Podcast Episode 3
Darren Turner from Futures Housing Group
This week, we're talking with Darren Turner, the Transformation Programme Manager at Futures Housing Group. We talk about agile working in a post-covid world, Future's new corporate plan and how that affects their approach to housing and digital technology that is pushing the housing sector forward.
So welcome to another “Switchee Podcast”. My name is Alastair, from Switchee and I’m joined today by Darren Turner from Futures Housing Group. Darren is the transformation Program Manager and Innovation Lead for Futures and runs the Futures frontier program. We're really excited to have you here Darren. Darren is someone that I’ve worked with for the last couple of years with Switchee and I think I can't go any further without asking you one question, which is why housing?
Well, thank you, Alastair! Great question and well, my answer would be why not? It is the right industry to be in particularly if you have a social value around wanting to make a difference. I’d worked in banking for about 11 years prior to joining Futures housing group and my conscience kicked in around the time of the banking crisis and didn't quite recover and I thought I needed to get to an organization that actually made a difference to people in their communities. I felt like I wasn't perhaps adding value to those who might already have enough money. So there was something about that but I grew up in council housing. So when I was a kid, my parent's situation was such that we needed council housing support and so there was something about being able to return back to an environment that was familiar to me.
So I recall going on my induction in my first week of joining Futures and seeing flooring that was exactly the same flooring as the flooring I remember from being a kid. And I was really appreciative of what my parents could do for me and what council housing meant for me. And so when there was an opportunity to leave the banking world and to find something a little bit more social - representing of my values and it just seemed like the right choice. And as our Chief Exec always talks about, “there isn't anything more important than putting a roof over somebody's head” and so it just feels and continues to be the right place to do my work. So, yeah, that's what I work for and in housing.
That's why I’m here!
That's fantastic Darren! Thank you for that. So Samaritans to banking to housing. Yeah, I think you're sorting out the yin and yang at the moment.
Look, there's a lot to talk about with Futures. I think you guys have done some fantastic innovative projects and made some great strides. I saw recently that you've released your new sort of corporate plan. So I’d be interested to find out what that's about and I guess what you're looking to focus on over the next few years.
Yeah, so we have just launched the next three years of our intentions for what Futures Housing Group is looking to do. We co-created this by running internal open space events with colleagues and team members to find out from them where they thought the organization should go next. We looked at lots of data. We are an East Midlands housing association. So we wanted to understand what the data was telling us about what the needs were and are for our customers across the region. And we pulled all that together to create a plan. It was largely produced before COVID. So it was about to launch, then COVID happened. And then we took some time to think about whether there was anything from COVID that we wanted to also include.
An increased focus on sustainability, sustainability of our properties and sustainability of our tenancies so that our customers live well and can afford to live in their homes. And that takes us down the line of thinking about how easy it is to live in a property of ours, how much does it cost to run the fuel in a property like ours. So a lot of that went into the creation of our corporate plan, which we have just launched. So if anybody is interested, it's available on our website - Futures Housing Group - and it focuses on four key areas.
One of them is always the customer. Customer-centric in what we do, that's always been a part of our organization. So it's still very much there. Looking at sustainability. So not just looking at how much it costs to run the property now, but we have a 30-year business plan that takes into account 2050 and the challenge of becoming carbon zero. So we are now at the point where we're going to start the planning process for some of the things that might lead us to being able to achieve that. So that's the first time it's shown up in our corporate plan. Growth and development, so looking at how we make sure we help people across our region to have homes, affordable homes to live in. That is one of our areas of focus and then culture. So underpinning what we do as an organization is a core investment in the culture of how we do what we do - the people that we have in our organization. So, yeah, those are the four things and our strapline is great homes, great services, great tomorrows. So check it out. That's a great corporate plan that's setting us up for the next three years. Very exciting, very exciting.
That's fantastic. Darren, we'll put a link to the corporate strategy in the post for this, so people can have a look. That looks like a few great areas to focus on. Customers, sustainability, growth and development and obviously culture. And culture's an interesting one because you, like me and many other people we're currently doing this from home and whilst there are lots of benefits that come from that and I think we've all surprised ourselves and in how we've adapted to doing this. It can have a bit of an impact on the culture of a business especially when you're quite culture-led. Have you got any examples of where working from home and COVID have impacted this or even some strategies for trying to sustain your culture?
Yeah. So prior to COVID happening, we had been setting our intention of becoming an agile and adaptive organization. So we had done lots of work to put the technology in place so that people could work from home. So that had been happening a long before COVID. So when that did occur, it was really easy to shift people to working from home and also providing good technology so that people could connect, set themselves up comfortably in their home workstations. So we'd already been getting towards that.
We have been running a leadership development program within the organization for the last four years alongside our transformation program. We are very much of the belief that if we are to make our systems and processes more agile, the success of that is only as good as the culture that then runs those processes. So we've had our focus around creating an empowered organization, where people feel that they can improve the work they do and be able to make decisions in the moment that suit our customers and our services. And also to feel engaged with the organization that they work with. So we've had a really active program of health and well-being, focusing on what do people need to feel good in the workplace. So looking at mental health, making sure people feel connected. So a combination of all of those things - the transformation of our services, the leadership development process and the health and well-being has really gone into creating a culture of, hopefully, people feeling empowered.
So that took us into COVID, people were so resilient in finding a way of working and so we deployed people. We had some of our team members going out delivering care packages to some of our most vulnerable customers. We also run care calls, so we offered up to customers who were most vulnerable if they wanted a regular check-in. So over the last five months, we've been running that support just to see if those customers needed any extra support or just wanting to speak to somebody. And now that we're in a position that we can go back into the office, although as you know, those restrictions are there. We do believe that there is still a need for us and as our working practices go on to still bring people together when that is safe to do so.
We still believe that we are a face-to-face organization and not a virtual organization. And that is really important to the culture that we're building on. One of the other things that's been very important in the last few months has been our focus on equality, diversity and inclusion. Very much in response to the events in America - black lives matter. And that has brought us to look at that from how we represent our local community, how do we represent and challenge ourselves. So that we have good, open recruitment processes, that don't have an implicit bias in them. So, we're going through a process at the minute of scrutinizing that part of our culture to make sure that we are an inclusive organization. It's a really vibrant time from a cultural perspective.
And the other thing we did through COVID, we ran a series of lessons learned activities to be checking in what the lessons were from COVID, documenting the key themes and then using that to recommend how we come out of COVID and transition back. But keep some of that really interesting stuff that we've been learning. So, yeah, it was a really interesting time to be a part of Futures, based on what's been happening.
Lots going on, lots going on. If you had to sort of pick one particular initiative that you think you're most proud of Futures, what would that be?
Well, it is a bias actually on my part and it is our leadership development program. So, one of the other roles I have is to co-develop and facilitate the delivery of our leadership development program. And originally, when we set about this program, it was designed for people who were in positions of authority. i.e. those who had a management title. Which was great, that's where we needed to start the efforts for the program. But what we realized was that the concept of leadership is a universal concept and that anybody can be a leader. And so when we transitioned from the original phase back in 2016 into the current phase of the program, we opened it up to anybody. Anybody within the organization that had a belief in self-development from the perspective of leading themselves and then the desire to lead others.
We gave them the opportunity to join the program and we just launched cohort 12 of our program. So this is a very active program and we've had over 120 people come through the program to date. That includes people who do join our organization in positions like a group director or people from our repairs function, who are operatives who are progressing their career, demonstrating leadership. And so our belief is that if we give people the tools to lead themselves, think about how they respond to situations and then the influence they have on others, we get a joined-up workforce across the organization truly accountable for what they're doing. And I’ve got this really lovely post-it note in mind from one of our sessions, where someone wrote on it: “I am a leader” and we still use it for some of our kind of like marketing, you know, comms material because it's just so powerful and that's what we've been able to originate in people that sense of leadership.
And that sets you up to do all sorts of funky, agile, innovative things because people are part of it and they feel like they can do those things because they're empowered. So, yeah, that's the one thing I’m probably most proud of.
Fantastic. Do you stand at the mirror in the morning Darren, and shout “I’m a leader?”
Well, I do stand in the mirror and do all sorts to kind of get myself ready for the day. Let's say I do that as well.
Great. You mentioned tools, giving people the tools and experience to do things certainly from a kind of leadership perspective and something that we're quite passionate about at Switchee is giving residents some tools to enable them to do things well in their home. Live healthier, more comfortable, more cost-effective lives really. I was wondering, and this isn't a speak about Switchee bit, but have you got any particular digital or technology elements that you've brought into your properties for your residents at all?
Yeah, well Alastair, you can shout about Switchee. I think you're hosting this podcast and I think it's right for you to use it as an opportunity to talk about Switchee and I’m all there for that because we have been working to bring Switchee into the business for the last couple of years. And I think it is the first piece of technology that we have launched into our homes, in a way that we've never done before. So, of course, we have technology around how we renovate, turn a property from void back to being lettable. So that's functional technology. Hard bricks and mortar type technology. But Switchee has been the first digital technology, that has allowed us to talk directly to our homes and to discover what's happening inside them. So, yeah, I’m more than happy to jump on and talk about Switchee at this point. It doesn't feel forced at all. If anyone's listening to this, this feels really natural.
And I think it's worth saying isn't it Alastair, our route to getting our organization to adopt Switchee has been a progressive one over a couple of years. So we did that initial pilot of a few devices just to get people to think about what this type of technology means. Where we are now is we have moved through the adoption curve and the concept of Switchee feels like a really well-known concept in our organization and there is a desire to want to use it more. So we have quite a competitive installation process happening for three different routes into our organization. So we've got Switchee going in via our boiler install program. We've got Switchee is going in as part of our development for new builds and we've also got Switchee going in as part of a pilot for a concept called “The liveable standard” which itself is a really, really interesting concept.
It came out of a series of research and analysis periods, where we looked at the data for what it was like to live in our homes for our customers and how expensive it was for some of our customers in that initial moving in phase. Moving into a property and potentially having to look at things like carpets, painting the walls and for some of our customers, it became a competition between being able to afford that or being able to afford their rent or being able to afford the fuel to heat their homes. So we've been looking at a package of different options available to our customers who are most vulnerable when moving into our homes.
And one of those things that we have been putting in has been a Switchee device. The idea being that those customers get an opportunity to reduce their energy bill through the use of the thermostat. But for us, we get to understand how likely it is that those customers might slip into fuel poverty. So then we can become more predictive and supportive of those customers before it becomes an issue. And we also know that if they're not heating their homes because they can't afford it, the likelihood of damp and mould starts to increase too. So the more proactive we are with that information, the better the homes, the condition of our homes will be. But most importantly, the tenancy gets the increased sustainability for those customers to live well and longer in those homes. So, yeah. That's where we are with Switchee at the minute.
Indeed, what a lovely summary of our product and service. Thank you for that! And I remember being in a couple of meetings and you guys mentioning the liveable standard at the time, but, just this understanding that there's a pivot point when somebody moves into a new home. It's more expensive and more stressful and there is more opportunity for things to go wrong in that first 6 to 12 months than at any other point. And there is a sustainable tenancy element as a housing provider that you need to make sure that you've got people in the properties for a long time because that works for everybody. But there's also a really human element in that is you could make a successful, long-term, happy tenancy out of something that could go either way by giving a bit of help at the start, it can be the difference between good and bad. That was a really interesting learning from my side.
Yeah, absolutely. And it links into all sorts of things. So, when we did our analysis of data for all of our customers, it was data that comes from places like, Experian, for example. So, this is not intrusive data, it's information that's available. And it's not about our customers it's just an indication of the socio-economic groups of people who live within our homes. So it allows us to think about, well, if we don't take care of our tenancies at the time that someone starts off within our homes, it shows up in the contacts those customers are likely to make to us because we will hear them speaking to us about maybe it's an issue with the property. So it could be something like it's the condition isn't right for them and their family or their children.
There's maybe an affordability consideration at some point because we've got these competing concerns for our customers. So we might hear from them at that part in their life cycle. There could be an employability consideration too. So especially at a time like now, where many people might be facing the risk of increased employability issues, we also have a dedicated team that will work with our customers to help them find routes back into employment - CV skill development, those sorts of things. We just realized that there were so many different ways our customers may have been contacting us and we didn't have a joined-up way of understanding how that was happening and also what the root cause of that might have been. So, being able to look at something like, how you move into a property, how liveable it is for you and your situation, that sets that tenancy up to hopefully be more successful. And that customer goes on with them and their family to have a much better experience. That's important, isn't it?
That's important. Absolutely. And something that we learned was one property might be perfect for one set-up and not for another. You know, a property that might be perfect for a family is not perfect for a single occupant and vice versa. So, yeah, thank you for including us in those learnings. Look, I think we're going to wrap up here. I think, you know, we've covered some huge topics like agile working, culture, your corporate plan and how kind of sustainability now factors into that with the 2050 plans. Thank you for sharing that with us! I did want to leave one last question. Not to throw you under the bus with this, but I’m starting to ask people about what they think the biggest problem or area of change or if you like opportunity is within housing? So in a sentence, what do you think the biggest problem or area of change or opportunity is?
Sustainability. That is the key one. So to be able to achieve carbon zero by 2050 is going to take a lot of effort and soon. Because the properties that a lot of housing associations have the heating solutions are not set up to be able to achieve that. So it's going to require a lot of strategy planning right now, investment planning right now, trialling technology right now. That's the thing that seems to be really important. Learn about the kit that's going to be most important. So then invest in it. So, yeah. So, sustainability, being green and achieving carbon zero by 2050 starts now, definitely.
That's great. Darren, listen, thank you so much for joining us!
It's been great to chat with you and see you in inverted commas. Thanks very much!
Thanks, Alastair! Cheers!
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