‘Traditional’ is a word long associated with housing providers, whether that is stuck in their ways or not moving far from their original offer.
It was something Tina Drury wanted to change when she stepped back into the Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) in 2016.
Tina started life as a Repairs Clerk in Newcastle City Council’s housing arm, before the ALMO even existed. After 13 years she left and went on to various other roles, eventually returning to the organisation after it became known as Your Homes Newcastle.
The head office we meet in is open-planned, light and communal. But this was not always the case.
Before Tina joined, the managing director sat behind a wooden door, not glass walls, hidden from view, with people apprehensive about going to the “dreaded top floor”.
But now you can see Tina wherever you are. The Communications Team sit right outside and a constant buzz fills the office.
“When I walked in no one knew the values of the organisation,” says Tina.
“But now the organisation is really based around those values and I think most of the staff members would be able to recite those values. We aren’t perfect – we need to continue to be innovating and challenging.”
Tina and Your Homes Newcastle embarked on what they called a ‘Gap Year’, where Tina went around the organisation learning about what was good, what wasn’t and what they could change.
But she insists she didn’t want to be critical.
“I wanted to learn about the organisation, what it did well and what staff thought it could do better,” says Tina.
“In order to do that, I didn’t want to rush it. I didn’t want to do it alone. I thought it was really important that the staff have a voice if we are to change and get ownership from them – they need to be involved.”
This is where the idea of a laboratory came from – to test out new ideas staff had to improve the organisation.
As Tina shows off one of the ideas born out of the lab, Q-Bot, a robot that uses smart tools and AI to monitor and maintain buildings, she explains why culture change in the organisation was so critical to achieving their aims.
“What did we want to be known for?” she asks. “For me, it was all about customers. It was about no longer continuing to be an organisation that collected rent and did repairs.
“Housing has always been a transactional business but times have changed. If we don’t change the language then it won’t change. I immediately started talking about ‘customer’ and the ‘business’ instead of the ‘ALMO’ and ‘tenant’.”
Tina explains that she and the organisation also wanted to empower frontline staff.
“Before, customers didn’t get what they got from other organisations – they had to go through a bureaucratic process of moving from stage one to stage two.
“We were saying that the staff could respond and put actions in place to make it right, rather than having to go through the process.”
She adds: “It made staff happier, too, knowing they had the trust of managers and senior management above that to make a decision and to put things right. It was really important to give the message out that we all make mistakes.”
During the middle of YHN’s transition, Grenfell Tower burst into flames, leaving an indelible mark on London and the sector. Tina says the tragedy showed her why the new approach was so necessary.
“30 years in housing and it was the worst thing I have seen happen in the housing world,” she says.
“Our response to that was really important in terms of trust and confidence of our residents. 45 blocks higher than six stories with 35 being high rise.
“We were out there on the frontline with the housing staff. They were excellent, they stepped up and were approachable and accessible. But the senior management were there too and giving them the confidence and backing they needed to make those decisions.”
Despite living in safe and secure accommodation, the Grenfell tragedy left many YHN residents feeling concerned.