Despite the difficulties of the past year, believe housing has emerged with glowing feedback from staff and tenants. Peter Barron reports

After four decades working in the housing sector, Bill Fullen believes passionately in the power of creating a positive culture for staff and tenants. Bill is chief executive of believe housing, a County Durham housing association, which has just been awarded an “outstanding” two-star accreditation by Best Companies, the country’s most respected measure of staff satisfaction. And that has been echoed by an overwhelmingly positive result from the annual tenants’ survey, showing that 86.6 per cent were satisfied with services provided by believe housing in 2020.

The timing of the results – after a year of dealing with the unprecedented challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic – has, understandably, made Bill especially proud. “To get two stars at any time is hugely significant; to do it in the midst of a global pandemic, when people are quite exhausted during the third lockdown, is phenomenal,” he says. “And to know that the vast majority of tenants also appreciate what we do is tremendous too.”

There were two statistics within the Best Companies rating that particularly pleased Bill. The first was that 82 per cent of staff said they were proud to work for believe housing. The second recorded that 91 per cent of employees believed they could make a valuable contribution to its success.

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“What that tells me is that we are not just doing the right things now – but that there is potential for believe housing to make an even bigger difference in the future,” he says. “If you create a positive culture, with engaged people, you can deliver great services for customers.”

What is also remarkable, is the speed with which believe housing has achieved the prestigious two-star rating from Best Companies, which specialises in measuring staff engagement and supplies information for The Times “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. Believe housing has only been in existence for less than two years, having been born out of what was County Durham Housing Group, which was established in 2015 when Durham County Council transferred ownership of its housing stock.

This was the first time believe housing had put itself forward for the Best Companies accreditation, which was based on a survey of all 575 employees, using eight factors, including. leadership, wellbeing, and fairness. believe housing scored particularly highly on the positive contribution the organisation makes to the wider community.

“For an organisation like ours, that mixes key frontline trade workers and office-based staff, to achieve a strong and consistent culture can be quite a challenge, so this result is something to be very proud of,” says Bill. Right from the beginning of the first lockdown, efforts were made to assess how the staff were feeling, and to reassure them about the organisation’s flexible approach to the inevitable conflicts that would occur between their professional and private lives. “We sent out that message that we wouldn’t be rigid about people working full hours, depending on their circumstances at home,” says Bill.

Businessiq: Chief Executive of believe housing, Bill FullenChief Executive of believe housing, Bill Fullen

To some extent, believe housing had already moved to more mobile working arrangements before the pandemic, so the transition to home-working was almost immediate once the first national lockdown was declared by the Government. “Some people missed the craic in the office and felt quite lonely, so team leaders introduce things like virtual coffee mornings, just to keep in touch,” explains Bill.

Before the pandemic, plans had been in place to celebrate the organisation’s first anniversary last April, but they had to be cancelled. Instead, a “Summer of Fun” was arranged, with staff coming together for a series of virtual events, including quizzes, bingo, and even a press-ups competition! That was followed by “12 Days of Festive Fun” at Christmas. In between, Bill and five colleagues took part in a socially distanced cycle ride, using a hill just outside Seaham to cover the equivalent distance of The Three Peaks Challenge.

“The aim throughout was to inject some lightness into what a dark period for some was quiet,” says Bill. “The only problem was that on the day of the cycling challenge – after we’d had a run of lovely weather – it absolutely chucked it down!”

No staff had to be furloughed and the only real concession to the pressures of the pandemic was implementing a temporary essential and emergency repairs only policy. However, with the spare capacity created, teams contacted tenants to discuss less urgent repairs and talk them through self-help. Overall, more than 10,000 tenants were called proactively, with the most vulnerable prioritised, just to check how they were and to see if they needed help.

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“When we surveyed tenants, those calls were cited as the single most important thing we did,” says Bill. “For many, it was the only contact they’d had for some time.”

It has all added up to a rewarding year but, with the demands of the housing sector constantly evolving, thoughts are always turning to the future. believe housing, which has offices in Seaham and Bishop Auckland, manages just over 18,000 properties – encompassing 826 miles that stretch from the Pennines, through Durham City, to the Durham coast – and is on target to deliver 700 more homes by 2022, plus ambitious plans for many more by 2026.The aim is to maintain the progress that began before lockdown in developing a more modern way of managing productivity.

“It’s not about how long you’re at your desk, it’s about how productive you are in delivering services, and that flexibility will continue, although there is bound to be a period when people will want to see their colleagues again,” says Bill. Investment will focus not just on newbuild projects but in upgrading existing stock to give neighbourhoods a lift and increase sustainability. And the vision is for believe housing to have a wider impact on the communities it serves.

Businessiq: Chief Executive of believe housing, Bill FullenChief Executive of believe housing, Bill Fullen

The organisation has employability advisers on hand to help people seeking jobs, and support will also be given around health and wellbeing. A number of schemes have been launched to help teach people to cook, funding has been increased for foodbanks, and food parcels were distributed around the county during the autumn half-term.

That kind of support will continue. “For me, what’s important is having a broader purpose, using our influence and resources for the greater good in areas where there is high unemployment or where people are dealing with the consequences of long-term poverty,” says Bill.

In the Best Companies survey, every member of staff had the opportunity to leave anonymous comments about how they feel about working for the organisation. This is what one employee said: “believe housing have clear values and behaviours, which are role modelled by everyone from the CEO down over. “Customers and people are at the heart of everything we do, which is what makes it a great place to work. “This combined with the drive for innovation to make the lives of our customers and our people better, inspires and motivates everyone to make a difference...”

Forty years after he started working in the housing sector, making a difference is still what Bill Fullen believes in – and he has an outstanding team of stars to help him do it.