When it comes to building a thriving and sustainable workplace, recognising the intertwined nature of employee well-being and organisational success is not a luxury — it's a necessity. In her role as Director of People for Beyond Housing, Catherine Clennett has led the way in fostering a working culture which is positive, nurturing, and inclusive for all.
Catherine sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss everything from the challenge of integrating different working cultures to using proactive wellness initiatives to support employee well-being.
I’m the Director of People at Beyond Housing. We’re a social housing organisation in the North East of England which provides over 15,000 homes for local residents.
After I graduated from university, I did a little bit of travelling before I got a job in the NHS. I started out specialising in labour utilisation, which involved conducting work studies to optimise tasks. From there, I transitioned into operational HR for the NHS before taking an HR role in education, which also involved managing student support services. Seven years ago, I moved into social housing as the head of HR. It was a challenging time to join: around that time, there was a mandated rent reduction, which took about 16 million off the balance sheet. So we went straight into restructuring, and as soon as that was finished, there was a merger! So you could say it was something of a baptism of fire.
If I had the answer to that, I’d be making a lot of money! But the most important thing is to keep communicating your vision of what the future needs to look like. When it comes to change, people can get anxious, so you have to keep them informed through multiple channels. Decide what your key messages are, and repeat them until you’re blue in the face! It’s important to give people the opportunity to ask questions, air their views, and engage in dialogue. If you don’t bring people together, it creates several subcultures instead of a cohesive whole. We merged shortly before the lockdown, so it was challenging to physically bring people together, but once we were able to do that, it was mostly met with enthusiasm. It’s crucial to make connections so people can understand each other’s perspectives.
Inclusion and belonging are things that are best addressed very early in the recruitment process. We set out our stance during the onboarding process, making it clear that we believe in people being their whole selves at work. It’s important to get commitment from the top, and that needs to be reinforced with a clear structure to make sure it’s delivered. It can’t just be an HR initiative; it needs to be seen as something for everybody. So we have a number of schemes to help everyone get involved, from health advocates to EDI champions and an allies’ network. It can’t be a separate pillar; it needs to be woven into everything.
You need to keep communication open. That involves delivering clear messages, offering opportunities to get involved, and thanking those people who step up. We make it clear that knowledge and understanding of EDI isn’t optional for us: it’s one of our key values, and we all need to get on board.
It’s about having that focus on leading all the time. You need to have a vision-based approach: you can be a very good task manager, but that isn’t enough to inspire people on a long-term basis. The people who do this job best are those who understand the importance of people leadership. If you’re a line manager, you need to put time, energy and thought into how you’re going to lead people, how you will inspire them, and how you will help them to develop.
You can bring it all back to data. For example, we’ve done a lot of work on well-being and mental health. So we looked at the number of absences we’ve had for mental health reasons and found a clear correlation between higher well-being and increased attendance. We have a program of proactive wellness calls delivered by our mental health first aiders. They will check in on people who might have a statistically higher risk of mental health challenges, which gives them someone to talk to and provides referrals if they need more support. But although data is important, you also need to understand the human stories behind it.
We use the principle of “positive-first communication.” So instead of criticising past performance, we focus on what can be improved in the future. That helps to cultivate a mindset of positive growth.
That’s a really tough one. On the one hand, you can use technology to connect people in different ways. But you also have to remember to have those regular in person conversations. You need to have a clear communication strategy about where you’re going as an organisation. That helps people understand how they fit into the wider vision.
There are two things which stand out. The first is to always make a decision. Remember that not making a decision is a bad decision. The second thing is to always be kind. But that doesn’t mean you need to be soft: often, the kindest thing you can do for someone is to give them constructive feedback so they can improve in the future.