Agile working practices certainly sound like they could add value in a fast-paced, 4000-property housing association, growing at a rate of 200 new homes per year. But the move to greater agility represented a significant period of transformational change for South Wales firm Melin Homes, which required unparalleled planning, cultural realignment and new technological investment.
A continuous improvement philosophy has been in the ‘blood’ of Melin Homes since the organisation was formed in 2007. It brought together two housing associations that had previously existed as single entities for 30 years – these individual brands had their own culture, identities and ways of working, not to mention talented and loyal employees.
Change has therefore always been carefully managed to protect the level of service delivered to customers and the degree of job satisfaction among the workforce. Without such a receptiveness for change, it wouldn’t be possible to build a resilient, successful housing association, fit for the future. With a portfolio of 4,000 homes in five local authorities, Melin continues to build 200 new properties per year – a trajectory which shows no sign of slowing. The number of people employed has also steadily risen, with what began as a 144-strong business in 2007 having now almost doubled to 270.
That said, change needs to be embraced at a company-wide level, not just among the senior management team. That’s why one of the first collaborative processes to take place in the ‘early days’, was a series of consultative workshops which helped the entire organisation shape the Melin Mindset. Ten key principles arose – to deliver customer service excellence, have fun, demonstrate a can-do attitude, be professional, take responsibility, ensure top performance, be an excellent communicator, demonstrate respect and welcome change to generate a ‘one team Melin’.
This shapes colleagues’ daily behaviour and work ethic, and has resulted in an engaged workforce, with many individuals having marked significant 10, 20 and 30 year milestones of employment. It also translates into complete accountability to residents too, which is important as the team looks towards the future.
The need for greater flexibility
However, the evolving challenges in the housing and wider business environment did not go unnoticed. Melin has a very varied workforce. With some colleagues predominantly office-based in one of two hubs in Pontypool, there are also 30 staff who run sheltered housing schemes for the elderly, plus a direct workforce of almost 70 employees, who are constantly travelling from one property to another, in a 30m radius of HQ. At the same time, the market is becoming increasingly competitive, wider pressures such as newfound environmental drivers are being encountered, and the housing association is being pushed to work harder, smarter and savvier than ever, as a result.
It became clear that greater flexibility was required, to improve the efficiencies, working practices and level of quality within the team.
And it all boiled down to agility – an ability to move, think and understand, quickly and easily. Melin needed to empower people to work where, when and how they choose, to optimise their performance and deliver ‘best in class’ value and customer service.
Agile working for Melin Homes
One of the key success factors of this project was the decision to involve representatives from every part of the business, from the outset. An agile working group of 12 company-wide volunteers was therefore formed. This had the dual benefit of creating a sense of involvement and ownership among the workforce, at the same time as understanding what staff really needed to achieve from this transformation exercise.
Then extensive research ensued. There are very few – if any – examples in the modern business environment where ‘one size fits all’. Melin therefore had to identify how agility would best work for them. The agile working group visited different organisations to see how it manifested itself within other teams. Some businesses had introduced rigid hot-desking-only policies for example, but purely for space efficiencies. Mindful that what works for one company doesn’t work for all, the likes and dislikes that arose from these visits, helped to shape the future of agility within Melin.
Wider factors such as data protection, lone-working and musculoskeletal protection were also considered.
Harnessing smarter tech
As this was such a people-focused project, it was apparent that the team couldn’t become more flexible without an intuitive HRMS in place. However, the new system would have to satisfy the needs of each department, which is why everyone had a say in the functionality required.
This shaped the criteria for the tender process. Melin sought a single, central, comprehensive system for HR and payroll, which could integrate effectively with Melin’s other technologies. Value for money was also crucial because, with often limited resources, the team would have to justify the investment in terms of likely outcome and return. Other important selection factors including adaptability, the provision of training and ongoing support, and a vendor culture that echoed Melin’s ‘can do’ attitude.
Cascade HR was selected and company-wide champions of the software were appointed in each Melin department, to encourage ‘buy in’. This aided the subsequent roll out, which began in the summer of 2015. Other elements of the technology mix were also overhauled, including Melin’s integral housing management system, server infrastructure and office telecoms, plus an app was installed so that every employee’s mobile phone could act as their extension.
The transformational transition
With these new tools in place, one of the first actions was the creation of an authorisation screen which allowed colleagues to lodge home working requests. Now, much like an application for annual leave, such requests can be approved by managers with ease. As part of this, mileage – and mileage savings – can now also be logged for quick and clever reporting. This will help to prove the benefits of the home working initiative in the longer-term.
Before this project, 30 vans would line up outside Melin’s HQ, every morning, so that the direct workforce could collect their job sheets for the day. Now up-to-date information is securely stored in the cloud, presenting them with easy access, wherever they may be, via their mobile devices. This has reduced travel time by up to two hours per day, making these colleagues more efficient, whilst boosting their wellbeing and reducing the carbon footprint of their work.
These efficiencies further continue throughout the day. If employees have a spare hour between property visits, they can work now from a café, for instance, as if they were in the office.
Once a heavily paper-based business, Melin is now virtually paperless! Almost the entire IT infrastructure is cloud based – not just the HRMS – which represents a far more modern, intuitive and environmentally-friendly way of working. Even the appraisal system has been overhauled. Everything is now online which has streamlined the ease, efficiency and frequency with which they can take place, not to mention the locations.
Relying on trust
For agility to be embraced throughout the organisation, a sense of trust – certainly among management – was imperative. Prior to the implementation of a new HRMS for instance, employees each had a clock in/out fob to log their working hours. However, wary that this signalled mistrust, the decision was taken to allow staff to input the relevant times into Cascade. This was a bold, brave move– not least because it happened overnight. However, at the same time, it signalled the faith being shown in people to work independently and transparently, which has energised colleagues who are no longer working to rule. Of course, subjective measures aside, much comes down to the data when analysing the success of this project to date.
Approximately 60% of Melin employees have embraced agility. That’s not because the remaining 40% don’t see the value of it – as 100% of staff have supported the more digital way of working – but because they don’t require such flexibility and/or it isn’t suitable for their role. A recent survey also revealed that 97% of staff love working for Melin and 100% now welcome change.
The secrets to success?
It is difficult to pinpoint a sole success factor that drove the desired outcome of this project. People were involved from the start. By giving everyone a voice, communication remained open, honest and continuous. Successes were celebrated along the way to create and maintain a ‘hype’ and, at the same time as appointing project champions, my role was also integral to the involvement and engagement of people throughout the business. Whilst ROI was always going to matter, it was decided that this would be measured in terms of improvements to working practices, rather than money-saving metrics. The successful creation and subsequent adoption of agile working practices, could signal the end of the project in the eyes of many organisations. However, in truth, this is only the beginning. Melin Homes never stands still, so the team is constantly on a journey, but the flexible infrastructure will enable evolvements and improvements long into the future.