Looking beyond the pandemic in Scotland
The COVID-19 crisis has given Cairn Housing Group the opportunity to rethink how it operates going forward
GROWTH, DEVELOPMENT & REGENERATION
Group chief executive, Cairn Housing Group and a board member at the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations
So, did your Business Continuity Plan ever mention a global pandemic as a business risk? No, us neither! For so many, COVID-19 has been a personal and family tragedy. It has been an organisational and national emergency, not to mention a global shock.
At Cairn, our four offices are all still closed to staff and customers. Preparing for the health and safety needs and expectations of 4,000 tenants, around 10,000 customers across 22 local authority areas in Scotland, and the safety concerns of our 180 staff is a big responsibility.
The team has responded magnificently in difficult circumstances. Before March, locking down virtually overnight would have seemed on the extreme end of scenario-planning. But here we are, almost five months in, and still only at Phase 3 (of the Scottish Government’s response) of something that none of us realistically could ever have predicted.
Turning to the future
Despite, and perhaps because of, the pressures, in some ways the emergency has begun to free up our thinking about how we operate and what the future might look like. Our management team and board meetings are more focused, usually shorter and generally ‘cutting to the chase’ on any given issue. One real positive at Cairn is that there is a definite step change in the amount and level of collaboration across teams, which has really helped reinforce Cairn’s #OneTeam ethos – this is crucial, given our geographic spread across Scotland.
One colleague recently said to me we’re now making decisions on key projects in weeks, rather than months. There may be less, or different, consultation, while still considering all risks. But there is a shared understanding that previously, we took too long to agree and implement the blindingly obvious.
For us at Cairn Housing Group, our previous investment and modernisation in our IT infrastructure has certainly paid dividends. Also, we had already introduced flexible and home working as an option for all office staff more than three years ago.
On a personal level I am perhaps now regretting my early commitment to staff to do a weekly video blog (see below!) to keep in touch during the lockdown, but I suspect that I have had more visibility in the organisation than I had before. I have now started to offer colleagues in the senior team the exciting opportunity to also be weekly video stars!
“One colleague recently said to me we’re now making decisions on key projects in weeks, rather than months. There may be less, or different, consultation, while still considering all risks. But there is a shared understanding that previously, we took too long to agree and implement the blindingly obvious”
Wider housing association role
In among the grim daily league tables of deaths and those contracting the virus, many have welcomed the cautious and well-informed public health approach which the Scottish Government has taken to the national emergency. This has helped guide co-ordinated responses, locally and regionally and with local authority partners.
The wider role of housing associations in communities across Scotland – including supporting food banks, and local community health initiatives – has never been more important. It remains to be seen what the long-term impacts of COVID-19 will be on income, business plans, rent affordability, staffing levels and organisational resilience.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations has played an important role right from the very early days of lockdown, providing regular and very practical advice and assistance to members throughout Scotland on a range of COVID-19-related issues (COVID-19-Briefings and Open Space).
In addition, the SFHA has been active in working with other housing sector and homelessness organisations as part of the National Social Housing Sector Resilience Group, convened by the housing minister at the start of the pandemic to inform national strategy and responses.
At Cairn, and across the sector in Scotland, there is evidence of new thinking about what the pandemic emergency has taught us, so far, about what we do and how we do it. We are in the early stages of considering options for new Cairn service models with a greater emphasis on our digital service offer, more efficient use of staff time and expertise, options for use of offices, and moving quicker to a more effective 21st Century service to customers.
Social landlords in Scotland have continued their core work on advice and support to tenants in financial stress, with a focus on tenancy sustainment. However, the strains on associations’ finances and the risks to individual customers is growing, with national policy choices on extending the suspension of arrears recovery action past September still to be made. In the active debate about breaking through to a permanent solution to homelessness, the multi-agency everyonehome.scot campaign also demands that “this is the time to think and act big”.
Meanwhile, normal politics will no doubt begin to re-emerge as the sector gets ready for the general election for our Parliament in May 2021, with party manifestos and national housing policies being prepared and constitutional choices for the country’s future being mapped out.
Leadership teams and governing bodies in Scotland, as in the rest of the world, are keenly aware that we are most definitely not out of this yet. Very recent experience in Aberdeen shows that service route maps can go backwards as well as forwards. #StaySafe