Change and the Leadership Challenge in Social Housing: Navigating the Future

The social housing sector faces unprecedented challenges, including the need for new and innovative approaches to address the changing and diverse needs of different communities. Never has the need for strong leadership been greater. Successfully navigating change requires leaders to adapt to the evolving landscape and be proactive in driving change from within. This article will examine key challenges facing the housing sector, the capability gap, the impact of hybrid working, and strategies to improve communication, morale, and performance. We will also discuss the importance of people-focused leadership, the development of strong organisational cultures, and the long-term benefits of investment in learning and development to help navigate the future.

The challenge

The social housing sector is under pressure to tackle increasing demand, an aging infrastructure, advances in technology and the need for more sustainable solutions. Yet, like all businesses, there are leaders in the social housing sector that may be ill-equipped to drive change due to a lack of necessary skills or experience.

What we’re hearing from clients in the housing sector is that insufficient knowledge of new technologies and innovation, a lack of strategic planning and change management skills and remote working are all factors that are limiting progress.

Hybrid working is also a barrier to change with head offices not fully staffed and limited physical presence making it challenging for managers to bring policies and procedures to life. So many housing providers invest in the development of some great policies but hybrid working then limits effective implementation.

Meanwhile, on the front line, there is a need to embrace the changing characteristics and needs of diverse communities while also delivering retrofit training and managing issues like the challenges of damp, mould and condensation.

Understanding the bigger picture

It is critical that everyone in the organisation, irrespective of position, is aligned with the bigger picture and has clarity on what the overall vision and objectives mean for them. Colleagues need to relate to each other and the customers that they serve hence the importance of having appreciation and awareness of different roles at every level. We often advise that job shadowing, round table discussions and regular face to face chats can make all the difference, enabling leaders to build relationships, develop trust and show appreciation so that colleagues feel valued.

Holding colleagues accountable for their behaviour and their performance is also far easier with a culture of open communication and respect. Indeed, difficult conversations about performance issues or personal matters are far more constructive when had in an environment where people feel comfortable and safe. Being approachable, showing you care and recognising the positive goes a long way. Facilitation by a third party can also really help, particularly when dealing with mental health and well-being issues.

Creating opportunities

With statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showing that 44% of workers are now home or hybrid working, many leaders in businesses across all sectors are having to learn to manage teams in a new working world where there is reduced face-to-face communication and team cohesion. This often leads to difficulty in monitoring performance and productivity along with challenges in fostering trust and rapport.

But there is an opportunity to create a new style of leadership that increases employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention. You can foster a culture of trust and accountability by implementing clear communication protocols and remote working policies. You can also invest in tools and technologies that facilitate collaboration and communication but what really makes the difference is being a people-focussed leader.

In our experience, task-driven leaders focus primarily on achieving goals and completing tasks, often at the expense of employee satisfaction and long-term success. High-performing teams require leaders who balance people and relationships with tasks and processes. People-focused leaders empower and support their teams and foster collaboration and teamwork. Put simply, they prioritise employee well-being and development.

Of course, the needs of tenants will often come first. Progressive housing associations are more than just service providers, priding themselves on tenant engagement and care. Balancing the priorities is not an easy task and it has to be driven from the top if you want to see long-lasting change.

Improving business performance

Improving performance at an individual, team or organisational level requires a focus on communication. Leaders need to build connections by providing regular feedback and recognition, encouraging open communication and active listening and offering opportunities for professional development and growth. Encouraging open dialogue and honest feedback and sharing information transparently will all help to build trust.

These strategies can enhance business performance by improving morale with clear communication that sets out expectations and goals but a strong organisational culture also needs to be underpinned by good values.

Know your values

Good values that are well communicated and understood by all will help to nurture greater employee engagement and satisfaction. You’ll also benefit from improved collaboration and teamwork while externally, you’ll see enhanced reputation and public trust.

But how do you embed good values? We always advise that leaders must model the desired behaviours and attitudes – it’s all about walking the talk and holding yourself accountable for demonstrating the values that you expect from others . Make sure that you clearly communicate organisational values and expectations then recognise and reward employees who embody these values. It will make a huge difference to morale, engagement and the ultimate performance of your organisation.

Investment in learning and development is also important as it will lead to increased employee engagement and retention along with improved performance and productivity.

Get back to basics

But, in the meantime, don’t underestimate the power of getting back to basics with face to face catch ups and team briefings. Get in the car and check in with site based colleagues, build relationships and take the time to get to know your team. You’ll be breaking down barriers, influencing cultural shift and fostering a sense of positivity and togetherness that really will make a difference to how you feel, your team operates and the organisation performs. It’s all about the personal touch and it really does go a long way.

Francesca ZenatiFrancesca Zenati, Head of Business Solutions.

As featured in Wales Housing Quarterly, October 2023