share of national headlines in recent months, it seems timely that we should turn the spotlight on what the sector will look like in years to come.

The Future Shape of the Sector Commission – supported by Clarion Housing Group, L&Q and Network Homes – is looking at that very question, and it is interesting that it should be posed by the sector itself.

With a Social Housing Green paper in the offing, this debate chimes with some of the work being done by the National Housing Federation around identity, the messages we need to convey, how we respond to views expressed by our politicians and the implications of the Grenfell tragedy.

We have a unique moment of opportunity to discuss these issues – times are changing, and we have to ask some tough questions to remain credible and relevant in the new environment.

Reflecting diversity
At Thrive, we have been asking ourselves what the future of the sector – and our own organisation – will look like.

A key subject of discussion is how we ensure we hear what our customers are saying so that we manage our responsibilities while recognising that we need to take the organisation in a direction that meets the needs of future customers.

Of course, these are questions which all providers – big and small – should be asking themselves.

Although it is commendable that these three large, well-established associations have initiated and promoted this particular debate on a national scale, we must be careful that the commission’s findings and recommendations reflect the diversity of our sector.

Surely we don’t want to see smaller or niche providers, those at varying stages of their organisational development, becoming defined by a single vision of what a housing association should be and how it should operate?

The need for housing at different price points is increasing, so we may need different partners or the ability to work differently with funders to deliver this in a market where unregulated organisations may encroach.

Taking control
It is good news that these questions are originating from the sector itself, so that we can truly be drivers and influencers of our own destiny.

We do have to take charge of our own future – but acknowledge that there is not just one ‘shape’ that will deliver the desired outcomes for society.

So it is essential that each association speaks up, to ensure our diversity of views is heard, as this debate will shape the new normality – and we will all need to feel comfortable within this.

Creating one team: reviving internal communication in the Workplace

Thrive Homes is a housing association which owns and manages circa 4,600 properties in the South East of England. Approximately 30% of the workforce is field based which is set to increase as the business begins to digitally evolve to support growth.

The communications challenge
The initial challenge was ensuring corporate communications could reach all colleagues. The absence of a centralised communications platform meant field based colleagues couldn’t access the internal e-zine on their mobile devices and inboxes filled up very quickly with often irrelevant emails.

But the challenge was wider than that. As Leah Thompson, Communications Business Partner and Chair of the Staff Voice consultative group explained: “The absence of an open communication platform meant there was very little exposure to what our colleagues were doing and limited opportunity to feedback.

This sadly created a big divide between office based teams and field based teams.”

Finding a solution
The Staff Voice Group quickly understood the challenge and started to scope what the business needed. In summary, this included:

  • Enabling teams to share knowledge and successes in real time
  • Helping reduce the quantity of internal email
  • A cloud-based, user friendly platform to centralise communication.

The group shortlisted potential solutions and planned to test each option for three months. Every member recruited three colleagues from their team, forming a testing group of 30.

Selecting Workplace
Workplace provides a vast array of features including: instant messaging, video call, live video streaming, organisation chart and an active directory. It easily integrates with Microsoft products and Google Drive and as a final incentive, it is free for not for profit organisations.

Workplace by Facebook was the first solution Thrive tested. Leah said: “Once we started using Workplace we liked it so much that we didn’t move onto the other options. We quickly realised it was the ideal platform for Thrive.”

With this confidence, the Staff Voice Group approached their Executive Team to gain their buy-in, Elspeth Mackenzie, CE said, “We were really pleased to support the SVG in introducing Workplace. We recognised the benefits that this would have in connecting people especially as we become more digital and mobile in the way that we work. It was important to us that this would be developed by colleagues for colleagues. It’s so easy to share what’s happening in different areas and to support each other by ‘liking’ what we do.”

Launch
The formal launch came on 27th September at Thrive’s staff day, but there was already a buzz about the platform and over 50% of the business had found ‘reasons’ to join Workplace.

Workplace allows you to personalise your company’s community URL sub-domain. Thrive held a colleague competition to name the domain with an Amazon Echo as the prize. ‘OneThrive’ was the voted favourite and an icon designed in-house by a Staff Voice Group member in line with Thrive’s brand. Today, this icon sits proudly on the front page of the platform.

At the launch all colleagues received their login and a 15 minute introduction from a Staff Voice Group member. Workplace is based on Facebook’s interface, which meant most people knew how to use it straight away. Those who weren’t familiar with Facebook were provided with a guidance and etiquette document for further support. The overriding message strongly echoed by the Executive Team was “don’t be afraid to try it.”

Successful implementation was aided by good support from the top team, with senior managers acting as role models in adopting Workplace themselves. Originally, there were concerns in some teams that encouraging social media use in work time would affect productivity. However, this has since been proven wrong as Marie Carpenter, Multi Trade Operative explained: “I’ve been able to video call other operatives for support instead of asking them to attend a job in person, this has saved so much time. The direct instant contact has allowed so many quick positive solutions”.

Measuring success
Since the launch in September, Workplace has demonstrated many successes:

  • 91% of users have remained active on a weekly basis
  • 76% of users are using Workplace on their mobile phones of which many are using their personal devices; showing a keenness to engage way beyond the day job
  • The group function has resulted in fewer face to face team meetings
  • Streamlined work processes and real-time news, e.g. customer compliments were tracked on a spreadsheet and periodically artworked for onward email circulation. Now they are posted to Workplace in real time, where the recognised team member can be tagged and colleagues can add comments showing appreciation of their peers.

Future developments
The Staff Voice group is keen to explore more functions that the system offers. To date there hasn’t been a great uptake of the instant messaging function with users still wedded to email. However, this behaviour change is on the agenda for 2018 as Thrive introduces remote working.

Leah sums up the progress made to date: “Implementing Workplace by Facebook means we are getting a real human perspective on our own business: instead of simply looking at statistics, we can see the work that previously went unnoticed – what really goes into giving a family a new home. It’s making us really proud to be in the business and feel more connected as OneThrive – one business, one team, one purpose. This isn’t an IT project, this is about owning our culture and a people led change and we’re very pleased with the results.”

If you’re interested in finding out more or would like a demonstration of how Workplace performs in the Housing sector, just get in touch with Leah Thompson, Communications Business Partner:

Email: leah.thompson@thrivehomes.org.uk
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/leah-thompson-84869775/
Telephone: 0800 917 6077

Supporting culture change with the right tools

I’ve spoken often in my blog about the ways the environment has changed for social housing organisations. With changes in funding and an acute housing shortage, there is pressure on all of us to work more efficiently and make savings on our office costs so we can invest in developing more affordable homes.

In order to be able to make this investment Thrive must change the way we do business. We are on a journey to simplify the way we work, making it easier for ourselves and our customers, providing the a good value service more efficiently. Integral to this change is the move to a more digital way of working.

For our customers this means the recent launch of our new myThrive app which enables reporting of repairs and easy access to rent accounts. We are soon to launch our customer portal which will be a digital process to manage the letting of properties that become available to new tenants.

For our staff team we are making a significant change, from the traditionally separate housing and maintenance officer roles, to multi-disciplinary customer service colleagues who can look after all types of query for our customers. We are moving to a smaller team, with less manual back end processes and much more of our work being automated and online. To make this work we need to operate more effectively as one team and have systems to help us share information more easily.

It is a significant culture change for the team, particularly those of us who have worked in housing for many years. We are all rising to the challenge, but we need the right tools to help us make the change and to communicate as one team. Introducing Workplace by Facebook is part of that journey.

As a tool it is helping us ensure all our people are connected to the conversation, fostering a team culture. From formal HR related communications to photographs of our Children in Need activities, Workplace by Facebook is becoming the first place our team goes for information about the business and to talk to colleagues. It will eventually replace our intranet. We are actively encouraging team members to use it in work time and making the most of functions such as video. We have already found this is particularly helpful when colleagues are inspecting properties out of the office and can share details with those in the office.

Of course, new ways of working are only a success if everyone embraces them wholeheartedly. I am delighted that our Staff Voice consultation group is leading on the implementation and am confident that we will reap the rewards as we make this change.

Hertfordshire housing association in running for prestigious award

A Hertfordshire-based housing association has been shortlisted for a prestigious national award in recognition of its ambitious development programme.

Thrive Homes, based in Watford, has been named a finalist in the 2018 UK Housing Awards for Development Programme of the Year.

The awards, the equivalent of the ‘Oscars’ for the sector, showcase outstanding achievements by housing providers.
In the development category, judges are looking for social landlords who have shown ambition, determination and innovation to help meet the UK’s growing need for new affordable homes.

Thrive has been shortlisted because of its highly successful development programme over the last year, having completed its first significant new-build schemes and acquired or developed almost 500 homes in 2017.

The housing association – formed by a stock transfer from Three Rivers District Council in 2008 – has also expanded its geographical area, submitted its first major planning application, made its first land purchase, and built its first shared ownership homes over the last 12 months.

Looking ahead, Thrive has invested more than £50 million in new development schemes to build a strong development pipeline across more than 10 new sites in the coming years.

Jack Burnham, Development Director at Thrive, said: “2018 will mark our 10-year anniversary and we are very proud to have grown by almost 35% in our first decade. Our Board’s investments during 2017 will ensure that Thrive continues to provide more much needed affordable homes in the coming years.

“Our achievements in 2017 put us on a very strong footing to fulfil our ambitious plans and, if we can repeat this year of growth and investment ‘firsts’ in future years, then we really will be able to provide as many homes as possible to those in housing need.”

He added: “We are pleased that our hard work over the last year, resulting in an impressive scale of growth within a short period of time, and our exciting plans for the future have been recognised by the UK Housing Awards judges.”

Award winners will be announced at a ceremony in London on 2nd May.

Councillors ‘delighted’ to see Thrive’s new affordable homes in South Oxhey

Local councillors marked the completion of two new affordable homes in South Oxhey with a bulb-planting ceremony.

Councillors Alison and Andrew Scarth joined Thrive’s CEO Elspeth Mackenzie and Development Director Jack Burnham to view the new two-bedroom apartments built by Thrive Homes in Gosforth Lane.

They then helped out planting bulbs outside the homes, ahead of more formal landscaping work taking place this spring.

Councillor Alison Scarth said: “We are delighted to see two attractive, modern affordable homes being built in our ward. We’re sure the new families will enjoy living here.”

Thrive CEO, Elspeth Mackenzie said: “Thrive has an ambitious development programme to help meet the huge demand for quality affordable housing. These modern properties will very soon be home to two local families.”

Sign Language completes fleet replacement for Thrive Homes

Sign Language, the market-leading innovator of vehicle livery solutions, is delighted to announce it has secured another valued livery programme. Thrive Homes, a Hertfordshire-based housing association, awarded Sign Language the contract to brand and livery their fleet of LCVs.

Using their 20+ years’ experience, Sign Language engaged with the team at Thrive to ensure the effective implementation of a full-service programme of engineering, production and logistics management.

In particular, Sign Language advised on applying the liveries further up the supply chain, thus avoiding any unnecessary downtime caused when the livery is fitted after delivery to the end user.

Brand protection is critical with any fleet and working directly with Thrive’s own design partner also ensured minimal vehicle downtime. The all-important considerations of cost and product performance were married with the efforts of the design and installation teams to ensure that Thrive’s programme objectives were met.

Tobin Jenkins, Sales Director at Sign Language, comments: “We were really pleased to be involved with Thrive Homes’ new fleet, taking their approved concept design and seeing it through to fruition whilst advising on cost saving and best practice measures throughout the process.

“Our thanks also go to Dave Waterman at Fleetshield, the nominated convertor, for helping to facilitate application of the graphics.”

Emma Luscombe, Assistant Director, Property at Thrive Homes, added: “Following competitive tender, we were very pleased to work with Sign Language on this project. Our vehicles visually represent the organisation’s brand and are a distinctive presence in the communities where we operate.

“The new fleet echoes the previous design, with the addition of a new graphic on the rear door panels to promote our myThrive app for customers.

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“Throughout the process, from scope to completion, the team was professional, helpful and kept us up to date with progress. Our contract with them offered both quality and value for money. We are delighted with the finished result and would be happy to work with them again.”

Tragedy sounds a wake-up call for tenant engagement

In her latest blog Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie considers the questions around customer engagement highlighted by the Grenfell Tower disaster.

As the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy continues, there has inevitably been much debate and discussion within the housing sector.

Of course we need to wait for the outcome of the inquiry to fully appreciate the lessons to be learned, but it has turned the spotlight on an aspect of our work that many housing associations struggle with – tenant engagement.

The first question is how do we, as a sector and as individual organisations, ensure we clearly hear what our customers are saying?

Traditionally housing associations tried to attract people along to attend meetings but usually only a minority of tenants would be interested in such formal gatherings, so we ran the danger of getting a very one-sided view.

In our digital age, part of the solution must be to exploit technology better – looking at subtler ways of understanding how our customers are behaving and hearing their voice.

The second question is how to make sure the message gets through to the right people so that serious issues are flagged up and appropriate action taken?

This is something that boards and executive teams need to consider. After all, how can senior managers respond to a particular issue and intervene if we don’t know about it in the first place?

Understanding customers
Here at Thrive we are trying to tackle these challenges in a number of ways, taking a more consumerist approach to understand what our customers think and how they are living in our homes.

We are committed to getting closer to our residents. With this in mind, we are introducing ‘Home Plan’ – a holistic way of managing customers and their properties – as part of our new ‘Thrive Deal’ agreement with tenants.

This will involve taking an inventory of a property’s condition at the start of the tenancy, with the expectation that the customer will maintain it to that level. We will then visit them annually to ensure this remains the case and pick up any minor repairs. Those visits also give us the opportunity to understand better how the home is being used, ensure it presents no safety risk and get feedback from our customers.

Addressing the need to make sure important messages get through, we have introduced our Customer Experience Panel – a group which combines tenants and board members. It is an unusual step but one which is already proving invaluable by giving our board a very direct link with our customers.

The panel provides a clear line of communication but also acts as a kind of consultancy group, allowing the board to hear about and reflect on customers’ personal experiences, consider the issues and translate them into useful, accurate data. In this way, when we get things wrong, we can take steps to make sure we get it right in future.

Doing things differently
We have also been working with the Customer Experience Panel to develop our series of satisfaction measures, to make sure we are looking at aspects of our services which are most important to customers, such as provision of a safe home.

At the moment much of our work is fairly invisible – for instance, fire safety and asbestos testing. But we are keen to be much more open and accountable, communicating to customers what came out of these tests and what we are doing about it.

Technology and customer intelligence will play crucial roles in future customer engagement. For example, using this knowledge to pitch certain involvement activities to people with particular interests.

By harnessing digital channels we are also introducing quicker, easier ways for Thrive customers to give instant, straightforward feedback – for instance, with a simple ‘How was it for you?’ question after we provide a service to them.

Time for action
I believe Grenfell is a wake-up call for our sector. We cannot be complacent – we must act to tackle the challenges that it has brought so sharply, and tragically, into focus.

However, unless we take these questions around customer engagement on board and take a thoughtful approach to them, we run the risk of sleepwalking back to a time when associations were told how to engage with customers – and it’s seldom that one approach suits all.

So, rather than waiting to have a raft of rules and restrictions imposed upon us, we need to act now and apply ourselves to find solutions that work for associations, their customers and other stakeholders.

Bold new deal to secure a thriving future

In her latest blog Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie explains the thinking behind Thrive Home’s new business model, which aims to support growth and build resilience in an uncertain operating environment.

One of the biggest challenges for any business is determining how to best serve its customers and ensure it is able to continue doing so into the future. This is particularly challenging – but even more vital – in the ever-changing, uncertain times we currently face.

At Thrive, we have been asking ourselves what kind of business we need to be to continue to build and manage affordable homes in some of the UK’s most expensive areas, where there is an acute housing shortage, enabling people to live in homes they would find unaffordable in the private sector.

We’ve been thinking about this very carefully and recognise that we have to be really clear that our business is being a landlord and property manager. We’re focusing on ensuring that our core services really work and that customers receive what’s important to them – good value homes which are safe, affordable and provide security that enables people to make long term plans.

A fair deal
We are introducing this new business model – the ‘Thrive Deal’ – over the course of this financial year, starting with our new customers. The idea is that it will deliver clarity about what we do in return for the level of rent they pay and their responsibility for the upkeep and basic care of their home.

The Deal is based on self-service through digital or telephone channels with service delivery on a next convenient appointment basis. This helps Thrive to control costs and manage demand.

Our Customer Experience Panel has worked with us in developing this new business model. The panel has supported our plans, worked with us to determine how to measure customer satisfaction and will be closely monitoring how the Deal works in practice.

From an operational point of view, we have rebuilt our organisation around delivery of core services with the intention that the majority of routine services will be delivered either digitally or through our Customer Contact Centre.

This will enable us to target more expensive technical resources where these are really needed. Through focusing our business in this way and making greater use of technology, we have reduced headcount within the organisation by 18%.

This is a very bold step for a relatively small housing association but Thrive has real ambition and we believe that fundamental change is needed to reposition housing associations in ways that are appropriate for the future. To be proud of the great value that we offer our customers and enable us to compete with the new entrants – for profit providers and hybrid organisations with offers outside of the regulated sector that we are starting to see in our markets.

Statement on fire safety following the Grenfell Tower fire

Following the news of the fire at Grenfell Tower in West London our thoughts are with the families of those affected. Whilst Thrive Homes does not own or manage any high rise flat blocks we recognise that our residents that live in low rise multi occupancy buildings may be concerned about the safety of their own home and family.

We want to reassure our residents that Thrive Homes takes fire safety very seriously. All our flat blocks are Fire Risk assessed every two years in line with Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety Order) 2005 legislation, and any identified works are programmed.

Smoke detectors, where fitted, are serviced annually and emergency lighting in our developments is regularly tested and inspected in line with regulatory requirements as part of our approach to fire safety.

One particular area of concern raised by the fire at Grenfell Tower is whether residents should stay in their home in the event of a fire. Residents should always follow the advice given for their specific building, which for most developments will be to stay in your home unless the fire is within your flat or you are in immediate danger. The walls, floors and doors to flats are capable of withstanding fire long enough for the fire service to arrive and deal with the fire.

It is usually safer for residents to stay put, call 999 and wait for the emergency services, preferably in a room with a window, rather than entering smoky corridors where it could be difficult to see. The fire service will be able to safely evacuate all or part of the building if necessary. This remains the accepted best practice for most multi occupancy buildings.

Residents can help support fire safety in their building by working with us to ensure communal areas are free of possessions and rubbish. If we contact you about a specific fire safety issue in your building, please do take the matter seriously as it is in everyone’s interest to reduce fire risk as far as possible.

As with any major incident it is likely that there will be learning points following the fire at Grenfell Tower, once a detailed investigation has been carried out and we will of course implement any new safety recommendations that result.

If you have any concerns in the meantime about fire safety within your own building or need general advice on fire safety in your home please contact us

Honesty and reality could help banish the ‘elephant in the room’

In her latest blog, Thrive Homes Chief Executive Elspeth Mackenzie argues that honesty and reality are fundamental to fixing our broken housing market.

With the General Election just days away and political campaigning really hotting up, it has been pleasing to see agreement among the main parties that housing is an increasingly important issue.

But they must recognise it is also a complex, difficult issue – rather like that of social care – which raises questions around how we provide hugely expensive, quality social housing to meet demand which is potentially limitless.

I believe this is the ‘elephant in the room’ for our sector – what is the role of the state as a safety net and how far should the state’s control extend? Surely we also need to take into account the question of individual responsibility and the life choices people make.

In turn, this raises the matter of fairness. It is all very well politicians grabbing headlines by talking about the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ in absolute terms, defined by a certain level of income. But how far that income goes will depend on a range of variables such as the cost of living in your area, how many dependants you are supporting and whether you are the sole breadwinner.

The fact is that, if your housing is subsidised so you pay a cheaper rent than market levels, your income will go a lot further. This means that social housing tenants are, to a degree, protected from the reality of rising housing and living costs, creating an artificial world which may promote unrealistic expectations in terms of the range of services provided for them.

So we have to ask questions about who should be entitled to social housing and for how long? For example, attachment to a particular area has again become an important factor for local authorities when deciding who should be eligible.

Honesty paves the way for reality
We can argue endlessly about what is fair but we must ask ourselves the fundamental question of how we ensure more people have access to a secure home and a settled existence, enabling them to feel they have a stake in society and can achieve what they want to achieve.

Our society needs to have a proper discussion around these issues – an informed debate that enables people to understand the consequences of making one decision or another, so that they do not wake up in a future which they ‘voted’ for but never intended.

Whilst democracy provides the platform for that debate, honesty from our politicians is essential to ensure the debate is informed by reality. For instance, politicians should de-couple links which generate public concern such as claims that welfare benefit costs are driven by social housing via rent setting, which is just not true.

Within this new environment of honesty and reality, housing associations should be allowed the freedom and flexibility to enable them to help government more effectively tackle the housing crisis. This could be achieved by letting us link rents to the quality of the property and what it costs to run.

Many housing associations are charities, therefore we are very conscious of the need for affordability for our customers – so we must also have the freedom to provide a wider range of properties at different pricings and to explore with government and the wider financial markets how housing wealth can be more widely accessed.

In addition, politicians need to be honest about what they expect in return for grant funding towards social housing. Of course housing associations should make the best use of their assets but simplistic solutions and conditions – such as building new homes and then having to sell them 15 years later – may not be the best approach.

Instead, such funding could be similar to an interest-free start-up loan which provides the capital to support development and then, after a set period of time, the recipient must demonstrate how they have generated further assets or return the money to government. However what works in one area and within one business model may not work in another, so flexibility remains key to the relationship between social housing and government.

Clearly, lack of supply is just one of the symptoms of our housing problems and not the full story. But bringing some of these realities into clear focus would enable more fundamental issues to be tackled that would make a significant difference to our broken housing market.