Pushing ahead with growth plans - believe housing
When Durham County councillors voted in 2015 to spin-off the council’s social housing operation as a not-for-profit independent organisation, they were confident it would be a sound move. But even they surely cannot have dared hope that the change would turn out to be quite the gold-plated resounding success that it has, with such far-reaching positive consequences for clients of social housing across the region.
The new freedom has allowed the operation – now re-christened believe housing – to strike new partnerships and access new lines of funding, developing into a leaner, more responsive, more innovative and more effective provider of housing services to people who for a variety of reasons struggle to keep a safe and well-maintained roof over their heads.
believe housing now employs around 560 staff across a full range of skill sets from building maintenance and repair specialists to accounts staff, administrators and fundraisers. In 2020/21 it posted a turnover of some £67m, and had some 18,000 properties under its management, either rented, in shared ownership or the subject of rent-to-buy schemes. Even in the year of the pandemic believe housing pushed ahead with its growth plans, with 136 new homes under construction and more than 1,200 in the planning phase.
Powering Teams Telephony
Graeme Clark, IT service delivery manager at believe housing, makes no bold claims for the role of his department in this success story, preferring to position a recent wholesale pivot to Microsoft Teams with Gamma Teams telephony simply as ‘a necessary technical underpinning’. But despite his modesty, it’s clear as he describes the move that without it believe housing’s story could not have developed at such a pace.
The move to Teams came about because, with the pandemic not yet looming, the organisation’s executive and board members had decided to change the way staff worked, downsizing from five legacy buildings into a two new ones while at the same time enabling and encouraging staff to work much more from home. “Before then we’d see pretty much all of our staff coming into the office and so the goal was to reduce that to the point where 40% or thereabouts were working mostly from home and when they did come into the office it’d be hot-desking and collaboration spaces. Of course we needed a new form of telephony in order to enable that different way of working and that’s how we ended up with the Teams telephony project. We needed to break the link between staff and ‘their’ desk-phone so that they could work from anywhere in the new building, or just pick up their laptop and work from home.”
For any business considering Teams telephony, I would say go for it, you might think it’s an overwhelming change. But it was surprising how well our staff adapted to it and how well they responded.Graeme Clark
IT Service Delivery Manager, Believe Housing
Workers in the North East are renowned for their adaptability and willingness to embrace change, but even so, wasn’t it a big ask to expect 560 people to switch overnight? “We liked the look of Gamma Teams Direct Routing as the technical platform for voice and so we used the IT department as a guinea pig, putting together a pilot trail of around 10 users. That proved to be successful so we pulled together a group of around 25 staff members, one from each department, briefed them on what we planned and asked them for their feedback. They in turn briefed their departments and so we ended up with everyone feeling involved and consulted.”
Graeme Clark is approving of Gamma’s approach to the deployment, which took place over a two-month period without, he says, any major dramas or problems. “I had a very good technical officer who got all the necessary telephony lines set up, but he was well supported by Gamma who are very experienced in such migrations because they do them all the time.”
Perhaps the question you should ask is was it worth the investment, and there I’d have to say yes, most definitely. A big theme here is agile working, encouraging people to think for themselves, come up with their own solutions, and get things sorted.Graeme Clark
IT Service Delivery Manager
A hit with staff members
By January 2020 the new system was fully deployed across the organisation, and was already proving a hit with staff members who rapidly adapted to the new flexibility in work patterns that it allowed. The timing could not have been luckier. Graeme Clark recalls: “The pandemic and then the lockdown happened, and the managers were able to say to staff: ’just go home and work from there.’ Other organisations and companies were suddenly reeling, struggling to work out how to respond, but we already had the structure in place. There’s no doubt this smoothed the impact of covid for our staff and enabled us to continue to support our clients with minimal disruption to the service we provide.”
A key question for Graeme Clark, given believe housing’s inevitable focus on cost control, is does Teams Direct Routing save money? “To be honest, no, but then our previous telephone service, provided by Durham County Council, was very cheap. But the reduction from running five buildings down to two made additional savings elsewhere in the business. Perhaps the question you should ask is was it worth the investment, and there I’d have to say yes, most definitely. A big theme here is agile working, encouraging people to think for themselves, come up with their own solutions, and get things sorted. The ease with which Teams allows people to move around, get together in breakout spaces in the office and collaborate over telephony wherever they are, has underpinned that theme and that’s where we can see the value.”
And what about Graeme Clark’s working relationship with Gamma? “We meet every few months and discuss how things are going. I like the way they approach doing business. At one point we were presented with incorrect bills and I thought we might end up in a bit of an argument, but no, they were quick to work out what had gone wrong, acknowledge the mistake and apologise. One thing I really appreciate is that with Teams Routing our costs are very predictable and that’s a real help with planning. We make thousands of calls a month but they are mostly all included in a single fixed fee. It’s only the occasional exception like a few overseas or premium rate calls that trigger a proportionate additional bill.”
And from a personal perspective, what does Teams Direct Routing mean for him? “I appreciate the work-life balance it enables by removing the constant need to travel to and from the office as a place of work. These days I might go into the office one or two days a week and the rest of the time work from home.”