Interview: Stonewater on its pioneering permanent move to hybrid working

We speak with David Blower, Stonewater's executive director of corporate services, about how Stonewater's sector-leading move home.
David Blower, Stonewater's executive director of corporate services.

When we connect with David Blower, executive director of corporate services for the leading social housing provider Stonewater, he’s in the same place we see most people these days – at home.

Sat with a leafy plant on a keyboard behind him, Blower has been able to jump from another meeting straight into our conversation, a benefit to his working from home, he says. “I’m the living value of agile working,” he smiles.

Like many companies across the country, having staff working en masse from home has been one way that Stonewater has had to adjust during the COVID-19 pandemic. Blower praises Stonewater’s internal culture and acknowledges the “difficult decisions” it has had to make during the “maelstrom of chaos” that has been the last year.

“We’ve tried to be consistent throughout the pandemic by being authentic,” Blower says. “We may have had to change our views on things, but we changed our opinion because the world has changed.”

Back in May Stonewater announced it would be moving permanently to a hybrid model of working. While many housing associations have had staff work remotely over the last year, Stonewater is the first to make this move permanent, citing the “outstanding success” it has made of home working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before COVID-19 hit, Stonewater were already using an activity-based or “smart” working model, Blower explains; with no head office as such, colleagues simply went where they needed to be.

Having invested heavily in digital transformation prior to the pandemic, the housing association was able to adapt to the situation quickly with most of its colleagues switching to home working within 24 hours of the first national lockdown last March. Soon, Blower explains, the organisation started wondering whether it really needed to operate how it did before.

“We’d adjusted our governance structure to make [our business] work in this setting, so [we were saying] ‘Well, actually, this is all working really well,” Blower says. “Pre-pandemic, we did a million business miles; do we really want to go back to that? At a personal level, do I really have to be catching the 6-so-and-so train to Reading to get to a meeting?

“From an environment perspective, from an efficiency perspective, from a personal wellbeing perspective, did we really want to go back to that world? Because we had the ability not to. The pandemic had accelerated things that we’d been thinking about and really given us a very clear and long trial that we would never have had otherwise.”

Stonewater’s transition to home working has indeed been a successful one. Its KPIs have improved, along with customer satisfaction. During the past 12 months, Stonewater has relet homes in an average of 20 days, five days ahead of target, while it has also retained its G1/V1 regulatory status and A1 credit rating.

The speed of change at Stonewater has been such that it recently decided to compress its five-year Stonewater25 programme into one year. “We probably did 80% of that in the last 12 months,” Blower says.

Home working has not been without consequences, as Stonewater has had to support its management staff to show stronger emotional intelligence and watch out for colleagues’ wellbeing. “In the early days of the pandemic we were saying “Are we working from home or are we living at work?” Blower says.

Consequently, the company has introduced a range of wellbeing initiatives, such as placing an embargo on meetings between 12 and 1.30p.m. to encourage employees to get away from their desks and exercise.

“[We’ve] been very much wanting to make sure that our colleagues are being supported because… all you see of me is my screen,” Blower explains. “You don’t know what’s going on in my home. You don’t know if I’ve got four kids that are all running around my ankles. You don’t know if I’ve got a partner who’s screaming at me because I’ve left something out. We’re conscious [that] as a manager and leader… you must stay close to your people [and], within the boundaries of privacy, understand what’s happening in their lives.

“It’s also helped us to be closer to customers as well. We’ve been video calling customers and they’ve seen our colleagues with barking dogs, doorbell deliveries, [and] all that sort of stuff. We are more real to them in the same way that we’re more real to each other.”

Despite the challenges it has posed, the move to remote working has been popular among staff. Stonewater’s result in the Best Companies survey remains “virtually unchanged”, Blower says, while it is particularly performing well in the My Manager section – in short, colleagues are feeling attached to their managers.

It is also something the staff want to continue, as an internal survey revealed that 89% of staff wanted to stay home for at least three days a week. However, Stonewater has decided against becoming a fully virtual organisation as it still wants to allow its staff to feel part of the “Stonewater brand”.

Consequently, the organisation has made the decision to cut its estate down to three main offices, making the most of its decision to lease its offices with short break clauses. The organisation will remain predominantly home-based but will set up “hubs” in Coventry, Reading and Bournemouth to provide flexible workspace for co-working, catch-ups and one-to-one meetings.

“Those hubs pre-pandemic had a mixture of desking and meeting spaces,” Blower explains. “We are configuring them now [so that] you will come to the hub for… what we call the four Cs: collaboration; creativity; – because we recognise that, sometimes, you actually just need to be together with people – complex problem solving; and care. Positioning that another way, it’s to either establish or deepen relationships.”

The hubs will be completely redesigned, using movable, plant-based dividers to provide ergonomic, flexible spaces. They will also feature a concierge service for HR or technical issues, staffed by members of Stonewater’s People team. Blower expects that the hubs will launch this autumn, barring any unforeseen issues. In the meantime, staff will be encouraged to work locally from social and community spaces, collaborating across Stonewater’s business instead of working solely with colleagues from their teams.

The reason for all of this is to allow Stonewater to cater to colleagues’ individual needs, moving away from a prescriptive 9-to-5 approach to a more outcome-focused one. “If you want to do your job on a Sunday afternoon… or 8 o’clock [at night] but you need to homeschool your kids between 2 [and] 4, that doesn’t bother us,” Blower says. Crucially, it also offers Stonewater flexibility, so the housing association can track its progress and change course later if needed.

“We recognise our customers don’t really care how something’s done; they want their issue resolved, whatever their issue is,” Blower comments. “We’re trying to very much structure it culturally that we are outcome-based as a business, so what I will be measured on [are] my outcomes and how I achieve that.

“[That’s] within certain boundaries – I can’t operate illegally; I can’t operate outside of our risk appetite; I can’t operate to put people’s health and safety at risk, etcetera – but within [those] boundaries I have freedom to make that work the best way I can. We thought that would help [people give] their best because it would give them the freedom to do things themselves in their authentic way.”

Stonewater is not alone in its assessment that adopting this model will be beneficial. One ongoing series of studies has outlined the potential of remote working for social housing providers, finding that tenants broadly support staff working from home. Retaining this support may prove to be a challenge, though, as providers face the backlogs that have built up in the past year and the new requirements of the Social Housing White Paper.

Blower is confident that Stonewater can combat this by good communication. This includes offering multiple channels through which customers can get in touch, carefully managing the “expectation gap”, and most importantly, showing empathy with people who he says are inevitably “grumpier” after over a year of disruption.

“It’s about making sure you have that clear communication with customers,” he says. “Our engagement approach is very much about ‘Are we actually hearing our customers, not just listening to them?’”

With Stonewater moving to home working for good, it’s important that staff are not just emotionally equipped for the shift but financially equipped too. While Blower says he now loves working from home, he recognises the last year has not been easy for everyone, with many people creating their own makeshift workspaces whether at “cupboards under the stairs [or] a fold-down desk on the landing”.

To support its employees to work from home long-term, Stonewater has said it will offer all its permanent staff interest-free loans of up to £10,000 to create a dedicated workspace in their home environment. “It can be as little as £100 for a desk, or it could be up to £10,000 for a garden pod,” Blower explains. The housing association also continues to offer myOwnHome, its in-house employee shared ownership scheme.

While life since last March has undoubtedly been a slog, Blower clearly appreciates how it has also made us more patient and understanding of one another.

“What I love about the past 12 months is that it’s created an intimacy but we’re in people’s homes,” Blower says. “If we’d been meeting pre-pandemic, we probably would have met in an office; I probably would have been wearing a suit and tie because that’s how I used to dress. Now we’re just much more relaxed as a business. If [we] walked into an office in suits and ties, it would look like we were in fancy dress.”

Stonewater obviously sees hybrid working as its future, and it could well pave a path for other housing associations to follow. Blower accepts that Stonewater’s model may not be right for everyone, such as housing associations with more “geographically condensed properties”.

However, what he believes the pandemic has shown is that there are now different ways of working, with employers needing to recognise that the “paradigm has been reset”. If housing associations are to attract and keep talented people, they must make themselves “employers of choice”, offering the flexibility to suit colleagues’ particular needs.

“If you’ve run your business successfully for 12 months, why do you really need to insist that everybody’s there for 8.30[a.m.] in an office?” Blower asks. “You have to challenge yourselves, but organisations will make their own decisions about what’s appropriate for them.”

Ultimately, Blower believes that Stonewater’s route through the pandemic, its “tramline through the fog” that has been COVID-19, has been staying authentic and true to its values. It’s an approach that other social housing providers would do well to follow.

“Whatever an organisation has written down, how it has behaved in the past 12 months will be its real values,” Blower concludes. “Those organisations that are most successful will be those organisations where their real values are their corporate values.”

Image: David Blower, Stonewater’s executive director of corporate services, speaking with Housing Executive from home.

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