Housing associations are not just responsible for building homes; they also play a pivotal role in creating safe, inclusive communities where people can thrive. But to excel in this role, they must first embrace the vibrant diversity that defines the very essence of their communities. No one understands this more than Nina Evison, Executive Director of Culture and Performance at Yorkshire Housing, who has placed the needs of customers at the heart of her approach.
Nina sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss topics including diversity and inclusion initiatives at Yorkshire Housing, the importance of a customer-focused approach to housing, and the need for a clear vision at all levels of an organisation.
I’m Nina Evison and I’m the Executive Director of Culture and Performance at Yorkshire Housing. We’re a social housing provider and building developer that specialises in creating affordable housing. We employ over 800 people across the four corners of Yorkshire, England. We’re an ambitious organisation with a clear strategy to shake up the traditional model of social housing. Over the last few years, we’ve really rethought our operations and culture to focus on the things that customers truly need.
It’s a subject I’m very passionate about. I’ve sponsored our diversity and inclusion agenda since its inception. You need to start with the question of how to create a climate of genuine inclusion that will allow diversity to thrive. We think about diversity in a few ways: of course, we make sure we have people from a number of different backgrounds, but we also strive to ensure that our customers are represented too. We have a highly diverse customer base that reflects the diversity of Yorkshire: there are large cities, very rural areas, and everything in between. With inclusion, we’re trying to move away from traditional methods and create a modern, innovative organisation which attracts the best of the best. That means embracing people with diverse viewpoints and unique characteristics. So we’ve fundamentally overhauled our recruitment methods and worked with external organisations such as Housing Diversity Network to help us improve our processes from recruitment through to onboarding. We’re interested in identifying things that might stop people from applying to Yorkshire Housing or prevent them from thriving once they arrive. For example, as part of onboarding, we make sure everyone goes through a welcome program which highlights the importance of diversity, inclusion, and colleague networks. From the beginning, we want people to feel like they are at home — and “Be Myself” is one of our core company values. We want people to come in and bring their difference.
We’re on a journey, and there’s a long way to go, but we want to get everyone involved. For example, we have a series called “Lunch and Learn” which brings in guest speakers from different charities to discuss a range of diversity topics. That often involves issues that people might always be familiar with, such as neurodiversity or disability. Part of our communications agenda is to talk about these issues and bring them to life. Out of our 800 colleagues, we might have a couple hundred attending a call at one time. Recently, we had a great session on menopause which drew interest from all ages and genders. It’s a key part of our approach and helps to spark a conversation. “Think Differently” is another one of our core values, and we try to put that into practice. Finally, we’re focused on awareness among our managers and leaders, and we’ve carried out some quite intensive training over the last twelve months. From our board members to our line managers, everyone has been through face-to-face training, and that’s made a huge difference. It’s important that it’s not just an add-on: we’ve made a lot of progress, but we still have some way to go until it’s woven throughout every aspect of our organisation.
It’s all about having clarity of purpose and vision. In February this year, we had a launch event for our new business strategy with all our colleagues. Our vision is to become the best housing provider in the UK, and the first step in our business strategy is to be customer-obsessed. We want to shift our customer model to be more pre-emptive, using technology and data to fix things before they become a problem. We talk a lot about customer inclusion and use insights from our customer needs to redesign our services and structure. We’ve carried out some great initiatives to put customer inclusion at the heart of everything: we have a Customer Voice Committee, which meets every month to discuss issues and provide actionable feedback. We’re starting to have conversations with colleagues about the customer journey: everything we do here has an impact on people’s lives, so we need to put ourselves in people’s shoes. Ultimately, our goal is to provide high-quality homes and help people to thrive there.
Don’t ask, “But what if I fail?” Ask, “What if I fly?” When I look back on my earlier career, I used to listen to that doubting voice and it made me question myself. But an old boss helped me learn that we shouldn’t fear failure: it’s part of the journey, and it helps you learn and grow. Finally, you need to believe in yourself. If you don’t, how can you expect anyone else to believe in you?