Reflections on three decades in the housing sector

Carol Reid, Director of Customer Services at Grampian Housing Association explains how they are supporting staff on the frontline as well as reflecting on her 32-year career in the sector.

The role of the frontline officer is wide and varied and they often have to wear many different hats.  Whether you choose to have generic officers or opt for more specialist functions, there is no correct formula. 

Working with people can be challenging and customer expectation has changed post-covid.  Coupled with increasing patch sizes and an expectation that the frontline officer can be everything to everyone, it’s little wonder when things fall through the cracks and staff feel burnt out.

Here at Grampian Housing, we have tried various models over the years – specialist teams, fully generic and more recently we trialled having Neighbourhood Officers who had smaller patches but with a much wider remit. 

On paper having a smaller patch with a wider remit sounds ideal, a one stop shop for tenants, better customer engagement which in turn would increase customer satisfaction.  The reality – geographically Grampian Housing Association is diverse, some 3800 social rented properties from Johnshaven to Forres and everywhere else in between can mean staff spending a lot time travelling just to get to a scheme.  Staff also felt overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge that had to retain.  In the past it had been allocations, anti-social behaviour, arrears etc, now they were expected to diagnose repairs, deal with the cost of living crisis and almost provide a support role to many tenants whose mental health has been impacted by the events of recent years.

Damp and mould became the hot topic last year following the tragic death of toddler Awaab Ishak and again this fell to the frontline officer to reassure the many tenants calling to report their own cases of damp and mould.

So, having tried many different formats over the years, we realise that change is necessary to enable us to navigate through whatever crisis is thrown at us.  Housing Associations are heavily regulated and there are Key Performance Indicator’s to meet, however we also have to consider the human side – both staff and our customers and we need to use intelligence and insight to channel our resources appropriately.

When considering our structure, we ensure that staff are involved in the process.  Everyone involved has the chance to air their views – however these have to be constructive and solution based.  Naturally having such a large team of Neighbourhood Officers (18) means that the outcomes won’t please everyone.  However, giving staff the opportunity to have their say and feeling listened to does help with staff morale.

Supporting our staff and ensuring they are equipped to do the job is paramount for us.  All Neighbourhood Officers have obtained or are working towards CIH Level 3 in Housing. We truly believe that attaining professional standards enables our staff to expand on their knowledge and skillset as well as equipping them for future career development.  In addition to this, having qualified staff gives confidence to the public that housing is a profession.  Staff are supported through the qualification with several mentors on hand if required. The Association has also partnered with The Skills Network which offers a range of short courses and provides staff to further enhance learning and development.  Staff are encouraged to undertake the Level 2 Certificate in Awareness of Mental Health Issues which can give them the knowledge and understanding to recognise and respond to mental health conditions.

We have a great Tenancy Support team who have applied successfully for several funds to help alleviate the stress of the cost of living crisis.  The team work closely with our Neighbourhood Officers and we have provided energy vouchers, food vouchers, air fryers, electric blankets etc to those in need.  This has enabled our Neighbourhood Officers to engage with tenants and 

We have recently secured funding from the Scottish Housing Fuel Support Fund which will enable 28 members of frontline staff to undertake a City and Guilds Energy Awareness qualification and Prevention of Damp and Mould training.  This will enhance learning and development for staff and give tenants increased confidence in our knowledgeable, well equipped staff.

My own career in housing started back in September 1992 when I was offered a role as a Clerical Assistant in the Housing Department at Langstane Housing Association.  I left school in 1987 with a handful of qualifications, trained as a hairdresser but when that didn’t work out I had various jobs in retail and admin until the opportunity arose to join Langstane Housing Association.  Being honest, I didn’t really know what Housing Associations were back then but the job sounded interesting and I was keen to learn more.

Initially I worked between the head office and the Association’s hostel – Fraser House – which was for homeless people. I really enjoyed the variety but eventually went to work full time at Fraser House where I was tasked with setting up the office and admin systems.  I met a lot of real characters during my time there and it opened up my eyes to understand how people can fall into hard times often through no fault of their own. 

Changes in funding saw the closure of Fraser House in 1995 and I went back to work in the head office as a Housing Assistant and although I enjoyed the varied tasks, I particularly enjoyed dealing with arrears and income management

 I was promoted to Housing Officer in 2000 dealing mainly with what was then Short Assured Tenancies (now SSST) and Shared Ownership properties.  Although I enjoyed this role, the constant estate management disputes got a bit tiresome so when I saw a job advertised at Grampian Housing Association for a Housing Revenue Officer, I jumped at the chance to apply.  

I joined Grampian in March 2001 and spent the next few years working as a Housing Revenue Officer – a role I really enjoyed and was relatively successful at.  I had been a single parent throughout this time and felt that I had good empathy with tenants, encouraging them into employment and helping them see the bigger picture and that things would improve for them in time.  Equally, I could be just as firm and did not put up with any nonsense!

In 2009, I was offered a secondment to our Elgin office to cover the post of Senior Housing Officer, this involved a long daily commute so meant I had to be super organised at home but I saw this as an opportunity to progress my career further.

I was very apprehensive when I first started in the Elgin office, it was a small office with a close-knit team and this was my first experience of management.  I needn’t have worried, I was welcomed by everyone and I spent the next 6 months building relationships with the team and really just learning how to be the type of manager that I wanted to be.  Working in a sub-office could at times present challenges – I had no direct support and often had to think on my feet.  Culturally things were different and because there were few staff, their roles were far more generic than I had been used to, although staff had defined roles, they often found themselves dealing with things out with their remit which also meant I had a lot to learn so that I could provide support and guidance.

Once the secondment ended, I went back to my role as a Housing Revenue Officer for a few years.  I was really keen to capitalise on my secondment experience, but opportunities in the area were few and far between and I’d often apply for roles but not even get an interview.

The turning point for me came in 2014 when a former Manager told me that if I wanted to get ahead, then I needed to get qualified.  Sure, I had lots of housing experience and was good at my job but this wasn’t enough for employers, they wanted to see the professional qualification.  

Reluctantly I signed up to do CIH Level 4 Certificate in Housing.  Having not studied since the late 80’s, coupled with having a 2-year-old and a teenager who was about to go to University, I admit that I was terrified.  I had a supportive partner who kept telling me that I was more than capable of doing it but the doubts were still there.  I needn’t have worried as once I got into the way of studying, I found that I really enjoyed it and passed with Merit.  I then went on and completed the CIH level 5 Diploma in Housing as well as a Level 5 Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring.  More recently I have undertaken qualifications in Mental Health Awareness and Lean Management Techniques.  We should never be complacent and continuous professional development keeps me motivated and creative.

Whilst I was studying, a couple of opportunities came my way and I found myself promoted twice in under two years, first to Senior Housing Officer and then Housing Manager.  The timing was fortunate, whilst I had lots of hands on experience, the qualifications really did help me gain a broader knowledge and strategic understanding of the sector.

During my time as Housing Manager, my role developed into Housing Operations Lead and held overall management responsibility for several teams – Housing, Tenancy Support, Customer Response, Sales & Leasing and Factoring Services.  This saw me venturing into a lot of new territory which was daunting but the teams were all knowledgeable and helpful and I learned as I went.  I’ve always said that as a leader you don’t need to know everything, as long you have good staff and you know who to ask.

My promotion to Director of Customer Services happened in April this year when an internal restructure saw the formation of a new Executive Team.  The remit is wide and varied which is just how I like it.

I wholly agree that there is no wrong path for school leavers.  I’ve had a long and winding journey to get where I am but for me, it feels like the right journey.  I’ve worked at every level and understand the challenges faced by those at the coal face. My life experience has also contributed to the person I am today.  I enjoy mentoring and developing people and letting them see that if you put your mind to it and work hard enough, anything is possible.