Employees and customers both benefit when people can be their true selves at work. Creating an environment that employees feel comfortable in is, therefore, crucial.
Gayle Hunt, Head of People and Culture at Raven Housing Trust, spoke to GoodCourse about fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace, how to ensure people are their authentic selves, and her career so far.
I’m Gayle Hunt, and I’m the Head of People and Culture at Raven Housing Trust. We are a social housing provider, which means we offer affordable housing and act as a landlord to those customers. We also provide housing for outright sale and shared ownership and have some commercial subsidiaries. Raven Works provides commercial repair services, and Raven Renewables is a growing business that installs green technology. All the profits from these commercial businesses feed back into our social housing.
I’ve been here for almost seven years now, which is the longest I’ve ever been at an organisation. That reflects how much I love working for Raven. I’ve seen huge changes over the last seven years. Before Covid, we were already embarking on a huge digital transformation programme that we’re just coming to the end of and this has brought many benefits to the organisation. Genuinely, the core values of this organisation are a sense of community and a willingness to support others, which I always want to maintain.
I studied psychology at university. Looking at possible careers, HR was mentioned by my university’s careers service. I wasn’t sure it would be the right career for me; I thought I would be more interested in business strategy. But it was my dad, who was a partner at an accountancy firm, who said it would be a good career for me. He pointed out that it would be a great way to mix my interest in what motivates people with my determination to be involved in business. Since then, the HR profession has come on leaps and bounds.
When I think about it, the first thing that springs to mind is that there are some misconceptions about social housing. You might think it’s bureaucratic, slow-moving, or old-fashioned. But since joining Raven, I have learned that that can’t be further from the truth. From my HR network across housing associations, I think it is true across the sector.
Raven is very ambitious. We have the digital transformation programme, and have been doing service design to streamline and automate our processes to benefit our customers and employees; we have won awards for our achievements. The key one being the Digital Housing Innovation Award, which proved that we were doing great things.
It has changed things a lot. As I said, we were in the early stages of it already before Covid, which accelerated things. Last year we introduced hybrid contracts of employment because we’re so flexible. We don’t mandate office days, it’s entirely based on role requirements and individual preferences. I hear that many organisations that started offering hybrid working are now asking employees to come back to the office. We want to empower our staff to make the decisions that are right for our customers and for them. HR is about offering services that make our employees want to work here. It can’t be one size fits all. We have been really mindful of maintaining a sense of community and giving people the opportunity to come together and have in-person interaction as well.
That sense of belonging is genuinely central to our culture at Raven. People feel part of a community; it’s often mentioned by our new starters too. Part of that is about feeling comfortable expressing yourself and your personality at work, feeling valued for who you are. We have been doing a lot more in-person events and social activities. Our staff conference is coming up in September; the whole organisation comes together. We do project groups for half of the day, and the other half is made up of fun bonding activities.
More broadly, in terms of diversity and inclusion, we’re focusing on what our employees and customers tell us is important. We know that a larger percentage of our customer population is disabled than our workforce. So that has become an area of focus for us; we think it’s important for our workforce to be as representative as possible of our customers so we can really know them. We offer guaranteed interviews to disabled candidates and have joined the Sunflower Hidden Disabilities network as well as working towards Level 2 of the Disability Confident scheme... We’re also working on the Raven Human Library. I think the initiative started in the Netherlands — it’s the idea that you introduce people who may not normally interact to break down prejudices and stereotypes. We’re doing it as a podcast series. Unless people talk about their experiences, it’s hard for others to understand or learn from them. We want people to have a place where they can feel comfortable to talk about their experiences.
My answer is not specific to HR. If I could talk to my 23-year-old self now, I would say, ‘Be a sponge.’ Listen more than you talk, soak up everything you can, be open-minded and reliable. Be confident in your abilities even if you don’t have specific experience or knowledge — that doesn’t matter if you’re prepared to try and have the right attitude.