One Housing Group is nearing the end of a tumultuous year, which saw employees in its housing care and support services division, One Support, strike over pay.
About 40 employees took part in a three-day strike in June in response to the social housing organisation’s plans to slash pay for around 200 care staff by an average of £2,000 a year, from next February. The strike followed 22 months of consultation.
The pay-cut announcement was a hard pill to swallow for employees of an organisation that reported a £13 million pre-tax profit for the 12 months to 31 March 2012.
The timing of the strike could not have been worse for an employer operating in a sector where the war for talent is fierce. The sector faces competition from the private property market, whose comparatively lucrative pay deals continually lure top talent away from the public sector.
The strikes could also not have been worse timing for Ria Goldby, who started her new role as assistant director, HR, in April.
But Goldby is confident that employees’ unrest over pay is, like many of the challenges facing the business, a result of One Housing Group having to adjust to rapid growth in a short space of time. [Profile continues after video]
The business, which was created through a merger between the Community Housing Association and Toynbee Housing Association in 2007, has doubled in size, in terms of headcount, over the past five years alone, hence the organisation’s demand for talent.
“We do have flexibility around our pay, and it’s clearly an important part of retention, but we’re not a traditional organisation that has traditional incremental structures,” says Goldby.
“We’ve been making non-consolidated bonuses that we’ve been giving to staff, but trying to make sure that salaries stay in line with the market, and there’s a balance to strike in staying in line with the market, but also maintaining our budgets.
“Our main objective is to make sure we can be successful, that we operate sustainable business models and, therefore, that we can provide job security and that we are competitive in the market.”
Goldby says the organisation has made “difficult choices”. “We have deliberately made those choices and have not been reactionary. If [an organisation] reacts just like that, it is probably then not thinking of the impact [of its decisions] in two, three, or four years’ time.”
She says One Housing Group’s pay policy is constantly under review, and she would like to work with its unions, which include Unite, about how best to review the policy to ensure it is in line with the organisation’s social housing peer group.
But this will not involve a review of each employee’s pay, she says. “We’ve been through enough difficult times and we want to focus on some of the good stuff and where we can add value.”
Goldby believes the organisation’s benefits package is a key tool with which to add to its employee value proposition. Accordingly, she is currently reviewing the benefits offering. She kick-started this exercise with a three-year partnership deal with employee engagement provider Best Companies, which will survey staff annually about the employer and the benefits it offers.
“In between annual surveys, I want to do quarterly temperature checks on how we’re progressing with things,” she adds.
Goldby also plans to create employee-based focus groups to take responsibility for the future direction of benefits. “The ideal situation is that people take on responsibility for what can and can’t be done around their roles,” she says.
“On the care side of the business, for example, it’s highly unlikely that we’d be able to offer flexible annual leave because of the strict rota patterns required to provide care. But what’s the point of me telling staff something they already know?”
Goldby’s determination to involve employees in the future direction of benefits is being driven by the disparate needs of the workforce. One Housing Group comprises four divisions: One Support, for people with specialist housing needs, such as the elderly; housing services and support services for its social housing tenants; development of private and social housing; and its central function, which includes finance, IT and HR.
The organisation’s working model uses the profit the business makes from building houses for private sale to fund its affordable housing, with every two private sales funding the creation of one affordable property.
“The culture and types of people that work in those different parts of the business are quite different, as you’d expect,” says Goldby. “Something that motivates a project manager who is building houses, for example, is going to be quite different from something that is relevant and motivates a finance officer or a housing officer who is going out on site, or a care assistant.
“We’re very mindful of how we attract and retain people and how we keep a motivated workforce. We’ve got to be specific to people’s wants and needs; it’s got to be relevant to them.
“So the road that we don’t necessarily want to go down is providing a blanket response to things, because I don’t think it really provides the value that people are looking for.”
Consequently, Goldby has tasked her employee focus groups with creating tailored benefits packages. She explains: “My brief to them is, ‘don’t think that you just have to provide something that is a blanket approach for everyone; think as bold and as wide as you possibly can: is it menu options that we need?’ There are no limits.”
Employer of choice
Goldby’s future vision for reward and benefits is also being shaped by her long-term goal of making One Housing Group an employer of choice.
“One of reasons we’re trying to pull an awful lot of different projects and streams together is very simply because we want One Housing Group to be a great place to work,” she says. “That’s not only about benefits, although benefits play a large part, but about support from [employees’] managers and about team morale and their working environment.
“It’s a bigger picture about looking at how [an employee] feels when they wake up in the morning and get out of bed and get ready to go to work. I’d like them to feel they’re looking forward to work because they like it there. An enormous focus for me is on making a real difference to [employees’] everyday lives and activities.”
This is why Goldby plans to negotiate with the organisation’s benefits provider, Asperity Employee Benefits, about how to optimise the value of its benefits package, My Rewards, for employees. “We’d prefer, perhaps, less of a range [of benefits], because the range with Asperity is huge,” she says. “We’d prefer less of a range, but with higher discounts. It’s great that we get 5% off [shopping at] Argos, for example, but I don’t necessarily use Sky, so can I get 15% off [shopping at] Argos instead?”
Goldby also plans to network with local business owners around One Housing Group’s sites to see if she can negotiate further discounts for staff.
As if that is not enough, Goldby plans to run roadshows around the employer’s sites to educate employees about the benefits on offer, as well as about the role of HR, not least to encourage employee buy-in to her vision for the organisation.
“There is no point in making a promise of something that I want to do simply because I want to do it,” she says. “Some HR teams in certain sectors can be criticised for writing a policy behind their desk and then just rolling it out without any consultation of customers and stakeholders, and I think that’s the wrong way to go about doing something.
“If you’re forming your views and opinions on the basis of what you’re actually hearing from staff and what they’re actually telling you, then you’re almost making a joint commitment, because you’re getting them on board and they’re going to be working with you on it.”
The roadshows will also help Goldby to communicate the role of HR to employees, which she believes can often be misunderstood because of its multi-faceted structure.
“We’re not the counsellors to come and cry on with a box of tissues, but then I also don’t want us to be seen as some kind of police of the organisation either,” she says.
“We’re a service function, the same as a lot of the corporate services functions, and if people don’t understand what we do, that’s quite a bad place to be.”
One Housing Group at a glance
One Housing Group was established in 2007 to provide housing, care and support services to residents across London and the surrounding counties, including Essex, Bedfordshire and Surrey.
The organisation strives to achieve this through four operating divisions: its development arm, which builds social and private housing; its care arm, One Support, which provides housing and support for people with specialist housing needs, such as the elderly and people with mental health issues; its housing services arm, which supports its social housing tenants; and its central function, including finance, IT and HR.
The group’s current corporate strategy, which started in 2011 and will be completed at the end of 2014, aims to deliver 4,500 new homes, as well as expand its care services portfolio with the help of 1,200 staff working across 64 sites.
One Housing Group has an employee gender split of around 42% male to 58% female, with an average staff age of 35 to 44.
The group reported a £13 million pre-tax profit for the 12 months ending 31 March 2012, based on group turnover of £173 million.
Career history: Ria Goldby
Ria Goldby, assistant director, HR, is more prepared than most to take up the huge challenges facing One Housing Group, which call for a comprehensive understanding of the public housing sector and the ever-changing demands placed on it by the government.
She joined the organisation in April from national housing and regeneration delivery body the Housing and Communities Agency, which she helped create from a commercially-minded organisation, English Partnerships, and a public sector-focused group, the Housing Corporation, plus a couple of other small organisations, as part of the merger delivery team.
Goldby’s management of the contrasting cultures of the two businesses is proving valuable in dealing with the different cultures she faces across One Housing Group’s four operating divisions.
But Goldby, who fell into HR after leaving Birmingham University with no idea about what she wanted to do for a career, equally values her first role as HR assistant at builders’ merchant Travis Perkins for giving her the grounding she needed to progress in her career.
“I used that as a really good basis and grounding for my career,” she says. “I went knowing absolutely nothing about businesses, and not really understanding the working environment, in terms of what office life was like, and going into a large, very male-dominated organisation with a commercial sense to it and lots of things going on. It was huge learning curve.”
Key business challenges
- Market classification: “We classify ourselves as not-for-profit rather than public sector,” says Goldby. “There isn’t a conflict between social enterprise and commercial focus.”
- Welfare reform: “Our most recent biggest challenge is the culmination of welfare reform, the reduction in government grant for social housing and then the reduction in funding for the care side of the business as well,” she says. “And we’re seeing an awful lot of pressure put on us to reduce costs. It’s an enormous challenge that every housing association is facing, which is forcing a complete re-look at how we’re going to do things. How are we going to fill our purpose of being? We’re a social enterprise, we’re there to provide services and housing for those people that need it. Well, how do we do that with all those challenges we’re facing?”
Case study: Quiwon Bellamy
Finance officer Quiwon Bellamy has worked at One Housing Group for two years and is a keen shopper, which explains why she values the retail discount cards the organisation offers staff through its benefits provider, Asperity Employee Benefits.
The cards are offered via its My Rewards benefits scheme. Employees can load cash onto them for spending at a range of retailers, including Debenhams, House of Fraser and New Look. Discounts are also available.
“You can save between 5% and 15%, and sometimes the retailers even have offers on as well,” Bellamy says.
“I’ve bought a number of pairs of shoes, which my partner’s not overly happy about. I also buy clothes and do my weekly shop at the supermarket.”
Bellamy values the ease with which she can use the cards, which are ready to use in stores within 24 hours of her loading them with cash. “It’s quite an easy system to use, and it helps me stretch my money a little bit further on a daily basis,” she says.
“It increases my spending power. It might not necessarily be a massive increase, but it still allows me to spend a little less, but still get the same value.”
- A defined contribution scheme with a 4% contribution from the employer and 4% from the employee.
- Life assurance (linked to pension scheme).
- Employer-paid eyecare vouchers.
- Occupational sick pay (and occupational health checks).
- Employee assistance programme provided by CiC.
Learning and development
- Employer-paid learning and development opportunities, including funding for professional/further education qualifications
- Five days’ study leave.
- A range of discounts available through its My Rewards package.
- 28 days’ annual leave.
- Childcare vouchers.
- Season ticket loans.
- Flexi-time scheme.
- Refer-a-friend bonus (£800).
- Career break opportunities.
- Free wi-fi at various offices.