Woman working from home at her kitchen table

Covid-19: It’s a marathon not a sprint

By Matt Buckham 
6 April 2020
First published in HACT

It’s Saturday night. The pubs are closing, but not voluntarily, swathes of police patrols are closing them. It has the feel of an apocalypse.

I was on a stag do in Berlin when the severity of the Covid-19 crisis really hit me. I awoke after a night out to find the streets deserted.

Popping into a coffee shop before the flight back home, the owner told me the business would go bankrupt. His girlfriend had already left the city to head home to her parents. He was in limboland – the new land for these uncertain times.

Back home I wondered: What does normal even look like anymore – today, tomorrow and the months to come?

Customer first

At Sovereign we are customer first. Always. And going into immediate Covid-19 crisis management mode our teams had that front and centre of our approach.

Our incident management team was set up with around 12,000-plus people over the age of 70, as well as more vulnerable residents, as our main focus. Our people from Sovereign called every one of these people in less than a week. Checking in with them and letting them know we would do all we could to support them.

Our approach to supporting our communities has never been as important, with individuals, businesses and organisations facing unprecedented challenges. Within five days of the major government announcements starting, my Communities Leadership Team started to formulate a 90-day plan for Covid-19. This followed the recent Board approval of our four-year Thriving Communities strategy – and there were clearly areas of this strategy that now needed accelerating. I’d expected a bit more time to get plans in place!

We have committed a minimum £3.5m spend every year, as part of our 30-year business plan, to building better places and spaces, and great homes in great communities.

But thirty years started now. We quickly set about turning transforming our delivery programmes into virtual experiences for our customers. Our employment officers turned to Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. Our community development officers started linking into local online forums and support networks.

At the heart of our Covid-19 response and our overall strategy is a pledge that we will build on the strength and potential of our places, so that customers and communities can thrive. This includes delivering proactive services such as money matters, employment coaching, and crowdfunding or grants.

Collaborating with friends and allies

So how can we do this in a Covid-19 world? Firstly, we spoke with our friends and allies, including local authorities, community groups, MPs, councillors and other housing associations to discuss what our local communities could need from us. This included having a Zoom conference with 15 other housing associations, organised through HACT.

One of the great ideas to come out of this call was from Sam Scharf, my counterpart at Orbit Group, to start a weekly round-robin call to share our thinking and knowledge, and collaborate with more vigour and purpose than ever before.

A further example of collaboration is that we’ve been able to bring forward more work via our proactive Money Matters (financial inclusion) and digital areas by utilising Orbit’s procurement and current programmes, meaning the following can be up and running this month:

  • A new web portal linked to MySovereign, our online customer portal
  • An extended debt service to support existing Tenancy Support teams when they speak to customers over 70
  • A new mental health line through BigWhiteWall.

 Other measures we have put in place to date include:

  • Bringing forward our Community Grants programme through The Good Exchange with £100k of investment
  • Starting a crisis fund delivered through our Tenancy Support team
  • Putting £50k into pay it forward crowdfunding platform to support local community businesses
  • Making our employment service fully digital, undertaking 121 support, reducing travel and freeing up time
  • Exploring global ABCD toolkits and sharing best practice with global contacts including Taramack Canada and Nurture Development
  • Launching a fuel voucher offer, with thanks to friends at Clarion.

Virtual teams

Like many businesses when the national call came to work from home our teams saw full-scale migration from our business as usual. Many of our teams at Sovereign had worked from home before, but the shift to the new normal saw us all embrace a remote and agile new way of working.

That meant around 2,000 – including the contact centre – switched to working from home in a week – an amazing achievement and testament to our technology and our IT team.

As I write this from home we’re all having to adjust to this new normal, juggling work and childcare arrangements with my wife. But it’s opening opportunities and innovation too – I’ve just finished a Zoom conference with virtual mini break-out sessions with our over 70’s community development practitioners and community groups, bringing people together from across the world through #TogetherApart and Nurture Development.

This is important as, while we must focus on the here and now, we need to look to the future too – how we work and the services we provide over the medium to long-term. We must think and prepare for the recovery post-Covid-19 too.

For now, we’re seeing communities rekindling conversations, those ‘over the garden wall’ chats and, mostly, acts of kindness, be they big or small. That’s how we’ll navigate these uncertain times.

Nobody knows how long we – as individuals, employees of businesses and communities – will be affected. However, what we do know is that, as an organisation with communities at our heart, our focus will not change.

This impetus may well have sped up our delivery in some programmes, but it is clear that this is a marathon, not a sprint and we must keep moving forwards.

Matt Buckham– It’s a marathon not a sprint – first published by the HACT Centre for Excellence in Community Investment