Since forming Wheatley Group seven years ago, we’ve worked hard to instil change into every aspect of our thinking and planning. To anticipate the curve and be flexible, agile and ready to adapt, to keep pace with where our markets and government policy are heading, to anticipate what customers expect and need.
By Martin Armstrong, Wheatley Group Chief Executive*
Indeed, part of the foundations on which Wheatley built its product and service offerings is what we believe is our duty and responsibility, and that is to raise those expectations. Why shouldn’t the people we work for expect, and even demand, from us what they receive from the big brands who populate online trading and shopping and - albeit on a downward trajectory - the high street?
Today, change is embraced by all leaders in our business, and I include here the hundreds of frontline staff who cherish our ‘ThinkYes’ culture, which gives them the confidence and authority to make decisions and take actions on customers’ doorsteps and care facilities, there and then and as they see fit, exercising their professional judgment.
The Wheatley Way is to trust staff – frontline, support and management – to do the right thing, knowing inevitably that change is the only constant as we continue on what we call “Our Journey to Excellence”.
We don’t stand still. Change is not only expected, but welcomed. It is our default, part of our DNA, as we benchmark the quality of our homes and services with the very best the private sector has to offer.
And then Covid-19 strikes, and the world as we know it changes, perhaps for ever. This pandemic is challenging all of us as never before. In the months and years ahead, it will test us even more.
One line of thinking suggests in time “the human condition” will kick in: we will come to terms with the colossal impact of Covid-19 - including the horror and scale of death and misery caused - and forget lessons learned and see all of our current good intentions dissipate. We will revert, adopting old behaviours and practices; the way we have always done things will prevail.
That can’t be allowed to happen. We’ve all invested already so much in combating Covid-19, in psychological, emotional, physical, logistical and financial terms. It would be criminal surely if we didn’t learn from what has been an utterly shocking experience, on every level. At Wheatley certainly, we owe as much to our thousands of customers, many of whom live in some of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities.
On the business front, when crisis struck, we knew instinctively action, not fine words, was needed urgently. From the outset, frontline staff across Scotland began relaying the full scale of the impact on huge swathes of our customer base: individuals and families at risk, some for the first time in their lives and many alone, isolating and / or ill in their homes, without support, money, and food; bereft and anxious, often terrified.
Our response was instantaneous. A new service model was designed and launched within the first two weeks.
Housing and other offices, along with some care facilities, were closed under government regulations. But over 800 employees quickly were equipped to work from home, supported by our fantastic I.T. team working around the clock. A virtual call centre was created, with advisors at home providing a 24/7 service, including a specialist team helping people deal with all impacts of the crisis.
A restricted range of emergency and essential services was put in place, with care officers, repairs and maintenance staff and Neighbourhood Environmental Teams continuing to work in Wheatley communities, adhering strictly to safe-working practices and social-distancing measures.
The Procurement team stepped up, demonstrating extraordinary determination, persistence and innovation to source and acquire adequate levels of Personal Protection Equipment, ensuring neither colleagues nor customers were put at risk. The UNISON union went public, stating: “It is important to recognise that the members would not be able to deliver such high levels of service without the relevant PPE and protections being in place from the employer at the outset. I am pleased that members have access to what they need, when they need it, with no exceptions.”
Specific responses to the pandemic were launched across the group. One example: our EatWell emergency food service, pre-pandemic, delivered around 120 packages to vulnerable tenants, largely in Glasgow. From mid-March to the end of April – with manpower and resources drawn from various parts of the business – it delivered over 10,000 across Scotland.
The investment has been huge, and entirely justifiable. In the short term, we‘ve mitigated the worst effects of the crisis, as best we can. In the mid and long term, we will review comprehensively how we have performed and take forward not just lessons learned, but new ways of working that will enhance future service provision.
Without pre-empting that review, it is obvious several ambitions within our 2020-25 strategy, “Inspiring People, Unleashing potential”, have been tested already, in the most difficult of circumstances. Several more, from digital transformation to channel shift, have been accelerated.
What too is cemented is the critical importance of strong, clear and consistent communications and engagement with both customers and staff. Our “Team Wheatley” campaign - featuring everything from shared learning seminars and debrief sessions on Zoom and frequent online and telephone updates from me and all other leaders to video blogs, web chat and mass texting are here already.
The new norm! The herculean efforts of staff and the struggles of people everywhere cannot be allowed to be in vain: from darkness, light will emerge.
* Wheatley is Scotland’s leading housing, care and property-management group and a member of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), a member of Housing Europe.