In the past few weeks, remote and agile working has been high on the agenda, with more and more businesses needing to have their teams working remotely to help manage the spread of COVID-19.
In this guest post, Michelle Gregg, Director of Business Transformation at Yorkshire Housing, discusses the efforts her business have been making to create more agile working opportunities for their teams, and how culture is a key priority for achieving this.
For us, that means giving people the option to tailor their working in a way that works for our customers and our business as well as for themselves.
There are two aspects to this for us – creating a great workspace for our employees is vital, but it’s also important that we enable them to work outside of this when they prefer, giving them the tools they need to do their jobs and the flexibility from Yorkshire Housing .
What’s most important, however, is having a strong culture that connects and engages teams across the company, wherever and however they prefer to work.
We know that a great workspace is increasingly an expectation, particularly amongst younger employees. We have plans underway to make significant changes to our offices, and as part of that process we’ve learned a lot about what the perfect working environment means to different people.
One thing that’s become very clear is that vast open plan office spaces aren’t necessarily the best for everybody, despite being the default for many organisations these days. Depending on an individual’s role, the work they are doing at the time, and their personal preferences, a good working environment needs to provide a range of different spaces, both open collaborative spaces and quieter, more focussed environments.
Crucially, we need to give teams the ability to choose their working environment to ensure that the space they’re in supports their well being.
Our Executive Team have been at the heart of this change. Since last August, our directors and Chief Executive have no longer had their own desk or chair, instead choosing to hot-desk, individual offices for the senior team had not been in existence for some years. This is important because it allows us to model the behaviour we want to promote across the wider business, and it’s also a great way of seeing the benefits first-hand. It’s really nice to sit in with a team you wouldn’t normally sit with, and to get involved in conversations and make connections you might not otherwise be able to.
While we’re committed to creating a fantastic workspace at Yorkshire Housing, we’re aware that we can’t limit this vision to our own offices. Work is something you do, not somewhere you go, and we’re committed to making this a reality for as many of our team members as possible.
This is a practical as well as a cultural change for us – our properties are spread throughout Yorkshire, an area roughly 100 miles square, so the idea that we could centralise our team in one convenient place isn’t realistic for us. A big benefit of remote working is that we can offer one amazing space for people to use if they wish, but it doesn’t need a space for every staff member, so we can offer a great office in a cost-effective way.
To give people the option to work wherever is most suitable for them, we’ve added agile and remote working options for a number of roles in the past year, and going forward our ambition is to no longer ask “why should this individual work in an agile or remote way ”, but “why shouldn’t they”?
While there are some challenges, we’ve found that for many of our employees, working remotely is something that comes naturally. We all have hugely sophisticated technology like WhatsApp and video calling at our fingertips these days, and this means that for many staff, keeping in touch and collaborating remotely isn’t as difficult as you might expect. We thought we weren’t quite ready for some specialist teams like our customer service centre to work from home, but with the rapid change brought about by COVID-19 we were able to get then set up at home overnight.
While many businesses are having to implement remote working quickly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also had a similar story for different reasons. In the middle of our planning to move customer-facing staff to agile working at the end of 2019, one of our offices was flooded, two months earlier than our go live date. With no notice, we had to implement agile working for a large part of our team overnight.
What was very exciting to see was how these teams blossomed and made the best of this situation, even though at that point we didn’t have the technology in place that we’d have liked to have. It didn’t quite function the way we’d originally intended, but our teams were resourceful and adapted their working practices to fit what was available to them, and were still able to provide great service and get the job done in difficult circumstances.
While this wasn’t ideal, it’s taught us that in some ways we might have underestimated our teams’ abilities to work flexibly and it gave us the experience and confidence we needed to deal with current challenges . Generally people are more adaptable than you think they are, and implementing agile working might not be as hard as you expect!
I think with the current COVID-19 situation, more and more companies are going to be in similar situations to us, and I hope they’re also going to be surprised at the creativity that comes to the fore when people have to adapt out of necessity.
One thing we’ve learned from our progress towards agile working so far is the importance of maintaining human connection. Our more flexible physical office showed us the benefits of keeping in touch when the senior team moved to hot-desking, and this is something we’re passionate about maintaining, even as more of our team work outside of our physical workspace.
The little things have a big impact here – video calling and FaceTime are really beneficial for helping people feel connected with the company while they’re working remotely, and we’ve also implemented a number of different ways to keep teams engaged with the company culture and brand.
Our Chief Executive, Nick Atkin , runs “ask Nick” video sessions, taking questions from the team online and live-streaming the answers. We’ve also provided a Yorkshire Housing app with all the information team members might need when moving to agile working, including videos on how systems work, process maps, information on setting up a good home workspace and contact numbers. We also provide little things like hot and cold drink holders or pre-paid cards to cover coffee and meeting costs, to make it as easy as possible for our teams to work in a way that suits them.
We’ve tested some new and creative ways to help remote workers engage with our new business strategy launch last week – we live-broadcast this online, but also set up events in local cinemas and other physical locations across Yorkshire so that our remote workers who wanted to attend in person could visit those instead of coming into Leeds city centre. By giving the choice between our main office, a satellite event or viewing the whole thing from home, we gave our employees a choice of how to engage with this really important event rather than tell them how to do so.
We’ve seen a fantastic impact on our company culture from making working more agile and flexible. We’re big believers in treating our employees like adults and judging them on the results they generate, not the hours they spend at a desk, and we really feel that by demonstrating this trust we’ve helped to bring out the best in people.
We’ve also learned that agile working isn’t necessarily a generational thing – while younger generations might tend to gravitate towards remote communication and while older team members might tend to prefer face-to-face, there are benefits both ways, and it’s been fascinating to see our teams learning from each other and striking a balance depending on the situation.
There’s an adoption curve within the housing industry at present, with some companies forging ahead to great success and others less confident about agile working. While we’re not necessarily on the cutting edge with this , at Yorkshire Housing we do feel we’ve achieved fantastic results by seizing opportunities as they have arisen.
We’re committed to offering remote and agile working options to as many employees who’d benefit from it as possible. However, we’re also aware that for some situations, a great physical workspace is also needed. We believe that by offering our teams the ability to choose when, where and how to work, and by fostering a strong culture of trust and great communication, we can get the best out of everybody.
Michelle Gregg leads the business transformation programme at Yorkshire Housing which ensures the organisation is geared up to meet the challenges of a changing sector. She also has responsibility for HR, learning and development and communications.