Culture means different things to different organisations, but in an industry that focuses on people, respect and compassion are crucial. This is true both for how employees treat clients, but also how they treat each other. Understanding people’s needs and being sensitive to them will also make for better results.
Andrea Malcolm, the Executive Director of People, Homes and Communities at Bernicia Group, sat down with Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, to discuss her take on culture, the importance of embracing authenticity, and her career so far.
I am Andrea Malcolm, the Executive Director of People, Homes and Communities at Bernicia Group. That encompasses everything to do with our people agendas; I am also responsible for customer services and all strategic elements involving our colleagues. We aligned these two factors because we wanted our workforce to understand our customer service agenda, expectations, and ambitions. We have 14,000 properties across the Northeast region, meeting diverse needs. We have a substantial portfolio of properties for people with vulnerabilities, support needs, or substance dependencies.
We launched our corporate strategy in 2022, committing 20 million to the region, which will be delivered through our investment programmes, new build programmes, and investment in our services and people.
I have worked in social housing for over thirty years. I started sticking stamps on envelopes in reception. I have had opportunities to work in multiple diverse disciplines across the organisation — I started in housing management, and moved into development and regeneration. I worked for the original, traditional housing association, which merged. I wanted to help develop the new cultural fit needed between the merging organisations, so I moved into people. Then in 2020, the opportunity came where the two disciplines were blended.
We refigured our strategy to diversity and inclusion during Covid. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a surge of support and camaraderie. But as things wore on, more of a blame culture started to emerge. We saw tensions rising in our communities. So although we always had an agenda, we reinvigorated our commitment to diversity and inclusion, elevating it up the ranks.
There is, of course, a focus on protected characteristics and ensuring that we have inclusive practices. But it was also about levelling up. We recognised that an enduring issue was poverty, which might not necessarily relate to a protected characteristic. So we extended our campaign to focus on that too. It is naive to look at anything in isolation and make assumptions about their ethnicity, age or gender. You need to consider everything, including financial and socio-economic status and education.
We did a lot on employability, confidence building, and aspiration building. Some of that is just giving people opportunities. We worked with employers to this end and have made some great progress so far. Whether you want more women in management or traditionally male roles, or men wanting advisory career paths, we wanted to break down the role stereotypes.
It’s about creating momentum. Sometimes, colleagues need to be brave and share their experiences. One of the most powerful engagement experiences we’ve had was a colleague sharing about their dyslexia and what the organisation has done to support them with that. There are plenty of people who want to maintain their privacy about these things, but others have inspired a lot of people to come forward to talk about things like their neurodiversity. The organisation is trying to ensure everyone is on a level playing field, ensuring we have appropriate adjustments for people who need them. Compelling messages have come from everyone.
First and foremost, you need to have empathy and compassion both for tenants and for colleagues. Listening is also crucial. We have been working on transitioning policies and procedures to guidelines and frameworks. Everyone is individual, and family compositions differ, especially at different times. So the priority for a tenant this week might be different from their priority next week. So we encourage our colleagues to listen to the tenant’s needs and make informed decisions about what is right at that moment in time.
There is not much you can do wrong as long as you are working intelligently, in the right spirit. You have discretion to make decisions.
Slow down. It’s a powerful thing to know when you are learning and upskilling. If you’re eager to make a difference, it’s important to be able to enjoy it as you go. It will help you overcome challenges, too.
We call it the Bernicia Way here. Respect and compassion for people make the most difference.