2020 review of social housing
Suresh Lal, Partner and Head of our Housing Practice, reflects on the past 12 months for the housing sector, considering interim talent trends, and looks ahead to 2021
What a year this has been and one we are certainly not going to forget for a long time. So much has happened making it hard to write a comprehensive review. The affordable housing sector had to deal with some rapidly changing scenarios which will leave us with some positives to think over, as well as the many downsides and personal losses we suffered.
I have seen a number of trends within the talent market this year and will do my best to analyse what we have seen throughout 2020 and where I think we are headed for 2021 and beyond.
If we step back to March of this year and the initial response to the national lockdown, a few things happened in short succession. Teams which were planning on digital rollouts and ‘working from home strategies’ to be in place in 2-3 years' time suddenly overnight had to make sure they could function from a distance - and they did, brilliantly. Without even so much as a pause, housing teams up and down the country switched over to a working from home situation. I can only give you all a standing ovation for how well it played out. It also highlighted some unsung heroes in the IT departments who I’m sure will have far greater recognition moving forward.
At the same time organisations were putting on their Personal Protective Equipment and ensuring homes were still safe to live in. Almost immediately after the nation was put into lockdown, all safety checks and essential repairs were able to be delivered and vulnerable customers were enveloped in a bubble of calls, food drops and check-ins. For me, this demonstrated the commitment to the cause which has kept me working with you for the past 14 odd years.
I could only offer one thing in all of this…to call to see if someone was okay. Did they need someone to talk to? A different voice to hear perhaps. This was not a time to discuss hiring, but a time to ensure the people I’ve spent so long working with had a shoulder to lean on. Most people wanted reassurance, to know they had read the situation in a similar way to others and no one had dropped the ball - suffice to say, no one did.
Summer arrived and talk did eventually move towards the potential needs of the organisation moving forward. There was a newfound positivity of remote working patterns and being able to deliver certain programmes from afar. We started ramping up interim support and three areas took precedence:
The need for finance support perhaps surprised me. Not because of the demand (finance is one of our busiest areas to support) but because of the level. As we managed the peak of pandemic, new recovery needs arose which ultimately led to substantial changes being made. Housing associations required the appointment of senior finance leads, CFO’s and Finance Directors, to take on these unexpected challenges.
Development and development pipelines
The lockdown conditions we faced earlier this year, and now some are seeing again in the new tier 4, have changed housing demands dramatically. This year we have started to see a partial slow down and, dare I suggest, a thinning out of some of the inner city-based housing development teams. Simultaneously we then saw teams in the more rural areas - especially those on the fringes of the major conurbations - ramping up teams rapidly. This comes as they try to cope with a new trend of people leaving the city ‘high rise’ life behind as they seek out bigger space and the gardens available in the suburbs.
I do think this is a momentary change and will see the market revert back to some normality now the vaccine is on the horizon. However, this year has no doubt made some people living in flats and apartments reconsider their living situations and place more value on private outside space.
Building and fire safety
This year we have been inundated with options and requests to help teams with one of two scenarios:
First is the hands on, slightly more junior interim going in to support a director or the executive with the execution of an established plan. The specialist (fire in particular) is there to ensure that work is delivered, projects are over the line and a permanent option can be realised once the heavy-duty lifting and initial support has been dealt with.
The second is a far more senior fire specialist who is working directly with the Executive and Board teams to lay out a full roadmap of building & fire safety. This plan must be integral to everything the organisation delivers and does not work in isolation nor focus only on compliance.
So now the tricky part, to try and predict what might be the key issues for us to look at in 2021.
I think I tried to do this around a year ago and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a global pandemic or being stuck in my flat for the best part of a year in any of my crystal balls.
One thing I do know is that the recently published The charter for social housing residents: social housing white paper has re-emphasised the need for customers to have a stronger voice. Although we have worked towards this for many years, the policy paper lays out a more holistic way of working across teams. Rather than the digital centric view we have had for the COO or an executive director in charge of customer services for the past 3-5 years, property management skillsets will take precedence going forward.
It appears as though we reached a threshold on diversity this year. I was lucky enough to be asked by Connex Leadership Networks to join a panel of speakers debating the diversity in housing issue and my recent podcast with Kate Dodsworth, CEO of Gateway Housing, to discuss this matter. From both discussions, it is clear we are far more aware of the issue but now we need some action to go along with the thought. For a sector as widely representative as ours, it doesn’t make sense to be left behind on what should be one of greatest leadership strengths. I feel we can really drive progress in this area over the next 12 months.
And finally, a personal thank you to everyone I’ve had the pleasure of working with this year. From clients to interim managers, and my own personal team at Odgers, I cannot wait to see you all in person and stop living like a really bad game show host from behind my laptop screen. It certainly hasn’t been the year we were expecting and hopefully things will return to some semblance of normality for us all very soon.
For more information please contact Suresh Lal.