Communication is the bridge that spans the gap between diversity and inclusion, laying the foundation for a workplace where every voice is heard. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Elaine Armitage, Assistant Director for People and Property Safety at Together Housing, one of Northern England’s leading affordable housing providers.
Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, sat down with Elaine to discuss topics ranging from the benefits and challenges of flexible working to the importance of intentional leadership.
I’m Elaine Armitage, and I’m the Assistant Director for People and Property Safety at Together Housing. That’s quite a long title, but it essentially means that I’m responsible for managing all the health and safety for the organisation. That involves overseeing everything from construction sites to legal compliance. Basically, anything that has stringent legal compliance comes across my desk at some point! But I don’t get any sleepless nights because I have an excellent team around me. Together Housing manages around 38,000 properties in the North of England and we employ 1400 people across three main offices. We’re made up of five organisations which have merged over the last twenty years, so we have a highly diverse portfolio and a unique culture. There’s never a dull moment.
Communication is everything. But that’s not about talking at people: you need to give people a chance to speak up and feel included. Since the pandemic, we’ve adopted a flexible working pattern. One day, you might choose to work from home, but on another day, you might feel like going into the office. But that’s also led to some changes. I’m currently in the process of reshaping my team, and every three months, we bring everyone together in person to share their day-to-day experiences. That helps people understand what challenges their colleagues are facing. Alongside that, we have get-together days for our entire organisation, which gives people an opportunity to make connections with people from different teams. That’s especially important for new starters who want to build their networks and it helps us to embed our visions and values. We’ve also returned to face-to-face training and we’re promoting employee forums and operational groups which give people a chance to have a voice.
It’s always a challenge. There will always be people who aren’t keen to get involved. One aspect of being a manager is drawing those people in. Our inclusion days help us to share information across the group, and Teams helps us to bring people together from different parts of the business. We also use a performance tracker called ClearReview to make sure people understand our visions and values. That allows us to outline objectives, track progress, and provide feedback. We’re aware that we don’t do enough to build connections between teams, but with our get-together days, that’s starting to change. Finally, we’re also encouraging people to get involved in volunteering, whether it’s in their local community or one of our supported housing groups.
I strongly believe in intent-based leadership. If you have a problem, you need to decide what you want to do, figure out how you’re going to deliver it, and see it through to the end. Earlier this year, I took on a new senior manager, and I made sure he was able to appoint his own team. If you want to take people along on the journey, they need to know that they have a say. That being said, in our industry, you have to deal with a lot of regulations around health and safety. So in those cases, you need to be very intentional so you can deliver outcomes in line with legislation. Finally, remember to support people as individuals. I’ve had some very young managers who have never led teams before, and I’ve made sure to give them the chance to hone their leadership skills. We want to give them exposure to the responsibilities of senior management in a safe environment. Leadership is different for everybody, so you need to find out the approach which works for you.
It all comes back to our commitment to smart working. In my team, I don’t mind when you choose to work your hours, as long as the job gets done. That gives people the chance to dedicate time for other things in the working week. For example, this week, some of our colleagues met up on Friday afternoon for our annual dog walk. If they miss a couple of hours in the office, they’ll be able to catch up with it on a different day. So that helps us to weave in our inclusion work throughout the work week. We’re quite a diverse organisation, so we’ve done a number of events around festivals such as Ramadan. The social aspect is very important: you spend so much of your time at work, so it’s imperative to get to know your coworkers as people.
You need to give people the time to learn. Not everybody wants to move up within an organisation, but you need to give people the option to try things out so they can decide if that’s what they really want. In my team, I like to invite people along to meetings to help them get a feel for things. If someone is thinking about switching roles, we are happy to give them a day release so they can shadow somebody in that position. You need to create an environment where it’s safe to make mistakes: that’s the only way people can learn and grow.
Be the person you are. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you stay true to yourself and follow your moral compass, then you will be in good stead.