In the build-up to The Investors in People Awards 2021, we’ve been speaking to the finalists, asking them to tell us their stories and what winning an award would mean to them.
North Star Housing owns or manages around 4,000 homes for affordable rent (80% of the market rent), concentrated in Teesside and South West Durham. This includes 600 units of supported housing that meet a range of needs, including refuges, extra care, and schemes for people with learning difficulties and mental health issues.
We spoke to the Executive Director of People, Carole Richardson, about why they entered, what an award would mean for them and what the future holds for North Star.
Can you give us a brief description of how you’re making work better?
North Star have a stated social purpose, a surplus for purpose statement, and a set of values co-created with various stakeholders, including staff and tenants. As a developing housing association, we’re committed to delivering 375 new homes.
Our five-year vision: Leading & Growing to 2023 sets out our stretching ambitions. It was created and approved by EVERYONE in the organisation. Everyone commits to delivering its aims and purpose.
As of 31st March 2021, we employed 91 people and had a £21m turnover. We’re a high performing organisation that invests in people, communities, and existing and new housing and services.
Tenants are at the centre of the business, evidenced by strong tenant scrutiny, a tenant LINK group and many other connection methods. We invest significantly in community activity to develop and sustain our areas and complement local housing services. A major strength of North Star that’s valued throughout the organisation.
Our approach keeps everyone healthy, connected, and strong. This was a constant during the pandemic. We focussed on:
- Producing a fortnightly staff brief, ensuring critical information was shared consistently.
- Organising ‘Come along and ask us anything’ sessions.
- Wellbeing Wednesdays with a different focus each fortnight.
- Social events to connect people.
- Promoting our support resources, confidential counselling service, and our mental health first aides.
We commissioned an independent “COVID Health Check”. Of the 86% of staff who participated:
- 91% felt NS cared about their wellbeing.
- 91% were happy with the levels and quality of communication.
- 88% knew what wellbeing services were available and could access them.
Offices remained available for staff throughout the pandemic, offering a valuable lifeline to isolated, struggling people who strongly preferred to be in the office.
Open offices were manageable, safe, and gave people a choice and control, which helps to keep people resilient and healthy. Absence levels are around 1.5% and have halved in the past year.
Everyone worked together to capture what we have learnt in the last year:
- Levels of creativity and innovation increased.
- There is more confidence to try new things, and we adapt quickly.
- All staff want opportunities to be together/personal contact.
- Our relational culture helped us to remain effective and connected during the lockdown.
- Technology brings real benefits. However, there are occasions when face-to-face communication is better.
- Keeping relationships strong on a personal, team, intra team and organisational level keep North Star strong.
We used all the information to develop guiding principles, defining the North Star approach to work. Everyone in the organisation is signed up for it.
Why did you enter The Investors in People Awards 2021?
We were amazed to be contacted and advised that we were in the Top 20 of IIP Platinum employers (50-249 people) and, as such was invited to submit for UK Employer of the Year: Platinum. We had no idea we had ranked so highly or that there was such a ranking.
We decided that we would have a go, as such opportunities do not come along often. We did it because we knew that staff, board, stakeholders, and tenants would be overjoyed if we were shortlisted… We were right!
Are there any goals or challenges you hope an award will help you achieve or solve?
Recruiting exceptional people is an ongoing challenge, albeit we do very well. An award would put us on the map as an employer of choice. It is such a prestigious award; we would market it at every opportunity. Candidates already refer to our Platinum accreditation and know how prestigious it is. Investors in People accreditation takes us to a different level.
Tell us what distinguishes you from other companies in the category you’re shortlisted in.
The difference between North Star (NS) and others is the time and focus invested in developing relationships and leadership across the whole organisation. Leadership and relationship development began in 2013, within an increasingly complex environment, where no one person or group knew all the answers. We wanted to involve more people in NS and develop everyone to be included, influential, leaderful, and accountable.
Holding IIP Platinum since 2017 (we were the first English Housing Association to be accredited at this level), we were reassessed during the pandemic, when the whole organisation was dispersed. Of the 93% of staff participating in reassessment:
- 100% believe NS has a positive impact on society
- 99% state NS is a great place to work
- 100% state they are trusted
- 99% felt they have every opportunity to develop
- 98% feel appreciated
- Our business strategy links people management, customer service and social impact together in a way everyone ‘gets’.
- Operating in a sector not conducive to high IIP scores – benchmarks are lower than average (1st HA in England to achieve Platinum).
- Highest scorer in our sector in the Institute of Customer Service benchmarking (including customer rating of staff).
- We are meeting the challenges of the largely deprived community we serve: met by our people uniting in delivering social value through our values.
- Our overcoming of the pandemic challenge externally recognised as “one of the best if not the best we’ve seen” (source: Peachy Mondays).
The pandemic inevitably impacted negatively on the business, staff, and tenants. However, it was also a catalyst for creativity and innovation, including:
- Completing a complex project to refinance and collapse the group structure. This enables the building of more homes and continued investment into existing homes and communities.
- Launching our first Digital Squad who worked with customers to improve digital services.
- Implementing digital sign-ups, remote repairs inspections and virtual viewings.
- Installing additional internet and devices to alleviate isolation, digital poverty for customers living in supported housing.
- Our community hub in Thornaby was transformed into a food distribution and support centre.
- Moving all tenant scrutiny activity and involvement meetings online, enabling us to engage and attract a broader range of customers.
We also increased funding to help our communities, investing £40k across 26 projects.
In the middle of the pandemic, The Institute of Customer Service was commissioned to conduct a satisfaction survey. Our customers told us we deliver an outstanding experience, scoring us 82.9/100, exceeding the UKCSI. Customers particularly rated our:
What does being shortlisted mean to everyone at your company?
It’s a massive deal. Staff were sharing their delight on social media, we celebrated together, and we were all on tenterhooks awaiting the outcome. I was just about to start facilitating a three-day development programme with every manager and director in the building. I’d like to say I was composed; however, I jumped around in a manner most unbecoming.
What would it mean to win?
We can barely imagine this. Whilst we love winning an award, what we value is the independent assessment. This helps us evaluate whether we’re on the right lines, making a real difference, evidencing our impact. A win would be great for the Housing Association Sector, our customers, the NE region and reinforce just what a difference North Star makes to the world it operates in.
How does being shortlisted benefit your customers?
Our entry told how investing in staff and being a great employer has delivered fantastic customer service. Promoting this to our customers (as part of significant, ongoing customer involvement, engagement and communication) helps to increase customer awareness and recognition. Customers will feel more confident in our credibility and will have more trust and loyalty to North Star.
How would you use being the recipient of this award to influence others?
We have a great network and are well connected in our sector and beyond. Our experience is that people are interested in what we do and the impact. We are a learning organisation and, as such, have a long track record in hosting learning visits.
We tell our story, warts and all, and share the challenges, highpoints, learning and impacts. We have hosted learning visits with building societies, holiday parks, dental surgeries, housing associations, and we always learn something.
As we are well connected, we are also regularly invited to speak at webinars and conferences. We love connecting and learning from others.
What can we expect to see from your organisation in the next 12 months? (And beyond!)
More progress on moving forward our EDI agenda. We have just developed a NE Partnership called – Change starts at the Top – which aims to bring under-represented groups to board positions.
We’ll also be delivering our new strategy for customer excellence, working out how to develop our next iteration of organisational vision and maintaining an ongoing delivery of new, high quality, modern homes that people can afford to live in.
What advice would you give to anyone applying for The Investors in People Awards 2022?
Give it a go. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Read more of our finalist’s stories on our Awards page.