How we put human-centred thinking at the heart of cultural change in social housing – creating practical cultural change grounded in a kinder, low-effort way of doing things.
Cultural change for a G15 housing association in a merger.
When George Peabody, the American philanthropist, visited London in the 1800’s he was shocked at the level of poverty people were living in. In 1837 he began the process of doing something about it – a legacy that continues today and has improved the lives of thousands of people.
Founded in 1862, Peabody is one of the oldest housing associations in the world. Its original aim, Peabody wrote, was to “ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis, and to promote their comfort and happiness”. In short – to make the lives of people in need better, happier and more comfortable.
Peabody now has over 66,000 homes in London and the South East – being one of the largest housing associations in the UK.
We began talking to Peabody as they were in the early stages of a merger with Family Mosaic, another large housing association. They wanted to put customer-centricity and a human-centred attitude at the heart of their culture – at every level of the organisation.
What needed to change
Putting people-centric thinking at the heart of social housing culture
Align the two organisation’s cultures: The organisations, although similar in some respects, diverged in others. We needed to find a way to take the most positive aspects of both cultures and combining them in the new housing association.
Doing with, not to: With any change, its success relies on whether people feel it’s being done to them or with them. Peabody felt our approach to culture fitted this idea and wanted to engage people across the organisation in the journey.
Encourage positive, customer-centric change: As with any merger, the level of change was going to be significant. We wanted to ensure that changes to services and teams put what mattered to customers centre-stage and meant ‘business as usual’ wasn’t affected.
Distill and combine previous change programmes: Both organisations had been through a range of change programmes that revolved around creating a coaching environment, lean thinking and core customer experience skills. We needed to build on these and keep the best of their work.
Keep the human touch: As with any large merger there’s a danger that humanity can get lost. That’s an issue with any sector but especially important with housing associations – who are responsible for peoples’ homes and some of the most vulnerable in society. We also needed to make sure that both teams began working together as one organisation rather than a a ‘cut and shut’ of two old organisations.
What we did
Putting people, and a human-centred ethos at the heart
We believe cultural change needs to be focused more on practical change than theory and fuzzy adjectives. We help organisations show their culture through their actions, behaviour and way of being with customers.
For us, culture is really about “how we do things around here”. Demonstrating your culture by what you do, not what you say you are.
Define what mattered to customers and colleagues
We were lucky enough to get to spend time with a range of customers, the exec, senior management, Brendan the CEO and many of the Peabody front line teams. Combined with our customer analysis it gave us a clear picture of the themes and concerns of people inside and outside the organisation.
Some of the most valuable feedback we received from customers and colleagues focused on putting people (inside and outside the organisation) ahead of bureaucracy, process or system blockers. There was a concern that, as the organisation grew in scale, they’d lose the human touch.
There were some more practical ideas that came from the research too. We used these as drivers throughout the programme.
- Give people closest to a problem the power to fix it.
- Start with what really matters to our customers.
- Challenge unnecessary bureaucracy.
We worked with the steering team to agree some core principles we’d follow. This acted as a decision framework – for everything we decided to do, we’d check it against these criteria.
Agreeing the principles behind the programme upfront is a really effective way of speeding up decision making and to ensure we weren’t knocked off course by other change happening around us.
- Everyone will have a voice – and a chance to make a difference.
- It’s about internal and external customers alike.
- This will be co-designed with you – not imposed on you.
- It won’t be a one-size-fits-all – we want to customise for teams with your help.
- Our long term aim is to give teams the tools to make this happen for themselves.
Launching People First
“People First” – the name we picked for the programme – was soft-launched with the exec and a range of front line teams initially rather than the whole organisation. We wanted to be able to develop examples and proofs of concept to demonstrate positive change before a full roll-out.
Too many change programmes fail because they start by telling people they need to change before demonstrating the benefits. We wanted to have a set of positive operational examples where the principles had worked in practice before we did anything else.
Cultural change cornerstones
Based on the customer and colleague feedback we distilled three, core questions that would guide the cultural change. It was important that these questions were simple, clear and focused on practical, service-focused areas.
We wanted each area to look at their team, services and themselves and ask:
- Is our service designed around the needs of our customers?
- Are we working well with other teams and colleagues?
- Are we being human and kind in the way we communicate?
Customer experience and low effort services
The first of the three questions “Is our service designed around the needs of our customers?” was focused heavily on the experience Peabody customers received and whether it was really designed around what mattered to them.
We found that the customer’s voice, or what they valued, wasn’t always present in the way services designed. As all services were being reviewed and redesigned. We needed to balance internal process and policy with a customer-centric attitude to service design.
To compliment this we moved away from more traditional satisfaction measurement and started to explore customer effort – how much effort it took for customers to get what they needed – as a measurement for success. We worked with teams to look at ways to reduce the effort customers needed to get something done.
We also looked at how much internal effort it took each team to get things done as part of the project’s “working together” strand. This showed up huge amounts of wasted effort at every level of the organisation.
Breaking down silos and cross-departmental problem solving
The second question, “Are we working well with other teams and colleagues?” was designed to promote a more effective and cross-departmental way of working internally.
Mergers naturally bring a level of tribalism with them. High pressure environments, lots of change and a level of uncertainty mean people revert to their own groups.
Unfortunately this tends to negatively impact services and foster an “us and them” attitude internally. We needed to find ways to break down silos and encourage cross-departmental problem solving.
Kinder ways of communicating with customers and colleagues
We started asking the question “Are we being human and kind in the way we communicate?” The question eventually turned into corporate tone of voice for Peabody.
It was sourced from feedback we’d received from residents about the way both organisations communicated with them. There was a sense that they could offer come across as hostile, verbose and lacking in clarity. This exacerbated customer relationships and created tension where there wasn’t any need.
We needed a way to make the organisation’s tone of voice something people would remember, talk about and use as a touchstone – rather than just ending up in a guide in a drawer that everyone forgot about.
The whole idea of ‘human and kind’ soon began to get talked about and teams began using it as a test of how they were being as well as how they communicated.
Developing a comprehensive plan for change
With our three, core questions we developed a comprehensive cultural change plan that would work across all levels of Peabody and engrain itself in how they did things.
Before we launched the programme properly we wanted to be able to demonstrate the value in focusing on low-effort, customer experiences, teams working well together and a human & kind approach to communication.
We selected 10, high priority challenges to work on with the steering group and key stakeholders. These were all “quick wins” that could be completed in a short time without impacting business as usual.
They ranged from customer focused improvements to working with internal teams like HR to enhance the experience for colleagues.
Change will fail if it’s not endorsed, championed and demonstrated by leadership.
We launched People First with all levels of leadership and management at an away day where they could network, explore some of the key concepts and we could take them through tools and approaches that could help them.
To compliment this, we developed a leadership programme with the internal Learning and Development team to give all leaders the skills they needed to implement the change in a human-centred way. This included empowering leadership to apply People First in a coaching environment with their teams.
Finally, we ran a series of “Leading the Way” workshop sessions with all Heads of Service and Directors. These were practical, problem solving environments where leaders who didn’t work directly with one another could come together and explore ways to improve their service and cross-team working.
Working together sessions
At the core of the change was a series of session where people from across the organisation could come together and explore the three questions in more detail. The plan being to give them the tools to take these ideas back to their teams and begin implementing change.
Initially these were opt-in sessions, allowing people to self-select. This helped us find the early adopters who we could work with as change champions later in the programme. Finding these champions helped us to move towards a self-sufficient programme which wasn’t reliant on external consultants but focused more on empowering people in the business who advocated on our behalf.
In total, we were able to engage with around 20% of the business in these early sessions.
These sessions also proved valuable in getting feedback on the good, the bad and the ugly at the new, merged Peabody. This gave us valuable insight into the areas that needed to change which we could feedback to leadership.
The longer term plan across the three years was to enable champions across the business, supported by L&D, to deliver these sessions with their teams.
In order to help the change we needed to give managers a set of tools and approaches to reinforce the three questions in their team and service.
Although a questions like “Is our service designed around the needs of our customers?” seems simple enough, it actually involves a huge amount of work. It means listening to, and really understanding customers. It involves knowing how to journey map services to put experience over process. It means running sessions with teams to innovate and find new ways of delivering your service.
We developed a core toolkit for managers which covered areas around:
- Customer experience, customer effort and service design
- Cross-departmental working and problem solving
- How to communicate in a simpler, more human and kind way
Team specific support
As part of the early analysis we’d also highlighted some key teams who wanted specific support on their services or team. These teams were looking at specific challenges or changes to their service where we could support and have a direct impact.
They included teams from care and support, customer complaints, service charges, rent collection and HR.
Performance management frameworks are useless if they become a box ticking exercise, and we wanted to shift the focus to be less about scores and more about creating good conversations.
This meant a fundamental shift away from a traditional performance management review and far more about a safe, honest conversation between peers.
For leadership we supported in developing a simplified 360 review approach which looked at the environment leadership created and who this supported or blocked the three, core areas of People First.
Voice of the Customer
We were able to work directly with the customer insight and analysis team to look at how to measure changes to culture and service, using the framework they were developing.
Although it’s fairly easy to measure something like improvement to customer effort it’s harder to measure the impact of improved cross-departmental working from the customer’s perspective. To solve this we looked at symptom-based sentiment analysis as a way to measure impact. For example, “I’ve had to repeat myself three times” or “You passed my information over but I never heard back” are indicators to poor cross-departmental working.
Our long-term aim was to be able to give teams clear, actionable insight into where they were doing well and where they could improve. Insight that’s weeks or months old does little to help teams become responsive to customer need and know where to focus their energy.
Three years later and the three core questions around experience, working together and communication are part of the customer voice at a organisational and team level.
Putting people first in social housing
- Peabody and Family Mosaic needed a consultancy to help create a new, human-focused culture as they merged.
- We designed and delivered People First – a human-centred approach to better services, fewer silos and human & kind communication.
- People First now forms part of Peabody’s 2019 – 2022 corporate strategy.
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