Is an unsettling paradox in company culture key to repairing reputation in social housing?

Sarah Stevenson | 27 April 2022

I attended a thought provoking Connex Leadership Networks roundtable about a “Sector Reboot- Improving Our Reputation in an Age of Mistrust”. The depth of discussion was a clear indication that the temporary image reprieve that the early days of the pandemic afforded the sector (which I wrote about during the time), were well and truly over.

I was in good company, Sarah Jones, ex-Shadow Minister for Housing and current Shadow Minister for Policing and Fire Service kicked off the discussion. She summarised the issues creating a bad image for the sector into three buckets:

  • Political – for instance, inadequate building regulations; the chronic underfunding for affordable housing amplified by austerity measures; the renaissance that no-one wanted – Right to Buy 2.0; plus a different housing minister, what feels like every week.
  • Post Grenfell – the tragic loss of life and five years later the buck still being passed down the line; the EW1S form debacle rendering owners of flats in tower blocks unable to sell; the minister responsible for implementing recommendations after the Lakanhal fire, what was then Britain’s worst tower block fire recently admitting to not reading the coroner’s letter in which they were contained.
  • What the sector is doing itself – a sustained focus on development at the neglect of the basic operations of a social landlords -i.e. safe homes and an empathetic and responsive customer service; fragmented services making accountability difficult; inadequate, dismissive or delayed responses to crisis’s such as the recent ITV coverage for poor conditions.

All of the above compounded by a modern-day consumer culture, whereby excellent service expected as the norm, when a platform is afforded to those customers who find the exception to this; usually rightly so.

What is clear, is that there is not one singular point of failure, more a collection of converging micro and macro factors that have created the perfect storm. Much self-reflection continues in the sector, with the collective assertion that “we should be doing better”.

On listening to the discussion what struck me was an unsettling paradox; we were hearing anecdotes of unempathetic and ‘inhuman’ customer service, yet I would hazard a guess that the majority of the staff in the sector are values-driven, and chose to work in the sector because of this!

This for me drew worrying parallels with the findings of the Francis report, an independent inquiry commissioned after the gross failings of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation trust 2005-2009 – resulting in a shockingly high mortality rate. Central to the findings was that despite these failings, staff were predominantly ‘values-driven’, however the Trust’s culture served as a blocker to staff living and delivering their work according to these. The proponents included a culture focused on doing the system’s business – not that of patients, a failure of communications between the different internal departments and external agencies, and assumptions that monitoring, performance management and intervention was the responsibility of someone else.


Sound familiar? Uncomfortably so…..

Furthermore: a comment on the service-profit chain.  There is a well-researched positive link between levels of employee engagement and how consumers feel about a service organisation. A key mechanism that facilitates this relationship is the ‘discretionary effort’ that engaged employees are more likely to exhibit. Discretionary efforts are the actions taken that go beyond defined role responsibilities. For instance, a frontline employee being motivated to go the extra mile beyond the customer complaints process and putting in a number of additional calls to another department to find out a key piece of information.  This in turn prevents an escalation, leaves a customer happier and ultimately, they will feel better about the organisation.

The variables that have most influence over how engaged an employee is (and therefore how likely they are to exhibit discretionary effort), include quality of relationship with their line manager, having the appropriate resources to perform their role, and feeling connected with the purpose of the organisation.

With this lens, the best an employer can do is to consider where they can positively impact these factors – It pays greater dividends to consider the customer and employee journey as two dovetailing facets of the business, a topic which in my view, the housing sector doesn’t consider enough.

To this effect we’ll be a chairing a hybrid roundtable event in partnership with  Connex Leadership Networks about the topic “ Why Can’t You Hear Us? Where the Customer and Employee Journey Converge – Connex Leadership Networks”. Creating an employee and customer experience that stands out from the rest, might be what takes your organisation to the next level if you can find a way to implement both with purpose and intentionality. We’ll be examining what the sustainable companies of the future are going to look like – organisations that look after their customers and their employees equally, without sacrificing on quality.


Please join us for the event and sign up here

Plus, I would love to hear your views on how much control we actually have over rebooting the image of the sector? Email sstevenson@nscg.com  or reach out via LinkedIn.

Share this: