The digital on-boarding experience as told by interim managers in the social housing sector
Suresh Lal, Partner and Head of our Social Housing Practice, and Annaliese Rogers, Social Housing Consultant, speak to a number of interim managers about their recent experience of being digitally on-boarded during the covid-19 pandemic and their advice for others in the same situation
The covid-19 pandemic has uprooted our deep-set traditional ways of working and has required organisations across the sectors to make rapid advances in their digital transformation agendas. In the housing sector, changes have had to be made immediately in response to the lock-down measures implemented at the end of March. Housing associations had to quickly make decisions about what essential services and legal checks to continue, such as gas and electricity inspections, maintenance work and construction sites, and how to transition their staff to remote working.
In the midst of this disruption, Barry Nethercott, Interim CFO at Yorkshire Housing, Trevor Graham, Interim property investment director at GreenSquare Group, and Terry Bonner, Interim director of homes and place at CHP, all started their most recent interim assignments. We sat down with them to discuss how their experiences of being digitally onboarded have felt and how they have found their initial weeks working remotely full-time at new organisations.
Across all conversations there was a consensus that the digital on-boarding process was seamless due to the established IT infrastructure of the organisations. Barry told us that Yorkshire Housing was already laying the foundations of new agile working processes and as a result the team has already grown accustomed to remote working and taking on new technology. This was echoed by Trevor who agreed that organisations have been developing the necessary IT over the past few years and made the point that, “the prevalence of the cloud has made accessing data remotely seamless and it means that new additions to the team can effortlessly connect into the systems to access the essential documents and information”.
From these conversations, it is clear management are having to draw from their leadership skillset quickly and react to the challenges covid-19 is presenting to the housing sector. Barry made the point that while the current pandemic is a sudden and profound challenge, interim managers are well-versed in coming into an organisation at a time of difficulty saying, “my main role as an interim CFO is to support housing associations facing finance and/or governance struggles, and covid-19 has just been an addition to the list of risks to manage. I have found that even in the face of this pandemic, I have been able to continue to get on top of the issues that need to be addressed”.
Trevor and Terry also reported no profound change in their brief as a result of the crisis, but have seen a hard impact on their work as it slows progress and requires more of a focus on the immediate strategy rather than long-term need of the organisation.
Trevor brought up the challenge of being a remote manager of a team you haven’t built up a face to face rapport with nor formed an understanding of individual working styles and capabilities. He told us interim managers will face “an initial learning phase to establish who is who in the team and how to deploy people effectively”. He suggested focusing on bottom-up feedback to discern the situation and begin to form a deeper understanding of how to direct and supervise the team.
A new normal we are all encountering is the switch from face-to-face meetings to video conferences. The technology has been critical in enabling long-term remote working under lockdown measures and has been the primary way colleagues are able to build relationships. Trevor pointed out the importance of body language when using video calls as a new member of staff: “You’re an unknown entity to your colleagues for the time being, so you shouldn’t underestimate the power of body language when on a video call. It’s really important to be a little softer in your approach than you might overwise be in an office because it’s harder to judge and communicate fully with your audience.”
The other barrier to building relationships remotely we discussed is the absence of small talk in the office and the short interactions with colleagues in the kitchen or at the printer. Terry suggested being proactive and making the opportunities available for more conversation outside the scheduled allotted meeting time, saying, “to build relationships you should find a reason to give someone a call and have a one-to-one conversation, whether that is through Teams, Zoom or an old-fashioned phone call. And importantly, bring in some of your personality and your sense of humour to your communications to offer more about you to your new colleagues”.
As a final point, we asked Barry, Trevor and Terry if they could offer any advice to others at this time. A running theme amongst the interims was to establish yourself and your communications as well as be mindful and empathetic of the new circumstances. Barry advised that interims in this position need to “be themselves, be really flexible, and be open and transparent". He told us that the priority should be to keep in regular contact with your people and he advocates for “daily calls, ideally using video software, to check on their wellbeing before discussing business”. Alongside the usual assignment prep and admin organisation, Terry suggested “sending out an email to your staff and the people you are working close with just before you start to introduce yourself on an informal basis as well as share some professional background”. He also thought having a “go-to person” (he recommends someone patient) in the organisation would be very useful, especially in the current circumstances, as an “anchor point” to answer any of the initial questions someone would have about where to find a document, or who is who. And as a reminder, Trevor wanted to highlight the importance of well-being and colleague recognition: “It’s so easy as we work remotely to forget to thank people and congratulate them on jobs well done, but now it is more important than ever. This is also the case for being mindful of working hours and giving your team time to rest and recharge. It is so important for mental well-being but also for productivity.”